Stranger In The Village Of The Sick


After more than fifty years of good health, anthropologist Paul Stoller suddenly found himself diagnosed with lymphoma. The only thing more transformative than his fear and dread of cancer was the place it ultimately took him: twenty-five years back in time to his days as an apprentice to a West African sorcerer, Adamu Jenitongo.

Stranger in the Village of the Sick follows Stoller down this unexpected path toward personal discovery, growth, and healing. The stories here are ...

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After more than fifty years of good health, anthropologist Paul Stoller suddenly found himself diagnosed with lymphoma. The only thing more transformative than his fear and dread of cancer was the place it ultimately took him: twenty-five years back in time to his days as an apprentice to a West African sorcerer, Adamu Jenitongo.

Stranger in the Village of the Sick follows Stoller down this unexpected path toward personal discovery, growth, and healing. The stories here are about life in the village of the healthy and the village of the sick, and they highlight differences in how illness is culturally perceived. In America and the West, illness is war; we strive to eradicate it from our bodies and lives. In West Africa, however, illness is an ever-present companion, and sorcerers learn to master illnesses like cancer through a combination of acceptance, pragmatism, and patience.

Stoller provides a view into the ancient practices of sorcery, revealing that as an apprentice he learned to read divining shells, mix potions, and recite incantations. But it wasn't until he got cancer that he realized that sorcery embodied a more profound meaning, one that every person could use: "Sorcery is a body of knowledge and practice that enables one to see things clearly and to walk with confidence on the path of fear."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Readers will find Stoller's account valuable and his perspective on sorcery surprisingly moving.—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"[A] fascinating blend of personal and cultural commentary, of provocative insights, and encouraging advice for anyone affected by cancer . . ."—Frances Lefkowitz, Body and Soul

"Today one finds a variety of cancer drugs under trial or approved for use . . . But there is still a gap between what medicine can do now and what it will do in the future. And Stoller's book is a bridge over that gap because it reminds all patients that, in the face of illness, their lives are rich in meaning and still worth living."—Nick Owcher, Los Angeles Times

Publishers Weekly
Stoller (Money Has No Smell) was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2001. This memoir of his diagnosis, treatment and remission examines what it means to leave the "village of the healthy" and join the "village of the sick," where illness is a continuing condition with no cure. Some 25 years before his diagnosis, Stoller had done field work among the Songhay people of Niger, where he'd apprenticed to their sorcerer/sage, Adamu Jenitongo. After dangerous incidents with competing sorcerers, Stoller returned to America and his academic career, but his cancer brought him back to a re-examination of Adamu's teachings. Sitting in the chemotherapy infusion room, reciting a Songhay invocation, Stoller felt calmer, as if he had "a degree of control over an uncontrollable situation." Illness is but one of life's "points of misfortune," forcing a person to take a new path. The sorcerer, bridging the known world and the chaos of the unknown, can give guidance by invoking the wisdom of the gods "to harmonize the world" so people can see the path more clearly. While Americans use the war metaphor for fighting disease, the Songhay believe "if you learn to live with illness, your being becomes stronger." Although Stoller chose the most aggressive medical treatments available, he also struggled to respect his cancer and use it to develop his understanding of the meaning of his life and work. Even healthy readers will find Stoller's account valuable and his perspective on sorcery-its emphasis on humility, its acceptance of adversity, its vision of a world of forces beyond human control-surprisingly moving. Photos. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
When Stoller (anthropology, West Chester Univ.) was diagnosed with lymphoma, consequently undergoing a series of procedures and chemotherapy, his thoughts often returned to a time 25 years earlier when he had studied sorcery among the Songhay people of Niger. Here, he juxtaposes the story of his illness with observations about West African medicine and philosophy, attributing the teachings of sorcerers with helping him cope with cancer. Throughout, Stoller claims that "the devastating presence of cancer in [his] body opened a new pathway to personal growth and development." However, he never says what this growth entails, except to make some ambiguous statements about becoming more humble, knowing oneself, and accepting the vicissitudes of life; these are perhaps more a sign of maturity than of the influence of witchcraft. Stoller recounts in great and often tedious detail conversations with Songhay sorcerers and American medical professionals, occasionally interweaving these with observations about American society, cancer treatment, and the study of anthropology. All of this might have worked as an article, but it is too drawn out and repetitive as a book. A marginal purchase.-Ilse Heidmann, Washington State Lib., Olympia Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807072615
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 4/1/2005
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 758,402
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Stoller is professor of anthropology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and the author of eight books, including the award-winning Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City. He lives in Wilmington, Delaware.

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Read an Excerpt

Stranger in the Village of the Sick

A Memoir of Cancer, Sorcery, and Healing

By Paul Stoller Beacon Press

Copyright © 2004 Paul Stoller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780807072608

Chapter One


In March 2001 I learned that I had lymphoma, one of several kinds of blood cancer. Having enjoyed more than fifty years of good health, I was used to living my life in the village of the healthy, in which illness is a temporary nuisance that is quickly and completely cured. Cancer suddenly introduced me to the village of the sick, in which illness becomes a continuing condition for which there is usually no cure. Learning that I had an incurable disease came as both a surprise and a shock. How could I have cancer? How much would I have to suffer? How long would I live?

These questions sank me into despondency. The menacing presence of malignant cells in my body ignited fires of fear. In a flash, cancer had abruptly taken control of my life and forced me onto a dreadful new path that promised unspeakable pain and endless suffering. The terrifying prospect of a slow and unbearable death made me tremble. These frightening thoughts quickly transformed me into a powerless person. I wanted my old life back, but in my dazed and confused state, I felt incapable of recapturing it.

Life-threatening circumstances, however, can sometimes steer your life in unanticipated directions. In my case,confronting cancer unexpectedly transported me back in time to the compound of Adamu Jenitongo, a well-known West African sorcerer to whom I had apprenticed myself as a young anthropologist. Lessons that I had learned twenty-five years earlier among the Songhay people of the Republic of Niger now took on startling new meaning. Somehow, cancer enhanced my perception and deepened my sensibilities. This disruptive new presence in my life made it possible for me to understand more fully that sorcery is first and foremost a set of prescriptions about how to cope with the vicissitudes of life. I gradually realized that this knowledge, which years ago had drifted into the background of my awareness, could make me strong. It could help me to confront the physical burdens of chemotherapy treatments and the emotional quandaries of remission with respectful humility and steadfast dignity.

As odd as it may seem, the unanticipated and devastating presence of cancer in my body opened a new pathway to personal growth and development. It deepened my spiritual beliefs, refocused my professional vision, and forced me to understand more realistically the symbiotic relationship between illness and health. In time, my experience of cancer toughened my body and strengthened my resolve.

Stranger in the Village of the Sick recounts this story of discovery, growth, and development. The pages are filled with narratives of my experiences in the worlds of sorcery and cancer, narratives about my life in the village of the healthy and the village of the sick. During my apprenticeship in Niger, I long ago grasped that one learns about sorcery through the body. As a lymphoma patient in the United States, I soon realized that it is also through the body that one learns about illness. It may seem like a curious connection, but cancer and African sorcery, I have learned, share many similarities. In this book I use the lens of cancer to introduce readers to the world of Songhay sorcery, a body of practical wisdom that shows people-with or without illness-a way to carry themselves in the modern world.

Many books, of course, have been written about sorcery. Many of these have focused almost exclusively on the logic-bending feats of sorcerers who, like Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan Matus, possess knowledge "not yet known to us." These supernaturally oriented texts have made sorcery something that is usually viewed with either wide-eyed fascination or narrow-eyed skepticism.

Sorcerers among the Songhay people of Niger do, in fact, possess knowledge not yet known to us. They are people capable of feats that, after twenty-five years of serious anthropological study and reflection, I have yet to completely comprehend. My book about Songhay sorcery, In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger (1987), was an attempt to demonstrate that sorcerers living in barren, windswept Songhay villages possessed powers-to heal and sicken-that defied our comprehension. I laced that book with stories of spells and counterspells, jealousy and betrayal. It was a portrait of an amoral world in which sorcerers challenge one another, often with lethal consequences, for sorcerous supremacy-the capacity to use one's will and skill to change behavior or repulse an enemy. In that book I hoped that readers would come to respect the incomprehensible power of sorcerers like Adamu Jenitongo, who taught me about Songhay sorcery over a period of seventeen years.

The experience of having been diagnosed with and undergone treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) has not diminished my awe of Adamu Jenitongo's sorcerous power. It has, however, increased my appreciation of the practical wisdom his life embodied. And so in Stranger in the Village of the Sick, I return to the world of sorcery and come to know the place, to quote T. S. Eliot, for the first time. Although Stranger in the Village of the Sick recounts many events from the Songhay world of sorcery, it extracts from them lessons that may well be helpful to cancer patients facing existential uncertainties and physical pain no less frightening than those faced in the world of sorcery. This account, though, is more than another story of a cancer patient who fights an insidious disease. Instead, Stranger in the Village of the Sick is an attempt to use my experience of cancer to introduce readers to a body of pragmatic knowledge that can enable even the most physically compromised person to squeeze pleasure and happiness from an imperfect world.

* * *

More than twenty years before I became a cancer patient, I stumbled into a world of sorcery. During an anthropological research mission that I conducted in the Republic of Niger in 1977, Mounmouni Kada, a distinguished sorcerer among the Songhay people, who lived in the village of Mehanna in western Niger, interpreted a series of signs that convinced him that he should teach me the ways of sorcery. I had been living in his village for several months and had visited him frequently. Shortly after my arrival in Mehanna, he had thrown divining shells; the configuration of the shells had indicated that I was a candidate for apprenticeship. When his son, Djibo Mounmouni, told him that two small birds, which had nested in the rafters of my mud-brick house, had shat on my head, he was beside himself with excitement. The marksmanship of the birds had confirmed what the shells had indicated.

"How wonderful," he told his son. "Another sign. We must initiate him as soon as possible."

My reaction to the birds differed greatly from that of Mounmouni Kada. Because I had been taught from childhood that a person's house should be neat and clean, one of my tasks was to sweep the floor of daily bird droppings. I certainly didn't consider bird shit in my hair a celestial sign. Besides, I had little desire to study sorcery among the Songhay. I had been sent to Niger to conduct dissertation research on the role of ritual languages in local politics.

Mounmouni Kada was a short, thin man well into his seventies. He had a hard face and eyes like fire. His seasoned determination proved stronger than my youthful resolve and he eventually convinced me to study with him. As a first step in this long and, as I was to find out, painfully dangerous process, Mounmouni Kada fed me kusu, a food that is believed among the Songhay to generate sorcerous power. Kusu consists of millet our in which a Songhay sorcerer cooks pulverized plants that have been imbued with powerful ancestral words. After I had eaten my first batch of kusu, Mounmouni Kada told me that the "power of sorcery" had attached itself to my intestines. Witches, he said, could no longer look at me. Unprotected men and women would fear me. Despite my skeptical inclinations, I felt myself drawn to this strange new way of understanding the world. After my initiation, Djibo Mounmouni, a taller yet less imposing presence than his father, showed me how to mix sorcerous potions and how to recognize a witch. He also taught me sorcerous incantations and had me memorize the praise-poetry of the spirits of the Songhay people, who in the fifteenth century had controlled much of West Africa.

Djibo Mounmouni then urged me to visit his mentor, Adamu Jenitongo, a highly respected and feared sorcerer, who lived in another town, Tillaberi, which, like Mehanna, hugged the shoreline of the Niger River. Although I had met this man during my first stay in Niger between 1969 and 1971, I had not known of his reputed power. When I presented myself to him in 1977, though, he knew all about my research and my initiation in Mehanna. Adamu Jenitongo was a short, slender man in his nineties whose skin, which had long been exposed to the brutal African sun, had taken on the texture of cracked leather. He invited me to "sit" with him, a sign that he was willing to teach me about sorcery. By now I was eager to learn more. Adamu Jenitongo invited me to stay in his dunetop compound of conical straw huts at the edge of town-a location that overlooked the barren emptiness of a treeless rock-strewn steppe that stretched like a moonscape to the east.

I sat, listened, and watched beside Adamu Jenitongo for several months. Everything about him was deliberate. He moved slowly. Before he spoke, he carefully considered his thoughts. He taught me incantations. I learned how to identify plants used both in healing and sorcery.

I emerged from this period of initiation confident-even cocky and foolish enough to try to practice what little I had learned. Before my return to the United States, an acquaintance asked me to perform an act of sorcery. He said that his employer, a French expatriate, had unjustly fired him and he wanted to teach the man a lesson. Thinking that a sorcerous action would bear no serious consequences, I performed a rite that was supposed to temporarily paralyze the man's face. Shortly thereafter, I left Niger and returned home.

During my next visit to West Africa, two years later, I saw this man again. He informed me that the sorcerous act I had performed, which involved the recitation of an incantation over the internal organ of a chicken, which was then buried under the threshold of the intended victim's house, had actually had results. The man's former employer had not himself been affected, according to my acquaintance, but the man's sister's face had become paralyzed, a condition that abated when she finally returned to France. Induced paralysis is a major weapon in the Songhay sorcerer's arsenal.

That same year I became temporarily paralyzed myself. I was on my second visit to Wanzerbi, the village of unrivaled Songhay power. I had wanted to go to Wanzerbi to meet Kassey, an inconspicuous grandmother who was reputed to be among the most powerful Songhay sorcerers. My friend Idrissa, who had been born in Wanzerbi and whose father was Kassey's husband, had agreed to accompany me on the trip. When we arrived in Wanzerbi, Idrissa's cousin informed us that Kassey had left town the week before and would be away for at least one month. Idrissa suggested that I visit Dunguri, one of Kassey's female associates.

After installing myself in the guest house of Idrissa's family's compound, which consisted of twenty mud-brick houses, I accompanied Idrissa down a sandy embankment to a road that ran through the middle of Wanzerbi. The space between the two parts of town contained empty market stalls. Just beyond the market stood a mosque with a minaret. We plodded along sandy paths between the low mud-brick walls of compounds, clusters of houses in which extended families lived. As we walked we greeted women who were pounding millet in their mortars. In the next neighborhood, called Sohanci, we encountered some of Idrissa's maternal relatives. According to custom, they greeted us and asked after our health. Next to a small neighborhood mosque was a clearing, in the center of which was a freestanding thatched canopy. A dozen older men, dressed in robes and turbans, reclined in the shade. We greeted them and asked after their health. Finally, we reached Dunguri's compound, which was squeezed between two large mud-brick granaries that looked like beehives and a corral for calves that had been fashioned from millet and cornstalks.

Performing the traditional greeting, Idrissa clapped three times outside the door of the woman's rectangular house. She came out, greeted him, and glanced at me. "Who is this stranger?" she asked Idrissa.

"I am Paul. I come from America," I interjected.

"Idrissa, come into my house. We will talk. Stranger, you, too, can come in."

We stepped down into Dunguri's house. Bright cotton blankets covered her whitewashed walls. She had draped a score of additional blankets over two beds that had been placed at either end of the rectangular room. She gave us metal folding chairs to sit on. She sat on a wooden stool and leaned forward, her hands on her knees.

Idrissa and Dunguri discussed the health and sickness of people they knew. So-and-so's son was in Niamey serving in the army. So-and-so's daughter had married and now lived in a neighboring village. Amadu had not been well. He had gone off to the regional hospital for medical attention, but the guinea worm still made him suffer. An older man had recently died from liver disease. Idrissa asked about the harvest.

"It was good. My husband worked hard and brought in three hundred bundles of millet."

"Our harvest in Mehanna," Idrissa commented, "was not good."

Dunguri nodded. "Some years are good. In other years the path is blocked."

Dunguri pointedly ignored me. For a Songhay, her behavior seemed completely out of character. Songhay people revere hospitality. They are especially curious about strangers. These characteristics seemed to have escaped Dunguri. I sat impatiently as they conversed, taking the opportunity to study her face. I would have never guessed that this small, plump woman was a sorcerer. Her puffy face did not look particularly intelligent, nor did her gaze seem forceful. Suddenly, I heard the word stranger. Dunguri had asked Idrissa about me. Idrissa outlined my work in Mehanna and Tillaberi. He told her that I wanted to write a book about sorcery and that I had been following the sorcerous path for more than two years.

She turned toward me. "Stranger," she said, "where did you get your rings? They're very beautiful."

Adamu Jenitongo had given me the rings, two fashioned from brass, one from copper, two years earlier. "They will protect you from those who want to send you sickness," he had informed me.


Excerpted from Stranger in the Village of the Sick by Paul Stoller Copyright © 2004 by Paul Stoller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Diagnosis 1
Chapter 2 Harmonizing the Bush at The Cancer Center 69
Chapter 3 Treatment 137
Chapter 4 Remissioning Life 181
Chapter 5 Bearing Witness on the Wings of the Wind 195
Notes 205
References 215
Author's Note 223
Index 225
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