In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger

In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger

by Paul Stoller, Cheryl Olkes

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The tale of Paul Stoller's sojourn among sorcerors in the Republic of Niger is a story of growth and change, of mutual respect and understanding that will challenge all who read it to plunge deeply into an alien world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226098296
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/09/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 252
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Paul Stoller is professor of anthropology at West Chester University. He is also a research associate in the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution. Cheryl Olkes is director of Harmattan, a gallery of African arts in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

In Sorcery's Shadow

A Memoir of Apprenticeship Among the Songhay of Niger

By Paul Stoller, Cheryl Olkes

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1987 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-09829-6



The Berliet truck came down at last off the dune-top road and sputtered to a stop at the western corner of the Mehanna market. Swarms of children surrounded the truck, pointing and chanting, "Anasara, Anasara," the Songhay expression for "European." Undaunted, I opened the door of the truck and stepped down onto the sand. The children encircled me and stared with their mouths open. In my best oratorical Songhay I asked the crowd whether people who stare at other people are different from donkeys. My statement precipitated laughter among the adults who were watching this scene. Although the children continued to stare at me, a rare white man in these parts, the elders came forward and introduced themselves. They told me how pleased they were that an Anasara could speak Songhay so well.

"But I do not speak Songhay, really. I hear a little of it," I protested.

"Ah, but you do, Anasara. You speak it as well as I do," one man insisted.

"No, no, I know only a very small bit of the Songhay language." The men around me laughed with pleasure, and when I told them I wanted to meet the chief, they said they would escort me to his house. As we walked through the market to the chief's house, I greeted people in Songhay, mostly to their amazement. The men with whom I walked explained to others that I was a white man who spoke very good Songhay and that I was going to spend some time in Mehanna.

It was my first visit to Mehanna that market day in August of 1976, but it was a return to Songhay country in the Republic of Niger. I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in a neighboring village five years before and had become fluent in the language. And through the Songhay language I had learned something of the culture of these people. Accordingly, I knew a little about carrying myself in the Songhay world and faced with confidence my introduction to life in Mehanna.

The chief's house was hidden from the rest of the village by an eight-foot mudbrick wall.

We opened the corrugated tin gate and walked into the chief's compound, a nearly barren yard somewhat bigger than a football field. In it were three rectangular mudbrick houses which I estimated as 10 × 20 feet in dimension, one for the chief and one for each of his two wives. The chief himself sat with three other men in the shade of a thatched canopy which shielded them from the fierce Sahelian sun. As we approached, one of the chiefs manservants materialized with a pillow for me, and one of my escorts presented me to the chief.

"I greet you, chief Tondi. I greet your wives, your brothers, your sisters. I ask after your health and the health of your house."

"I am in good health, Anasara. How is your health and the health of your people?"

"They are well, praise God."

"Praise be to God." He fixed his piercing black eyes on me. "How did an Anasara learn to speak Songhay so well?"

"I do not speak it well. I have learned what little Songhay I know in Tera and Tillaberi. I taught in Tera six years ago and I taught in Tillaberi five years ago."

The chief was wearing a billowing white robe, and his chiseled face, with its prominent cheekbones, was wreathed by a white turban which continued under his chin. He fingered a wooden cane. "Why do you come here, to Mehanna?"

"I come here to live."

"To live?" He looked at his cronies for a moment. "We have never had an Anasara live here. A Frenchman once visited us many years ago, but no Anasara has ever lived in Mehanna."

"I would like to live here, Amiru [chief]."

"But why would you want to live here?"

"I have come to write a book about the people of Mehanna." I remembered that one of my dissertation advisors had suggested that I tell the people that I was writing a book, that they would understand this statement.

"Wonderful." He smiled broadly, and his cronies, all of whom were also dressed in long white robes, nodded in what I interpreted to be agreement. "We will receive a copy of this book?"

"Oh, yes. I will send a copy to you, to the subprefect, and to the central government."

The chief ran his fingers through his beard. "Tell me Anasara, why—"

"Amiru, please do not call me Anasara."

There was silence among the chief and his cronies.

"And why should we not call you Anasara?"

"Because Anasara is neither a name nor a title. Calling me Anasara is like my calling you Boro Bi [Black Man]. Would you like me, every time I saw you, to say 'Hey, Black Man, hey'?"

All the men laughed loudly, and the chief conceded, "What you say has truth. But what is your name?"

I told him.

The chief extended his hand. "My name is Tondi. My father's name is Bello." The other men introduced themselves. The chief spoke to me once again. "How can you live here? We cannot provide you with an Anasara house with a fan and a light. The campement, outside of town, might be a place where you could stay."

One of his companions shook his head. "No, the campement is far from town. He must stay somewhere in town."

"How about Boulhassane's compound? Is it empty?"

The chief nodded. "It will be good for you, Monsieur Paul. It is right next to the market in the center of town."

The chief stood up and suggested that we go to the market so I might observe that colorful slice of Songhay life. We did not buy anything; rather we sat on a straw mat at the edge of the market and accepted the well-wishes of townspeople and visitors. A few moments after we had settled ourselves two women started to argue. One of them had accused the other of shortchanging her. The accuser, a tall, thin woman with skin a size too big for her body, began insulting the accusee, who was also tall but obese, dressed in brightly patterned new clothes. The thin woman impugned the dignity of the fat one's mother, father, uncle, grandmother, and grandfather. The fat woman took up the challenge and suggested that the thin one had been conceived in the belly of a donkey. The women were soon screaming and brandishing their forefingers like weapons. Yet no one near them attempted to mediate the dispute. The chief smiled at the women and told me that this sort of thing happened all the time, especially on market days. Suddenly, the thin woman dropped her market bundle and attempted to strike the fat one. But she never landed her intended blow, because a man from the amorphous crowd intercepted her, blocking her fist before it reached its target. Restraining her, he coaxed her away from her opponent. Gradually the thin woman calmed down, and she left the market area. I made a mental note: Could it be that the Songhay have a tacit principle whereby it is appropriate to abuse others verbally, but not physically?

The chief awoke me from my anthropological reverie. His younger brother, he told me, would help to get me settled in Boulhassane's compound. We collected my gear from the truck and asked a number of teenagers if they would carry my stuff to the compound, which they agreed to do for a small fee. Boulhassane's compound was at the north end of the market just opposite the fly-covered butchers' stalls. A green door in a ten-foot mudbrick wall admitted us to a vast space interrupted only by two houses and a sickly acacia tree. The chiefs brother took me to the smaller of the houses and introduced me to Idrissa, a little rabbit of a man who was the caretaker of Boulhassane's compound. We negotiated his monthly wage as well as a price for my rent. I moved into the other house in the compound, a larger one with two rooms, a dirt floor, and a roof made of sticks cemented together with daub. Its three windows were holes in the wall with corrugated tin shutters. It was furnished with an iron bed with a straw mattress, a flimsy metal card table, and a rickety school chair.

Idrissa gave me a tour of the compound. He explained the lack of vegetation simply, saying the soil was not good. Indeed, the ground was as hard as rock.

"Where is the outhouse?" I asked with trepidation.

Idrissa pointed to the far end of the compound, but I could not see it. So we walked in that direction—some 50 meters—before coming upon a hole in the ground near the far wall of the compound. One's privacy was insured by a mudbrick wall three feet in height.

"Is it solid? I asked as I peered through the hole into what seemed to be a 15-foot pit. "I won't fall in, will I?" I asked as I was assailed by the gases of decaying human waste.

"Oh yes," Idrissa affirmed, responding to my first question. "It's very strong. You won't fall. But don't come here at night."

"At night?"



"Cobras and vipers. And bats live in the pit. At night they fly in and out."

"Wonderful! What else can you tell me about this shithole?"


Feeling the need to defecate, I asked Idrissa to leave. As I prepared myself—that is to say, as I squatted to afford myself the privacy of the three-foot wall—I heard giggling. I looked up to discover two boys and two girls watching me from the roof of a neighbor's house. They were pointing, laughing, and I distinctly heard the word "Anasara." I grimaced at the prospect of being observed in the day and bitten by snakes at night. But I was determined, so I ignored the children and went about my business. When I had finished, I stood up and glowered at the amused children. They abandoned their rooftop observation post, and I returned to my new house, feeling triumphant that I had bested my balky digestion and the neighbor's kids. Perhaps my work would go well in Mehanna.



I spent only a few days getting situated before I began my study. My aim was to investigate the relationship between the use of language and local politics among the Songhay. My first task was to construct a language-attitude survey and administer it to a carefully selected sample of the population of Mehanna.

I designed a twenty-item survey and conducted a pilot test on ten respondents. Since none of the respondents had difficulty answering the questions, I went ahead with my plans to administer the survey to the townspeople. My previous experience among the Songhay had prepared me for the diplomacy needed to make the obligatory arrangements to administer the survey. First I visited the chief, Tondi Bello, who was pleased to see me. The chief gave his blessing to the project, but he instructed me to visit eight neighborhood chiefs in Mehanna before interviewing people in those neighborhoods. Since each visit became a rather long encounter, I spent three days contacting the eight chiefs. Finally, I was ready to begin. After that I should have been prepared to find that each session with a respondent would turn out to be a visit, and of such long duration that I could conduct only six interviews a day. It took me thirty days to reach my goal of 180 interviews. I analyzed the data as I went along and soon discovered that the degree of multilingualism was significantly higher than I had anticipated. A cursory examination of the language attitudes, moreover, suggested a high degree of enmity among the various segments of Mehanna's population.

Toward the end of my survey, I interviewed a shopkeeper named Abdou Kano, a short hunchbacked man with an infectious, toothless smile. Abdou told me, among other things, that he spoke four languages (Songhay, Hausa, Fulan, and Tamesheq). My work with Abdou completed, I walked next door to interview Mahamane Boulla, who, like Abdou, was a shopkeeper. I asked him how many languages he spoke:

"Oh, I speak three languages: Songhay, Hausa and Fulan."

During our conversation about languages, Mahamane asked me how many languages Abdou spoke.

"Abdou says he speaks four languages."

"Hah! I know for a fact that Abdou speaks only two languages."

"What! Is that true? How could he lie to me!" I stood up abruptly. Red in the face, I stormed back to Abdou's shop. Abdou smiled and greeted me.

"Ah, Monsieur Paul. What would you like to buy today?"

"Abdou, Mahamane has just told me that you speak only two languages. Is it true?" "Yes, it is true. I speak only two languages."

"Why did you tell me you speak four languages?"

Abdou shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "What difference does it make?" He looked skyward for a moment. "Tell me, Monsieur Paul, how many languages did Mahamane tell you that he spoke?"

"Mahamane told me that he speaks three languages."

"Hah! I know for a fact that Mahamane speaks only one language. He can speak Songhay and that is all."


I stomped back to Mahamane's shop.

"Abdou tells me that you speak only one language. But you just told me that you speak three languages. What is the truth?"

"Ah, Monsieur Paul, Abdou is telling you the truth."

"But how could you lie to me?"

"What difference does it make, Monsieur Paul?"

I spent the next week frantically consulting the other 178 people whom I had interviewed in the previous month. To my disgust, I discovered that everyone had lied to me and that the data I had so painstakingly collected were worthless. I had learned a lesson: Informants routinely lie to their anthropologists for any number of reasons: What's the difference? We do not know you. We know you, but we do not trust you. Since you are too young, we cannot tell you the truth, but we are too polite to tell you to go away. And so on.

Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones. After only one month in the field, I had discovered that people were lying to me. Many of my colleagues in anthropology have perhaps not been so lucky. Further luck brought me to Abdoulaye, an old marabout (an Islamic cleric) who was willing to advise me on learning about the Songhay.

"Monsieur Paul, you will never learn about us if you go into people's compounds, ask personal questions, and write down the answers. Even if you remain here one year, or two years, and ask us questions in this manner, we would still lie to you."

"Then what am I to do?"

"You must learn to sit with people, Monsieur Paul. You must learn to sit and listen. You must learn the meaning of the Songhay adage: One kills something thin in appearance only to discover that inside it is fat."



I could not stop thinking of the proverb the elder had recited to me. "One kills something thin in appearance only to discover that on the inside it is fat." Did the statement refer to my failed survey, to one entire month of wasted time, to my inability to see, to think? Did it mean I was defeated so soon? I decided to take the advice of my friend, the Islamic cleric. I would sit and listen to people like an obedient child, and somehow in the process I would learn their ways. However much the unstructured technique of conducting research violated every methodological principle I had learned in graduate school, what was I to do? What choice had I other than to leave Mehanna and return to Niamey, where I could drink beer, eat hamburgers, and interact with my countrymen? But the Songhay fascinated me. They were proud. They were stubborn. Like the warriors of their imperial past, they were hard and aggressive. These qualities drew me to the Songhay, for I wanted to be more like them. Attracted by the ethos of these people, I decided to let the Songhay lead me along their path.

The discussion group is the centerpiece of everyday life for the Songhay man. I was invited to join a number of these groups, which seemed a promising way to learn about Songhay culture. One group I sat with consisted of a handful of older men who were either nobles or the clients of nobles. A Songhay noble is a descendant, through the father's line, of Askia Mohammed Toure, also known as Askia the Great, who was King of the Songhay Empire from 1493 to 1527, its greatest period.

Each morning these men would gather in the shadow of the Mehanna Friday mosque, a large one-story mudbrick structure some hundred meters from the Niger River. The Friday mosque is the most sacred place in any Songhay town. The men usually discussed Songhay history, especially the history of the local branch of the nobility, and national politics, usually cued by a broadcast of national news on the ever-playing radio.

I learned of their reverence for the old days, when men were hard and fierce and unrelenting in their quest to vanquish their enemies. I also learned of their views about life in contemporary Niger. About two weeks after I had begun to sit with the men in this group, the newscaster on the radio announced a student strike at the national high school in Niamey. The old cleric who was my advisor suggested that the students were foolish. Another person described how the Malian government had brutally dealt with a similar situation in Bamako. Several of the discussants could not understand why the students would strike. Did they not have the privilege of attending such a fine school?

The same cleric, however, suggested why students could be so foolish as to strike. He said that students are people who do not know the virtues of patience. The students, he continued, study the white man's talk and as a consequence they think like white men. When one of these students talks to you, he tells you that he knows everything. But know it-alls know nothing. The students, the cleric stated, do not understand that a person must grow old and study the Prophet's books in order to know just a little bit about the world. These students, he told the group, have no mind; they are doing the white man's work. They do not respect those who are wise. The children of today, the cleric concluded, will not do. Most of the members of the group seemed to agree with the cleric's analysis.


Excerpted from In Sorcery's Shadow by Paul Stoller, Cheryl Olkes. Copyright © 1987 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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.

Table of Contents

I. 1976-77
1. Mehanna
2. A Lesson in Survey Research
3. Discussion Groups
4. Guided Interpretations
5. Two Birds in the Rafters Are Better Than One in the Bush
6. Sorko Djibo
7. An Apprentice's First Mission
8. Immersed in Texts
9. Wanzerbe
10. Initiation
11. Witches
12. A Tonic for Work
13. Between Sound and the Shadow
14. Tillaberi
15. The Young Sohanci
16. Asking Questions
17. Prison Years
18. The Coming of Serci
19. Words of Protection
20. On the Road
21. Vengeance for the Powerful
II. 1979-80
22. Frightening Discoveries
23. Evidence of Power
24. Repelled by the Cold in Ayoru
25. An Interpretation
26. The Path to Wanzerbe
27. A Test of Hardness
III. 1981
28. Rites of Clairvoyance
29. Sohanci Business
30. Journey Under the River
31. Amadu Zima
32. An Invitation from Kassey
IV. 1982-83
33. A Father and His Son
34. Fatouma
35. Kassey
V. 1984
36. Power in the Compound
37. A Lecture on Medicine
38. Mehanna Revisited
39. The Way of the Cowry
40. Showdown with Djibo
41. Last Stand in Wanzerbe
Epilogue: In Sorcery's Shadow

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