Guinea-Bissau was once part of the kingdom of Gabu, as well as part of the Mali Empire. Parts of this kingdom persisted until the eighteenth century, while a few others were under some rule by the Portuguese Empire since the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century, it was colonised as Portuguese Guinea. Upon independence, declared in 1973 and recognised in 1974, the name of its capital, Bissau, was added to the country's name to prevent confusion with Guinea (formerly French Guinea). Guinea-Bissau has a history of political instability since independence, and no elected president has successfully served a full five-year term.
On the evening of 12 April 2012, members of the country's military staged a coup d'état and arrested the interim president and a leading presidential candidate. Former vice chief of staff, General Mamadu Ture Kuruma, assumed control of the country in the transitional period and started negotiations with opposition parties.
The main religions are African traditional religions and Islam, although there is a Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) minority; however the next part of my journey also reveals that beliefs in traditional magic have not died out in this part of the world…
“Meeting the Invisible Man: Secrets and Magic in West Africa” by Toby Green is an account of the author's travels in West Africa - specifically Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea-Conakry (officially known simply as Guinea, in West Africa it is widely called Guinea-Conakry to avoid confusion with Guinea-Bissau) - in search of authentic African magic. In 1995 Green became friends with a Senegalese photographer by the name of El Hadji (a devout Muslim), a man who swore that mystics known as Marabouts (pronounced ‘Maraboo’, magical holy men with connections to Islam) possessed the ability to bestow invisibility and invulnerability upon people. Intrigued, Green returned four years later, met his friend, and undertook a journey of several months through these three nations to test these magical claims himself. Seeking Marabouts in the cities and in remote villages deep in the countryside, Green sought to verify if such magic could indeed exist.
These men didn't cast spells it seems but created magical charms or amulets known as gris-gris (pronounced ‘gree-gree’), items that might contain such items as a piece of burial shroud, the skin of a black cat, cloth once owned by a mute, or verses from the Koran written many times on parchment or paper. These items were generally constructed in secret away from the eyes of Green and El Hadji, often taking days to finish and coming complete with a number of verbal instructions that must be followed (lest either bad things happen to the wearer or the charm be rendered in effective); not wearing a gris-gris during sex was a common rule, as was not using one for evil. If the rules were followed and the owner wore the gris-gris (generally on their waists, attached to the belt, or on their arms), depending upon what the amulet was constructed for, it might bestow invulnerability to knife attacks, gunfire, or even make one invisible (or wealthy, as Green visits a moderately prosperous village that believed it owed its great fortune to the powerful Marabout resident there).
Green makes an interesting point that many Muslims in West Africa believe in Marabouts and in gris-gris. El Hadji and others claim that there is nothing in the Qu'ran that forbids visiting a Marabout (though a sorcerer is apparently an altogether different type of individual). Additionally, a number of people Green talks to, including Marabouts, claim to possess secret knowledge or secret verses from the Qu'ran itself. The author notes that many Muslims outside the region and some in the region firmly believe that gris-gris is not acceptable in orthodox Islam, though Marabouts have a long history in the region, arriving simultaneously in West Africa with Islam in the eleventh century.
Green begins the journey convinced that gris-gris simply could not work, but once he spends time in Africa he seems to waver some. Once he becomes immersed in the culture and the people, he begins to appreciate the often radically different worldview of many of the locals. He often feels that he and they inhabit completely different worlds: his technological, rational, and materialistic; theirs a world largely alien to him, one that the locals see populated by devils and spirits, a "place where magic and undiluted faith were so important," where "djinns hang in the air with the heat, and the fear and the illness."
Green also fears that he will be exploited by unscrupulous people. A foolish tubab (white person, whom just about everyone in that part of Africa at least assumed was of course rich) would easily find many Marabouts who would gladly write gris-gris for him for money of course. At first quite a bit on guard against this, Green is at pains to point out that in his travels he meets Marabouts who care little about money and genuinely believe in what they do.
The author does provide an interesting portrait of the countries, the people, their rituals, their way of life, good descriptions of the terrain and flora, and a sense of the area's problems. He and his companion are quite glad to leave Guinea-Conakry for instance, a place “redolent with fear and despair," an often deeply unpleasant place, its citizens with almost nothing, with what little they had stolen by a corrupt state. He also recounts some of the terrible wars and wretched conditions faced by the refugees in the region (whose plight the West was largely ignorant of), many of whom vanish in the various conflicts, their fate unknown. Though he is approached for bribes by corrupt border guards and police, a great many people are quite kind to him, welcoming him into their homes with little explanation from him as to why he is there, offering what little food they had and even allowing him to sleep in their beds, their owners choosing to sleep on the floor while they have guests. He has a number of memorable West African experiences, many of them good, such as listening to griots (pronounced ‘gree-oh,’ praise singers whose lineage goes back to the old West African empires, still important as repositories of oral history and in performing ceremonies), hearing the kora (a West African harp with 21 strings), and riding in pirogues (the dugout canoes of the region), some bad (such as a bout with malaria).
So did Green find any gris-gris that worked? Was he successful? I won’t spoil the book for you by revealing that, however I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed accompanying Green on his quest. Though he includes a helpful glossary and an appendix listing important historical figures from the region, it would have been good to have had a bit more history in the text. Still, I enjoyed his often amusing interactions with El Hadji and I appreciated the detailed map and the colour photographs that were included in the book.
My onward journey is an easy one in this instance as, in his travels in search of African magic, Toby Green travels through Guinea-Bissau via Senegal and on to Guinea. Thus I find I am already in the country of my next stopover, courtesy of “In Search of Africa” by Manthia Diawara; a distinguished professor of film and literature in New York City, who returns to Guinea thirty-two years after he and his family were expelled from the newly liberated country.