Just what the witchdoctor ordered

A born-cynic, I was a bit skeptical in the power of jujus, marabout magic, witchdoctor spells – call it what you will – I thought it was all a charade in the name of tradition. In The Gambia, though, you’d better not mock it or you’ll be laughed out of the village.

The animist belief is especially present in the Jolas, who were the last to convert to Islam and found it hard to shake their superstitions. There are jujus for health, a new job, safe travels – you name it – the power has been written. People of all ages wear jujus, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a baby without a leather shape tied around its neck for protection.

I tried many times to talk to people I trusted about how the juju works without showing my skepticism.

“If you believe it works, it works,” my dad exclaimed. “If you don’t believe it works, it doesn’t work.”

Such was the same warning he gave me a few months later when I told him I wanted to try one.

“Try it? Fatoumata, you can’t try it,” he laughed. “You either believe in its power or you don’t.”

I told him I would believe in it to try it. He chuckled and said he’d help me talk to the marabout, the community’s Quranic scholar also believed to have supernatural powers.

I’ve heard stories of volunteers having to pay for their juju with a headless chicken or needing to sneak a visit to the marabout in the middle of the night because villagers were unhappy that a “non-believing” westerner wanted one.

My story is much less entertaining. My marabout lives next-door and happens to be an Islamic teacher at my school. He immediately agreed to write a script for my juju. When I added that my friend from America would be visiting so maybe he could write one for her too, he added a price tag (in dalasi not animals). Oh well.

Samba Fatty, Quarnic teacher & Marabout

Samba Fatty, Quarnic teacher & Marabout

“Are you sure she believe,” he asked in broken English.

I asked Nora if she believed in jujus and being more open than I, she immediately loved the idea.

“I don’t turn down good juju,” she said.

So, on her first day in my village, we walked over to the marabout’s compound to discuss the protections we wanted. We settled on two: safe travels and to keep our friendship close even when we are far.

Using an old-fashioned ink pen, he wrote our wish in Arabic. Nora and I joked that if he wrote some curse against us crazy toubabs and we wouldn’t even know it. More likely, though, he wrote some prayer that I’ll find a Gambian husband and have many babies. (And I wouldn’t put it past anyone in my village to sneak that in my juju, either. The fact that I am single and without children is quite the topic of conversation and has many of the elderly women worried about me.)

My scripts for my jujus.

My scripts for my jujus.

My scripts for my jujus.

My scripts for my jujus.

A few days later, the old man called us over to his compound. The script he wrote had been sewn into goatskin and attached to a band for our ankles. “N for Nora,” he said handing my friend the juju with her initial on it. “And M for … ah, Fatoutmata, I make mistake. Um, here.”

“Oh, you make mistake?” I wanted to scream, but didn’t. “Great, he knew I didn’t fully believe and he gave me bad juju,” I thought. I was pretty worried about it, but the mix-up hasn’t seemed to affect the power. Or maybe it has, and that’s why I’m still single? Anyway, I took a Sharpie to the “M” and added a little design on my leather squares, so if the wrong name didn’t mess up my juju I’m sure defacing it has.

My jujus

My jujus

“How am I ever supposed to figure out if this stuff actually works?!”

I’m taking my dad’s advice and believing I have a juju that was written personally for me and has nothing to do with wedding bells or bassinettes. “If that’s what I believe, that’s what it is, right?”

So far, I seem to be safe on all fronts. I haven’t tied any marriages or had any babies and Nora and I enjoyed what could have been a disastrous trip in The Gambia. I mean, here, you never know what you’re going to get between gelly gelly rides, dodgy restaurants and rooms with rats. But, all went pretty smoothly and I had a great time showing someone from home my new life here.

As far as our friendship goes, we are still close despite living so far apart. Nora and I met our first week in Chile and were inseparable for two and a half years. After almost a year apart, we picked up right where we left off. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I think that would have happened with or without a little juju.

–JDF