I’ve written about this topic before, but I find it so interesting that I keep returning to it. I believe that the last time I addressed this it was all theoretical, stemming from a conversation with a friend where he explained the basic traditional beliefs and superstitions here. This time, however, I wanted to experience magic, or “wok” as they call it here, first hand. There are distinctions made between wok and sorcery; one basic difference that has been explained to me is that while wok is used to create or summon magic, sorcery is used to kill people. Keep in mind that beliefs here often differ from region to region, so I will search for more information about the differences for my next blog. However, with a desire to actually observe traditional magical practices up close, my friend, her neighbors, and I traveled to a village about an hour outside of Yako to consult a “wokman.”
One neighbor’s father used to be a preeminent wokman, and therefore her family has connections to all the wokmen in the region, making it easy for us to seek a consultation. Normally, a group of all women cannot do so by themselves; a man must be present. However, thanks to our connections, we had no problems. When we arrived at the wokman’s house, we were seated outside under an overhang to wait for him. From off in the distance, a man riding a camel slowly strode up to us. If you’ve never seen a camel in real life, and I’m not talking about the kind that give children rides at the kiddy zoo but the kind that might trek across the Sahara Desert looking for water, then I’ll let you in on a secret: they are huge, gargantuan, smelly creatures. This one was no exception. As they arrived, his rider, dressed in Arab garb, slid off; then, to amuse the crowd, he performed a few parlor tricks, such as having the camel greet us by bowing and spluttering a hello. The man, tall and regal looking, came to sit with us and exchange. All of this happened in Moore, of course, so I had no idea what was actually happening. Finally, we gave him some change and he left, mounting his gigantic camel (whom I could not take my eyes off the whole time he was there) and prancing off into the sunset. When I asked desperately where our wokman was going, everyone laughed at me – turns out the man was just a common beggar. All I could do was shake my head and wonder why more of the beggars I meet can’t be as interesting as him.
After this I was informed that a man who had been sitting with us the whole time, a family member, was actually the wokman. He is 75 years old and training his son, who must be in his 40s, how to practice wok. We paid for two chickens to sacrifice, one for me and one for a friend. Then, he led us into the family compound and to a small circular hut that lay on the grounds. The five of us entered and found seating around the hut; a sixth person would have had trouble finding space. We sat on small stools, our knees up near our chests, and gazed around ourselves. The hut in which we found ourselves was made of mud brick, and the roof was thatching held up by several sturdy sticks laid across one another. Inside the hut, rocks were piled in different corners, empty gourds corked and filled with a variety of powders and medicines crowded against us, gourds and musical instruments hung from the ceiling, and a rope ran across above our heads, from which hung clippings from the rope harnesses of sheep that had been sacrificed for the wokman this year as a result of people who had asked for favors in consultations and received them (there were maybe 100 and we were only three months or so into the wokman’s new year, which starts in December). But the eeriest part was that all of the aforementioned objects were covered in layers upon layers of dried animal blood and chicken feathers. It formed a thick gray paste that coated everything in the hut, and drove home the fact that we were in the presence of someone who practiced ritual animal sacrifices.
After we first sat down, the wokman passed around a large bowl filled with a mixture, which we had to scoop out and drink using our left hand (to honor the ancestors) and a small gourd; I could taste that the mixture was comprised of water, some local beer, a dash of hard liquor, and various quantities of sand, dirt, and powder/charcoal (I spit a few sticks out afterwards). I didn’t realize until later that a small amount of animal blood was also in the mixture, because the ancestors apparently like water, alcohol, and animal blood. The wokman then asked if we would like to make a sacrifice for anyone; since a response wasn’t forthcoming, and I wanted to observe as much of his arsenal as possible, I asked that he do so for me. He sent for a young chicken from his courtyard, and in the meantime he passed around dirty shot glasses, the first filled with water, the second with hard liquor. Each person had to hold the glass and drink a small amount, with the person for whom the sacrifice was being made drinking last, before handing it to the wokman. He then did the same and sloshed the remaining liquid in the glass onto the rocks, as a sacrifice to the ancestors.
Finally, he took the chicken and passed it around in the same fashion. Animal lovers, beware the next few sentences. As I grasped the chicken’s legs, I whispered an urgent apology; then, handing it to the wokman, he pulled out a painfully dull looking knife and slit its throat, dribbling its blood onto the rocks below. When the chicken had stopped kicking so forcefully, he grasped its wings and tossed it into the air. If the sacrifice had been accepted, the chicken was supposed to land on its back; unfortunately, it bounced onto its chest. As a result, we repeated the process with the water and liquor, and the wokman sent for another chicken. While I was trying to convince my stomach that it could handle watching the life literally drain out of another creature, the woman sitting next to me leaned over and hissed, “Don’t say you’re sorry to the chicken!” She theorized that my apology had something to do with the failure of the sacrifice, so the second time I kept it together, and the chicken landed on its back.
To complete the sacrifice, the wokman performed several other tasks, each of which had to show a sign of being accepted by the ancestors. First, he took that same bowl of blood, alcohol, and water and balanced two sticks across it, following this by balancing the small gourd which we drank out of atop them. If the gourd did not fall, the sacrifice was being accepted. Following this, we had to drink some more of the mixture, and then in the same muddied bowl he placed a large stick. If the stick stood upright, the sacrifice was being accepted, and after some pushing and prodding he managed that. Then, he handed me a kola nut and asked me to break it in half, and to subsequently drop the two halves on the ground. He told me to pick up the half that landed with its inside facing up and roll it in a powder mixture of his own creation. After this, I had to place it into another gourd filled with water; if it floated (which it did), the sacrifice had been accepted. Finally, he took the wet kola nut and rubbed it against the side of the hut; when it stuck to the wall, he announced that the sacrifice had been fully accepted. He then continued to open nearly every one of the umpteen gourds that lined the walls and pour a little of their contents out, mostly dirt, sand, charcoal, and other powder substances, which he mixed together and passed around so that everyone except myself could eat a pinch of it, as if to vouch for me. The wokman explained that I should keep the powder with me, and any time I wanted some luck or good fortune to come to me, I should eat a little bit and speak aloud what I wanted to happen.
For the second set of sacrifices, we switched seats so that the wokman could sit near another pile of rocks in the hut. The process started out much the same, with us passing around and sipping at a shot glass of water followed by one of hard liquor. Then, since chickens were integral to this sacrifice as well, we passed around our chickens so that everyone could touch them. Since I went first, I held my chicken last and spoke aloud what I hoped to come of the sacrifice, and then I handed it to the wokman. He held it by its feet and placed it on its back next to the pile of rocks and began speaking aloud. He asked the genies that frequent that area of the hut to take the blood from the chicken and kill it, so that it could serve as a sacrifice for me to achieve what I wanted in life. Shortly after he began speaking, the chicken began kicking out frantically, as if in the last throes of life, and after several minutes it simply…died. None of this is an exaggeration; I saw him, with my own eyes, talk a chicken to death.
Once it had died, he tossed the chicken over to me so that I could examine it. Everyone else in the hut laughed, but I was intent on finding how he had killed the chicken – had he broken a pivotal bone somewhere by putting too much pressure on it, or had he crushed some of the chicken’s insides? I poked and prodded with the tenacity of a detective, but all I discovered was that the chicken was perfectly intact. I handed it back to him, and he held it by its feet above the pile of rocks where it had died. He slit its throat, and no blood came out; it was completely dry, as if blood had never run through that chicken’s veins. After allowing me to gawk for a few moments, he spoke to the genies again, asking them to release some of the blood from the chicken, so that he could give it as a sacrifice to the ancestors. In an obligatory fashion, just as he finished speaking the first drops began trickling from the chicken’s neck and pouring onto the rocks below.
He performed the same sacrifice for another woman with us, with the same results. To complete the sacrifice, we simply had to drink more of the dirty water mixture and the hard liquor, and then repeat aloud that which we wanted to come from the sacrifice. He explained to us that every part of the hut had a special significance, and that he could do the same sacrifice with sheep or goats; in fact, according to him, one of the dogs from their courtyard had lain in that same spot to take a nap, and as soon as it walked out of the hut it dropped dead.
Following this, he predicted our futures, which he did using a straw mat and a handful of traditional shells that used to be traded as currency back before colonization. When one of us would place money on the mat, he would toss the shells and interpret their meaning based on how they clustered when they fell. My reading was fairly generic; he knew that I had arrived in a group to do humanitarian work (a pretty easy deduction given my skin color), and he also knew that I had one sister. He did, however, know some very personal details about the other women in the hut with me.
Speaking objectively, the shell reading wasn’t the most fascinating part of the trip. I’ve had my sand read before, which is practiced commonly out near Fada and involves a visit to a sand reader. You place your hand in the sand and pose a question, with the theory being that we all came from the earth and will return to the earth, so the earth knows us best. Then, the sand reader draws lines in the sand, a process he erases and repeats many times, and then interprets the markings based on your question. It’s an interesting process, however the benefit of the shell reading was that we weren’t required to ask questions first, so that his answers could not be constructed to fit the questions that had prompted them.
One last aspect worth noting, and something that I’ve been told signifies that we met with a real sorcerer or wokman, is that the money we were required to put forth for the sacrifices was next to nothing. We had to pay for the chickens, which were about the same price you would pay for any chicken in Yako, and then for the smaller sacrifices and shell reading he asked that we put down a small amount, which I can’t imagine amounted to more than 400 CFA. He certainly wasn’t trying to strip us of as much money as possible, which he could easily have tried upon seeing a white person; in fact, he was more concerned with proving to me that he is a legitimate practitioner of traditional beliefs, which he did by bringing out an worker’s card that had been issued to him by the Burkinabé government identifying him as an official traditional practitioner.
Leaving the hut, it was about lunch time, so his wife invited us to eat some food they had already prepared. Afterwards, they gave me a gift of a rooster, which I had to hang onto by its feet the entire way home, and they made us promise to visit them again. I’d like to; next time, I’ll ask for something concrete to happen, that would have to come true within a few weeks or month of the visit, so I can have more proof regarding the effectiveness of the sacrifices. While I’m a natural skeptic, and I’m well aware that most of you reading this from America will think there must be some obvious explanation that I missed, I can tell you that I searched and pondered and poked, and I can’t find anything to explain how he talked the life out of a chicken within a matter of minutes, or why blood would simply disappear from one of the main arterial highways in any living creature. I know that you will probably say that you won’t believe it until you see it…but that’s what I always say. And so I did. I went and I saw it. And what my eyes have told me is that, for any of this to be possible, we’ve got to embrace a little bit of the mystery.