Africa Speaks: Belief and Magic 1

Village hay storage, Tillabery road, Rio Bravo, Niger, 1992

Contents: A Sacrifice . . . Salya Ya Iso . . . Witchcraft . . . Voudou . . . Totem . . . home page

A Sacrifice

Tahirou Hamissou 4/5/92

Once, when I was young, very young, it stopped raining suddenly in my village, Sakode, though we were in the middle of the rainy season. Everybody got worried and disturbed for the area was mainly agricultural. Therefore, the people of Sakode decided to organize great prayers and sacrifices to the Gods.

In that area, it is commonly believed that in such situations the Gods need "blood." So old Fanture', who is leader of the "feast," killed a sheep on the grave of an ancestor. In such a way the Gods might drink the blood and give rain. Moreover, old Fanture' tethered one of his grandsons, Malonga, to a stone near the grave under the hot sun. Meanwhile the Wise Ones sat in the shade of the great tamarind tree, praying and murmuring magic words, running their rosaries through their fingers.

Malonga, the tethered boy, was suffering. He was covered with sweat and trembling. Malonga was terribly afraid of being killed in the same way as the sheep. As a young boy, he didn't know that he was tied down under the sun so that the Gods might feel pity about his misfortune and give rain.

Surprisingly, it rained heartily that day before the ceremony was over.

Copyright © 1998 Tahirou Hamissou


Fish farm in Niger river at Boubon, Niger, 1992

Salya Ya Iso

Amadou Cisse Ic-Crimitou 3/16/92

It was very hot. It was the rainy season, but the sun rose and set and no cloud appeared in the sky. The small children could no longer play in the streets barefoot because of the heat of the sand.

The heat continued, and the millet began to wither. All the farmers stopped tilling because the sand was totally dry.

One day the elders decided to celebrate a ceremony called "salya ya iso" to pray to God that it might rain. I asked my father the meaning of the ceremony and how it was celebrated. He told me to go and ask my mother because the ceremony concerned only women and children.

When I went to ask my mother about it, she told me to fetch her a toad first. I rushed into our house, went straight to the water pot, and dug a little under it, because I knew that this was the toads' favorite place, because it was cool and damp under the pot. I seized one, and as soon as I took it, a milky liquid came from its back, but it did not frighten me.

I took it to my mother. She asked me to hold it so she could tie its foot with a string. When she finished tying it, she told me to keep it. I still did not know why the toad was caught. Then I saw her filling a very big calabash with water. She carried it on her head to the public place.

When we reached the place we found many women and children waiting for my mother. She laid down the calabash of water, and another woman brought a small calabash. The small calabash was set in the water of the large calabash in a position that the water could not get into it. Then the toad was taken from me, and tethered to a stick planted in the earth close to the large calabash.

My mother took a stick and started playing music by beating the small calabash. The old women sat near my mother and sang while the children and the younger women walked around them and sang as a chorus. The seated women said "May God make clouds appear" and we who were walking around them said "Salya ya isa" which can be translated as "so be it."

The toad that was tethered to the stick kept on jumping around because of the heat, for the ceremony was celebrated in the sun, in a place where there was no tree.

The old women continued singing: "It is our Lord whom we beg" and we said "Salya ya iso." They said "It is not to someone else that we pray, to someone who would refuse to give us rain..." and we continued to say "Salya ya iso" every time. Every time that they sang a line, we repeated our line while walking around them.

At about three o'clock we noticed that clouds were gathering in the east. The song continued joyfully and hopefully. At about five o'clock, it started raining, but nobody left. The old women told us to keep singing in the rain and not to run away. So we continued singing until the rain became heavy. Then they told us to run away, and everybody when home.

When my mother came home, I went and sat near her and asked her why the toad was caught and tethered to a stick near the calabash. She told me that it is because toads are considered holy animals, so if God sees the toad suffering in the sun, he will feel pity for it and bring rain to cool down the heat.

That day I was very surprised because I never thought God, who is said to live in the seventh sky, could see people down on earth and see a toad jumping in the sun. I also wondered how he could hear our voices, up there in the sky, and judge our song good or pitiful.

Even now, when I think about it and try to understand the reason why it rained, I can never explain it. All that I say to myself is that our parents used to have a good relationship with God, because at that time people loved one another and individualism did not prevail.

Copyright © 1998 Amadou Cisse Ic-Crimitou


Fish catch at fish farm in Niger river, Niger, 1992


Moussa Issoufou, in class writing 11/5/92

Witchcraft was an important part of our old traditional society and continues to be a part of our life. It is difficult to explain exactly what witchcraft is, but we can say that it is a supernatural way to do things.

When I say "witch" I mean a person who, it is said, can change into other forms: such as an animal, a big tree, a bird, or the wind, and can fly, making light at night. He can catch a person's soul and change it into an animal. The next day, the person whose soul was caught becomes ill.

To break these spells you have to call on spiritual forces. These spiritual forces are the gods. The main gods are called "Toru." Each family has its own god (Toru) which looks over all the members.

To get the gods to do their work the family must keep the gods' favorite animals and clothes in the compound. Bongo, the god of thunder, asks for black goats and black clothes, whereas his brother Tchiray wants red goats and red clothes.

If these things are present in a compound, and a witch dares attack one member of the family, these Toru, acting through the forces, beat the witch and he leaves the soul behind.

Once a fight between Nissa and Baleri started when Baleri said Nissa tried to use sorcery on his friend. In fact, one evening just at sunset, Nissa called a small boy named Amadou, Baleri's friend, and asked Amadou to send Baleri to him. When he was talking to Adamou, Nissa put his hand on the head of the little boy. People noticed that act. They talked a lot about it.

By chance, Adamou was taken ill the next day. The news broke out, and it was said that Nissa was a witch, and he wanted to eat the boy. The neighbors of Nissa heard, so early one morning they came and told him...

Copyright © 1998 Moussa Issoufou



Soumaila Hereban

In Benin, Voudou is a spiritual god that belongs to a specific family. It is built in the form of a small mound, and palm oil must be poured on it every morning. The Voudou's duty is to look after the family and to give them cues for what will happen in the future.

How can a family get a Voudou? This is what I remember:

The head of the family must see the Ifa-Priest to get a medicine from him. This medicine is drunk by the wife of the head of the family. This wife is then expected to give birth to a Tohossou, who is an extraordinary child. Some Tohossou have a big head and a small trunk. Some are born with teeth and laugh like adults. Anyway, the Tohossou dies a couple of hours after its birth.

Now, a ritual ceremony has to be performed. Then the Tohossou is is put into a calabash and thrown into a river.

Several weeks later, the whole family, followed by many other people, goes to the river. The "Chief" of the river will be muttering some words, while women with their faces whitened by a powder, sing and dance.

Meanwhile you can see the calabash coming slowly down the river. This calabash will float slowly along until it reaches the riverside. Then the family welcomes the new spirit god and they bring it back home.

This new spirit god is put in a special room and a sort of mound is built on it. It becomes the Voudou of the family.

Copyright © 1998 Soumaila Hereban



Boukary Dan-Bouza Rabi 11/4/92

Among the many animals we see each day there are certain ones which people respect for their own protection. These are called "totems."

The first time I became aware of this was one day in the middle of the rainy season. I went to my cousin Marie's house to visit her. That day it had rained abundantly and the street was wet and muddy. When the rain stopped we went for a short walk outside the village.

Marie and I were talking slowly on the muddy sand when suddenly we saw a big snake crawling in front of us. We were so afraid that we didn't know what to do. We began to cry, calling for help. But there was no one around the village to help us.

The snake did nothing. When we cried, it stopped crawling and looked toward us. Marie decided to kill the snake. She took a large stick and tried to hit it, but the snake refused to move.

When we came home, Marie related the story to her mother. Her mother became very angry and told her that she should not hit the snake because it is a part of the family. In other words it is their "totem." No member of the family should hit it or do anything bad to it. This snake is here to protect the family. It is not a dangerous animal, but in contrast, it is tame, and is gentle with the whole family.

Marie became very sad and apologized to her mother for the bad thing she had done. Her mother told her to go and apologize to the snake, and she did so.

When I came home I told my mother about what had happened to Marie. My mother told me that in each family there is a totem, and it is always an animal. This totem animal might be a tortoise, a cat, or a dog--or a snake. She told me that these kind of animals are here to protect people against evils and enemies and each family has its particular totem.

Copyright © 1998 Boukary Dan-Bouza Rabi

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