A dark alley in Dakar lit by the high beams of a passing car, near the house of the marabout.

A dark alley in Dakar lit by the high beams of a passing car, near the house of the marabout.

The dusty alleys of Dakar are almost empty at dusk. People rush home like fast shadows before the evil spirits come out at night. The city, lit by a timid moonlight, feels timeless. A common refrain here is, “During the day you’ll see Islam, but at night you’ll find Voodoo.” In predominantly Muslim Senegal, Voodoo is widespread, condemned by the Qu’ran but practiced in secret by many people. While they praise Allah everyday, many also believe in the power of black magic, potions, spells and charms.

A boy points at the house of the marabout, a Voodoo spiritual guide.

A boy points at the house of the marabout, a Voodoo spiritual guide.

But almost no one in Senegal would openly admit that he or she practices Voodoo. When asked directions for the house of the marabout (spiritual teacher), no one in the immediate neighborhood seems to know who he is or where he lives. A boy points at the wooden door of a small house hidden in the dark. The stairwell is tight and dark, and animal carcasses lay piled up in a room of the priest’s house. Pieces of chickens, monkeys, lions and snakes, together with fruit, hair and nuts are used to make amulets, charms and fetishes (Voodoo talismans) to protect devotees from the wrath of the gods. The more carcasses a marabout has, the more power he gets. The priest, a tough man from Ghana with magnetic black eyes, is sitting on a mattress on the floor of the living room with a big knife in his hands.

An aerial view of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, where ninety-two percent of the population is Muslim.

An aerial view of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, where ninety-two percent of the population is Muslim.
A dark and tight stairwell leads up to the house of the marabout in the back alleys of Dakar.

A dark and tight stairwell leads up to the house of the marabout in the back alleys of Dakar.
The marabout's assistant gets the knife and other tools ready for the sacrifice before the beginning of the ceremony.

The marabout’s assistant gets the knife and other tools ready for the sacrifice before the beginning of the ceremony.
A small goat, tied up with a rope near the marabout’s house, awaits sacrifice.

A small goat, tied up with a rope near the marabout’s house, awaits sacrifice.
Leftovers of sacrificed animals and carcasses piled up in a room of the marabout's house.

Leftovers of sacrificed animals and carcasses piled up in a room of the marabout’s house.

Marabouts, also known as Sufi murshids (guides), are leaders of religious communities in West Africa and the Maghreb. They act as intermediaries between God and the devotees. Some are strictly Muslim, imams themselves even; others are simply travelling holy men performing Voodoo rites and surviving on alms. Hailed as if they were saints, they write amulets and talismans using Qu’ranic scripts, numerology and astrology. Sihr involves performing black magic, and the practice is generally condemned by orthodox Muslims as pagan or pre-Islamic. But in Senegal it has given birth to a different kind of Islam, where syncretism and local traditions prevail over orthodoxy.

A man comes to the priest, praying with the marabout before the rite.

A man comes to the priest, praying with the marabout before the rite.
Two women near the house of the priest. When asked directions for the marabout they denied knowing him.

Two women near the house of the priest. When asked directions for the marabout they denied knowing him.

A man who came to the priest for a wish to be granted sits next to the marabout and his pupils. They have just killed a chicken as sacrifice to the goddess Mawu. Sitting in a circle, with their open hands pointing to the sky, they start reciting Qu’ranic verses with chanting voices. The murshid, wrapped in his long tunic — the dress he uses to perform Voodoo — spreads handfuls of sand on the wooden floor. Then, with a solemn move, he takes the knife, wounds his tongue with deep cuts and spits the blood on the sand. The man keeps on staring at him, amazed, his eyes wide open.

People do believe in Allah, but when the time comes for a wish, a spell, or simply guidance, Voodoo is the answer.

The tunic the marabout uses to perform Voodoo rites hangs in a room of the house.

The tunic the marabout uses to perform Voodoo rites hangs in a room of the house.
A girl in the house of the marabout. Children are bound to carry a small piece of charcoal with them for protection.

A girl in the house of the marabout. Children are bound to carry a small piece of charcoal with them for protection.
Two men walking in the neighborhood where the marabout lives.

Two men walking in the neighborhood where the marabout lives.

Like an oracle, speaking as an intermediary of the divine, the marabout starts to write in the sand, confusing letters and random symbols with his finger. He stirs the sand and the blood, folds a simple envelope from a paper sheet, puts a handful of the brown mixture into it and hands it to the man. At the end of the ceremony, he composes a shopping list for the man to buy at the fetish market and bring back to him; he will use them to make an amulet. Then they all stand up and the man puts a big, crumpled note in the hands of the marabout. The next client steps in.

A seller holds a monkey paw in the fetish market of Dakar.

A seller holds a monkey paw in the fetish market of Dakar.
The marabout etches symbols and letters in the sand.

The marabout etches symbols and letters in the sand.
A marabout cuts his tongue as a demonstration of his power and magic.

A marabout cuts his tongue as a demonstration of his power and magic.
A chair outside the marabout’s house, where clients wait for their turn to meet the priest.

A chair outside the marabout’s house, where clients wait for their turn to meet the priest.

Being a marabout is a job like many others. Most of the time their power is real, palpable, like a natural gift. Other times, it is only a matter of business.

A dark and empty street in Dakar.

A dark and empty street in Dakar.

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Paolo Ciregia is an Italian freelance photographer. Since 2012 he has been working on a long-term project about the Ukrainian crisis.

Maria Tavernini is an Italian freelance journalist, writer and sailor, currently based in New Delhi.