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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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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.