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Monday 11 June 2012

The Unholy Power

All around us the celebrants at Kokuzan seemed to push the limits of pain: A woman splashed sand into opened eyes, a man cut his belly with shards of glass but did not bleed, another swallowed fire.
     This was a description by a writer for National Geographic (August 1995, p 111) of a voodoo ceremony in Togo, West Africa. But I wish more details had been provided of the second incident. If it means that he cut an open wound in his belly with a shard of glass, then the failure to bleed would not be exceptional. The power of the mind over the flesh during altered states of consciousness is well established. It would be expected that the blood would return once the trance ended. However, if it meant that the glass was unable to pierce his skin, that would be something quite different. In any case, it reminded me of an extraordinary story I had come across by accident some years before.
     Rummaging through a jumble sale, I discovered a small (112 pages) paperback entitled, Swords in the Desert. It is now probably quite rare; I think your chances of finding it outside of the Library of Congress very remote, for it was published in 1944 by The Wilson Press for the Sudan Interior Mission. (It can now be downloaded here.) One of their missionaries in northern Nigeria, Raymond J. Davis, wrote the book, referring to himself in the third person, under his Hausa name of Mai-nasara. (The second element in the name is obviously the Islamic term for Christian.)
    The Hausa are the largest tribe in northern Nigeria, and officially Muslims, the bulk of the population having been forcibly converted two hundred years ago by Usman dan Fodio's jihad. However, that does not mean there are not still followers of far older and darker traditions. Including in these is a belief in magic to make one impervious to metal weapons. Of course, Davis assumed this was just a matter of sleight of hand but, nevertheless, he went out one evening to witness the performance. From the edge of a large crowd, he watched as sweating dancers in loin cloths cavorted about to the frenzied beating  of drums.
    Then Mahaukachi, a stalwart young fellow, perhaps twenty years of age, who had often worked for Mai-nasara, dashed into the center of the ring. His body trembled and shook. His eyes wore a glassy stare. Drawing a sharp dagger-like knife from his belt, with a scream as if to curdle one's blood, [he] struck his body with the sharp point. The tip turned and buckled, never even piercing the skin. Striking himself again madly, the knife blade fell to the ground, broken in two pieces. The crowd of men and women went wild with delirious excitement, jumping up and down. Many brought gifts of money and kola nuts as Mahaukachi lay, prostrated with exhaustion, on the ground.
    A bit later, an old man sat in the open square. Taking a sharp axe in one hand, and a bundle of grass in the other, he laid the grass across his shin bone. Chopping the grass with short, swift blows, the axe fell across his leg each time without apparent damage to himself. At times these men are able to take a knife, and, biting it with their teeth, break off small half-inch pieces with a snap, as of some dry stick of wood.
    About a month later, the missionary visited Mahaukauchi at home, and brought the conversation around to the incident. Mahaukachi then produced the broken knife which, to all intents and purposes, seemed a perfectly normal knife. This led Rev. Davis to beg his friend repeatedly to tell him how it was done. At last, there came the reluctant explanation.
    "Mai-nasara, you are my friend. If I tell you the secret of this strange power, you must promise never to tell another black man. We do not tell our own people, for that would break the spell. This strange power is passed down from one generation to the next by those who possess it. At a certain time of the year, and with the moon in a certain phase, we go out into the very wildest part of the bush in the dead of night. It is a fearful place, and except that we take out charms and fetishes with us, we would never return alive to our homes."
     "What sort of charms are these, Mahaukachi, and where do you get them?" asked Mai-nasara.
     "Certain of the mullahs make them for us," continued Mahaukachi. "Reaching this place in complete silence, we sacrifice a white chicken, and, chanting several words, smear our bodies and our knives with the blood. We drink a potion made by a secret prescription. Then we return home before daylight, and, as you saw yourself, our bodies are toughened to turn iron."
     "But, Mahaukachi, when you go to this place, and go through these rites, are you conscious of the presence of spirits or unseen thing?" interrogated Mai-nasara, anxiously.
     "Yes, I may as well tell you, this power is not of God. It is the power of Shaitan (Satan). When through the drumming and singing of certain songs, our bodies are possessed of these spirits, it is only at such times that we can perform these acts. Sometimes we are unable to stand and must be held up by others. I have spoken the truth."
    Somehow, that last paragraph has the ring of truth. Northern Nigeria is a long way from Togo, but the essence of voodoo is the possession of the shamans by the voodoo gods. And in this case, the dancer's demeanour - the glassy stare, the trembling, the exhaustion - is consistent with an altered state of consciousness. And it does not sound like it comes from God.
     One of these days the world will be fully civilised, and people will forget, or refuse to believe, that such things ever took place.

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