Magazine

The traditional mystics going online

Marabout1 on Skype

West Africa's marabouts, or spiritual guides, have advised their followers for centuries. And far from being at odds with the modern world, they are adapting and thriving in the 21st Century, says Jane Labous.

I had expected the marabout to look the part - a wizard's beard, perhaps, or unusual eyes. But Cherif was singularly normal, light-skinned, smooth-chinned and spry. He wore a grey Mauritanian djellaba and reclined in bed under a wax-printed cloth in an otherwise scruffy bedroom in Ngor, Senegal.

My husband and I were in search of good luck for a visa application. We handed the folder of documents to Cherif, who held it reverently as he murmured an assortment of prayers. Afterwards, handing over 20,000 CFA (£22, $32), I wondered if anything had changed.

My husband grew up in the sun-drenched fishing district of Ngor in Dakar, and like most locals, turns to his marabout for spiritual guidance, advice, support and hope. Since the age of 18 he has consulted Cherif, a peripatetic marabout so in demand that he divides his time between southern Mauritania and Ngor.

Image caption Jane's husband wearing his gris-gris

There are hundreds of marabouts in Senegal. Just as an American might consult a psychotherapist, a British person might see a counsellor or an Indian might hotfoot it to his guru, the mentors of choice for any self-respecting Senegalese are these mystic Muslim holy men. They specialise in spiritual guidance, health solutions, luck, magic and fortune-telling. Whatever your problem, whether it's money or marriage difficulties, false friends, work troubles or infertility, your marabout has a charm fit for the purpose.

Last week, my mother-in-law rang with alarming news. The family house had been maraboute - literally, "maraboued" - a hybrid verb I fancy is rarely used beyond francophone West Africa. Someone had left an egg outside the front door, a bad omen if ever there was one, and she was obliged to rush to her own marabout for a counter-charm. Unfortunately, if you live in Ngor and you suffer from jealousy or ill temper, you can marabout the object of your resentment.

On days out, while travelling or during marital arguments, my husband ties several gris-gris around his waist. Gris-gris are amulets worn on the body to protect from evil, bad words and accidents. My husband's are made bespoke by Cherif out of lion hide from Mali and crocodile skin from the River Niger. One contains prayers stitched into a tiny leather parcel and attached to a cord buttoned with a cowrie shell.

Gris-gris are worn by everyone from wrestlers to soldiers to housewives, and can feature anything from monkey to snake to mouse. Now, whenever I travel, I put my doubts aside and wear my husband's lion gris-gris around my waist for protection.

Image caption Good luck gris-gris arrive through the post

In the past, Cherif has prayed for our success at work and my deliverance from an unkind boss. When the boss in question handed in her resignation it was, to say the least, unnerving, and since then I've overcome some of my scepticism. Now, after three recurrent miscarriages, why not entertain the possibility that a marabout might help?

All the best marabouts are on Skype these days, and Cherif is no exception. Via Skype from our current home in Dorset on the south coast of the UK, my husband and I call Cherif every week for updates on our fertility treatment. The morning post brings envelopes plastered with pink and green Senegalese stamps containing gris-gris and miniscule notes elegantly encrypted with Arabic prayers. My husband spends hours boiling them in water with ginger and honey according to the handwritten instructions.

Image caption More gris-gris land on the doorstep and are then worn by Labous's husband

My mother-in-law is, as you would expect, on the case. She rings with news of a fertility marabout advertising on Senegal TV, and we call the hotline from the UK. A crackling voice at the other end informs us in French that the minimum fee would be two million CFA - more than £2,000 ($2,950). Now that marabouts are marketing themselves, it seems prices are rising.

Her latest find is a lady marabout who charges a deposit of 40,000 CFA (£44, $64), plus a final payment if we successfully have a child. It seems an affordable leap of faith. Last week another large brown envelope dropped through the letterbox full of mysterious paper packets, all lightly sprinkled with sand. After a Skype call for instructions, I'm told to take un bain - a fertility bath - using the contents of the packets - magical bath salts, if you will.

Now, I've never explored anything much more alternative than yoga, but I find it strangely comforting that we have two marabouts on the case. At least I'll have tried all possibilities. And let's face it, if ever I find an egg outside our door, I'll know exactly who to call.

Image caption A Senegalese wrestler displays his gris-gris

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 and Thursdays at 11:02 GMT

Listen online or download the podcast.

BBC World Service: At weekends - see World Service programme schedule or listen online.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics