To insure the love of her European beau, a Guinean girl puts gris-gris in her lover’s food. A Senegalese man on mission for the UN in Conakry married a homely warehouse worker, leading to speculations that he was “marabouted”. An English “patron” in the same office won’t eat or drink anything in the office for fear that someone might try to slip her some evil potion. A star dancer in the African Ballet went crazy -- they say due to sorcery -- and now entertains people with his spacey conversations on one of the quiet islands off Conakry. Sorcery, fetishism, gris-gris, marabouting. Call it what you will, believe it or not, but magic is a thriving practice in Guinea.

I found my gris-gris, several strands of string knotted to one another, in a small pouch that someone had secretly put in a drawer in my living room. I twirled it around the wooden bust of an African woman on my bookshelf, feeling good that someone cared enough to make me the target of gris-gris. In displaying this supposedly dangerous object in such a brazen fashion, I wanted to prove my own theory, which is that magic could only possibly have power to people who believe in it.

Gris-gris comes in many forms and serves many functions. There are the string thingies moms loop around babies’ waists and pieces of leather men tie around their biceps to protect them from evil. And for better or for worse, the bitter, beloved kola nut (a traditional stimulant) chopped up into food is one of gris-gris’ most powerful forms, I’m told.

How the gris-gris is prepared is as important as its form. For example, the fetisher must spit on the string as he knots it, praying for whatever brand of good or evil he wishes upon the person targeted.

Sorcery is a simple explanation for anything gone wrong, be it bad luck or mental illness. One night a woman flipped out in the street because everyone who had come to look at her house for rent appeared interested but never came back. “It’s gris gris,” she screamed, “I know it.”

True believers in Islam are adamantly opposed to the use of gris-gris, and sometimes hurl nasty insults at fetishers practicing in the streets. Historically, great battles were fought in West Africa between the animists and Islam’s new converts, as power tipped from the former to the latter. As most converts to any religion are, these new Muslims often became zealots, admonishing the fetishers, now seen as primitive and heretic. “If you use gris-gris even once, 40 years of your prayers turn back to zero,” said Bouba, a boy not even old enough to have 20 years of anything to his name.

Yet others easily mix Islam and fetishism, praying to Allah to do bad things to their enemy through gris-gris. It doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to go from offering kola nuts in the mosque, which is a common practice, and asking Allah to run interference through a piece of knotted string.

The fetish is Africa’s Love Potion #9. My friend had a lover who put a gris-gris in his pocket and then blamed it on another girl. I joked with my own lover, asking him if he did that to me. He got very upset and finally said, “How do I know it’s not you who did that to me. When I’m at home alone I can’t seem to stop thinking about you.” I laughed and said that wasn’t gris-gris but love.

Another reason to invoke the use of gris-gris is jealousy. To this effect, it seems having a foreign friend or lover puts you at high risk for gris-gris. An American friend had her car vandalized on the eve of her departure to the States with her Guinean husband. The perpetrator had smashed all the windows and windshields, throwing bits of bloody paper and gris-gris inside. There were valuables inside left untouched, confirming it wasn’t a crime fueled by economics but emotion – sour grapes for this Guinean’s good luck.

A year after I had visited my dance teacher’s home in the suburbs, he confessed to me that someone had buried a gris-gris in front of his doorstep shortly after my visit: A locket with string wrapped around it; inside, his name, Lansana, written in Arabic. This had weighed on Lansana’s mind for a year now, worrying that I thought him rude for not inviting me to back to his place in all these months.

Eyes wide and serious, Lansana swore that he has had horrible headaches even since. “I wake up in the middle of the night and hear knocking and voices. I can’t talk or breathe and I finally force myself to scream,” he said. He told me he finally went to Boké, a town in Guinea’s Coastal region where master fetishers are known to dwell, to get treated or “washed,” as he put it.

“In the Ballets Africains jealous artists will do gris-gris on each other so they can’t even walk, let alone dance or drum,” Lansana went on to tell me. “You can’t trust people.” Seeing is believing, I replied -- there well may be purple people-eaters in China, too, but I am not going to worry about them without some proof.

But all that was before my colleague Michel got sick. Michel was an all-terrain athlete who often ate more than his fair share, so his vanished appetite and energy was quite worrisome. The UN doctor in Conakry ordered every sort of test -- malaria, hepatitis, yellow and typhoid fever – all negative.

After losing ten pounds in two weeks, finally Michel had to be Med-evacked to France for more tests and treatment. We got periodic emails from his girlfriend in Paris, saying he had been hospitalized, on the drip, not getting better… Meanwhile, the docs were still clueless about the source of his sickness, as all tests continued to turn up negative.

Our mutual friend Aaron began grilling me about the events leading up to his illness, as I had been one of the last people to see Michel in good health. Having been in Guinea for five years, Aaron knew many a story about unbelieving whites like me being slowly poisoned by their co-workers with undetectable magic killer substances. Both of our bosses at the UN, where we had worked together, claimed to know foreigners that had died in such a way.

While we could think of no one in the office who would want him dead (Michel being a rather pleasant person and not occupying a post of prestige, wealth or power), it was possible it was an act of vengeance on behalf of the fetishers. You see, Michel had published his own exposé on gris-gris, ridiculing the anti-ballistic gris-gris purchased by soldiers going into battle; the “sex thieves” that roam the markets, making the penises of unsuspecting shoppers vanish; the Ivorian who had his bangala swell up to the size of an elephant trunk for pissing on the Koran (doctored photos of the ill-fated infidel circulate in Conakry).

Michel had even gone up with Lansana to the Boké region to meet with marabouts and expose their fraud before our blindly believing friend. The marabouts told Michel they could make eggs talk -- for 1 million Guinean francs (roughly $300 US), plus wine. Michel counter-offered with 5,000 Guinean francs ($1.50), plus wine. The marabouts scoffed at his price, though they did drink the wine, not bothering to offer any tricks in return. Lansana went home disillusioned, as he had been sure that he was going to prove to Michel the magic was real.

The doctors finally determined that Michel had a very bad case of mononucleosis. A month later, Michel was back sprinting with me in the park, no permanent damage done. This didn’t rule out gris-gris, however. Master marabouts can mimic other diseases so their work goes undetected… or perhaps it was a local beauty whose magic charms led Michel to catch mono – better known by its colloquial name, the kissing disease.

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