Marc swiped his finger across a shelf and gamely stuck his finger in his mouth. “Yep, salt,” he said.
After moving my mother to an assisted living, I was packing up the remaining possessions in her apartment, including my parents’ African art collection.
I’d first noticed the salt in a closet where the overflow of masks, statues, carved wooden utensils, and other objects were kept. They had bought them in Côte d’Ivoire and surrounding countries in the late 1960s, when we lived in Abidjan, then the capital. My father, a Foreign Service officer, was posted there. It wasn’t hard to guess who had done the sprinkling. The ladies who looked after my mother were all from West and Central Africa. To someone, these objects, which my parents collected for their beauty or cultural interest, must have had a spiritual significance.
For some of the objects, the functions and meanings are obvious; for others, inscrutable. An ebony woman’s head bearing two small men hoisting a coffin is a funerary mask. Little stirrup-shaped objects topped with carved heads are pulleys that suspend the warp of a frameless loom. But what do the heads signify? I don’t remember my mother, a weaver herself, explaining, but, as a young teen, I may not have been listening. An insurance appraisal gives a few clues. A wooden Senoufo tribal statue of a crocodile-headed man conceals a wax plug, a “magic” fetish. A blue and orange mask (N’Gere) bristling with tusks and raffia was used in the Poro secret society rites that initiate young men into manhood. But these cryptic notes don’t convey their impact on people who believe in their power. According to the Oxford University Press’s Anthropology: What Does It Mean to Be Human website, Poro members don masks and perform in public, impersonating important supernatural figures. Only initiates know that they are not real. (To a non-believer like me, that kind of bifurcation of disbelief is unfathomable.) I remember lanky, long-robed traders with their ritually scarred cheeks spreading these things out on our living room rug. They came by every few months. My father took them to the museum for authentication before he paid. He never bought tourist pieces—what we called “airport art.” We displayed them in Abidjan. I don’t recall our cook salting anything but the food, though he and our houseboy (as they were called) had had encounters with witchcraft. Our houseboy’s wife was murdered—bewitched, poisoned–by a rival. I was in the kitchen when the message arrived. He threw himself on the tile floor.
How had such potent stuff come to be for sale so readily? I asked Kevin D. Dumouchelle, assistant curator of the Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands at the Brooklyn Museum, which has over six thousand objects in its African collections, about the question of provenance. “One explanation is the abandonment of older practices through the spread of Islam and Christianity,” he said. “People might feel free to sell or destroy these artifacts.Another is that ritual objects are thought of as having a life cycle themselves and replaced. At that point, selling an older mask would be acceptable.” That made me feel better for my dad, who wouldn’t have knowingly bought looted materials. But it didn’t completely reassure me. Money trumps fear of ghosts if you’re hungry enough.
Before I moved my mother, I asked her night caregiver about the salt. She claimed not to have noticed it, but agreed with my hypothesis. “I am a Christian, they can’t hurt me,” she said, “but these people”—she waved a hand abstractly indicating my mom’s other, absent caregivers —“they definitely believe in all that.”
I made a few small attempts to research the use of salt in African witchcraft, but nothing relevant turned up. What did the salt sprinkler intend? To protect herself? To cast her own spell? To soothe my father’s spirit? After he died, my mother became a recluse. This bland, Chevy Chase high-rise apartment was the last place they’d lived together in their 56-year marriage. She’d made it my father’s mausoleum. Maybe her pain, tangible to anyone who spent time in the apartment, had deprived him of peace in the afterlife.
On the wall, next to a New York Daily News story about his mother graduating from a senior citizen’s college program (“She’s A Graduate at 92!”), my father had hung a small Dan mask covered in ancient grey monkey fur. It has tin-lined holes for eyes and red cloth around the mouth hole. This piece merited precautions, if any did.
I tried to find out its significance, but found nothing comparable on various websites or in books I consulted on African art or the Brooklyn Museum’s African collection. The best I could glean was on the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art website, which says that all Dan masks are linked to a forest or household spirit. Round-eyed ones are considered male and associated with communal activities such as fire prevention.
As I catalogued and photographed the pieces on the walls and in the closet, I felt both the resonance of memory and an emptiness. My three years in Côte d’Ivoire from age thirteen to sixteen set the course of my life and work as a journalist and writer. I became bilingual. A white kid, I experienced being in a racial minority (though a wealthy one, which changes everything); a different way of learning; life in a “one-party democracy.” My deepest interests–in cultures, travel, language, and writing—emerged there. In fiction, I come back repeatedly to Africa. Yet, a recurring theme is how little I understood about the people around me, how difficult it was to break through the racial, economic, and cultural boundaries.
Last summer, I met the writer Philip Graham and discovered that he and his wife, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, had also lived in Côte d’Ivoire, but in almost opposite conditions. In 1979-80, 1985, and 1993, Graham and Gottlieb lived in two villages in Central Côte d’Ivoire, documenting the culture and language of the Beng, a secluded ethnic group of about 12,000 whose ways had never been studied.
Their second memoir, Braided Worlds, published in September 2012, is a sequel to the 1993 Parallel Worlds, winner of the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing. Parallel Worlds chronicled their first stay in remote Kosangbé, an experience that left them feeling that the cultural gaps between them and the Beng were unbridgeable. Braided Worlds is a reconsideration. Having left and returned several times, they found their ties to the Beng were deeper than they realized. Their efforts to understand the Beng had changed them, even influencing the way they raised their son, Nathaniel. They had touched the Beng more than they knew. Nathaniel, six when he met the Beng, was deemed the reincarnation of a clan founder, N’zri Denju. Another family entrusted their son, Bertin Kouadio, to Graham and Gottlieb, so he could attend the University of Illinois. Kouadio is now a professor at an American college.
In both books, they alternate points of view. What make their accounts extraordinary are not only the intimate portrayals of a culture and its members, but the authors’ honesty in assessing their role. Yes, they documented a culture—with fortuitous timing. The Ivoirian civil war devastated the Beng region a few years after their last visit. But, would I, or my neighbors, welcome an African researcher who landed on our doorsteps, pen and camera in hand, to record the mysterious ways of Brooklynites? (I might after reading this book.)
The Beng attribute much of what happens to them to witchcraft, ancestors, and spirits, though they accept Western technology and medical care. (One role Graham and Gottlieb assumed was first-aid and ambulance service.) Placating the spirits requires animal sacrifices and rituals. Relative to other Ivoirian ethnic groups such as the much-studied Senoufo or Baoulé, the Beng make and use few masks and statues and keep them hidden. Their spiritual constructs and narratives, says Graham, are their great cultural wealth. Graham’s remark resonated in an unexpected way. Eventually, my brother and I will sell most if not all of our parents’ African art. The experiences and memories that generate stories will become—already are, in a sense–more substantial to me than these artifacts.
Graham, struggling to write his own narratives—fiction—while living among the Beng, consulted a diviner for writer’s block. After he’d placed his unfinished manuscript and a book of his poems on an animal skin, she inspected a bowl of black pebbles in milky water and pronounced the culprit a jealous writer from home. She prescribed a public sacrifice of a chicken and goat, to which he agreed, feeling “a bit of a fraud.” “[W]hat I sought wasn’t so much spiritual guidance as social acceptance,” he writes. Graham did eventually overcome his writer’s block, producing stories that drew on the notion of the invisible in culture, though not set in Bengland . Did sacrifice undo malice? Or did taking action, however symbolic, relieve stress?
Not all Beng beliefs could be so easily accommodated. The most riveting and troubling aspect of both books is the way the couple came to terms with the Beng beliefs and practices—antithetical as they are to Western notions of reality. Some put Graham and Gottlieb in a terrible moral bind, such as the clan-organized rape to make a bride who’d been married against her will have sex with her husband, described in Parallel Worlds. The justification, which the woman nominally, at least, accepted, was that spirits had possessed her.
Seeing the screaming, writhing woman tied to a bed, Gottlieb and her husband debated whether to drive to the police in the nearest town, but they ultimately decided the police wouldn’t intervene. The young woman might not appreciate their interference. Later, Gottlieb confides her suspicion that her decision “was motivated more by fear than ethics: denouncing the villagers might well have ended my fieldwork, an extreme price I wasn’t willing to pay.” The marriage, they report in Braided Worlds, was “steeped in misery.” Would intervention have helped or subjected the woman to vengeance? One senses that the question still troubles Gottlieb.
Yet the métissage of French and African cultures seemed harder for Graham and Gottlieb to accept than the supernatural. They worried that exposure to French education and Western riches, including objects they brought to the village, was driving young Beng men literally mad. One man, who called himself “le premier ministre,” threatened a woman with scissors, and showed signs of targeting Nathaniel, had to be taken to an insane asylum. He wasn’t the only one afflicted.
Here Gottlieb and Graham’s narrative moves into familiar territory. In Abidjan, where we lived, a thick overlay of French culture masked the tribal world. This was more than a colonial legacy. It was government policy. I went to a public girls’ school founded by French nuns to create a cadre of educated Ivoirian women. We studied Racine, Molière, and Corneille. My classmates, like Bertin Kouadio, were stars of village schools. I remember bringing Ivoirian friends home and seeing them stunned by our house. I had no idea how to bridge such chasms. Gottlieb and Graham found many expatriates’ attitudes troubling, though they made some dear friends, including a family that was close to mine, whom I discovered in these pages.
In one respect, I resembled my Ivoirian schoolmates. I was not French. The school accomplished its goal with me. It provided a solid, old-fashioned grounding in French culture and the language. To this day, I can recite poems and monologues from classic plays. I am eternally grateful. Thanks to that experience, I know what it is to be between two cultures, though not the way my African classmates were. My father was Viennese, a refugee from the Nazis. Instead of distancing me from my culture, this traditional European education connected me to a severed part of my family.
I’ve long wanted to go back to Côte d’Ivoire, track down girls I went to school with, and write about out how they fared. Personal circumstances and the violence that erupted after the death of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the long-time president in 1993 have made such a project unfeasible. Perhaps it will be possible in a few years.
Like many people who have lived in other countries for long periods, I have a certain vanity about the authenticity and legitimacy of my understanding of that place. Reading Braided Worlds and Parallel Worlds reminds us how much we miss and to keep trying to understand what was masked, even after we come home.
For more on the Beng views of the powers of their sculptures, please see Philip Graham’s article “The Spirit in the Statues,” things, Summer, 2001.
Julia Lichtblau’s writing is forthcoming in The Florida Review and has been published in Best Paris Stories, Temenos, Ploughshares blog, Narrative, Pindeldyboz, and Tertulia.