Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sorcery and the Black Sow

A quick note before we begin: Blogspot is screwing with me, and I haven’t been able to respond to any comments posted here lately. It isn’t that I don’t love you. I do. I’m working on the problem. With that said, let’s move on to talk about something not really related to writing.

Not long ago I was witness to an incident that 99.5% of the people who live in my town would call sorcery. It’s hard for me to buy into the idea of sorcery, not only because of the spiritual connotations it has here but because, well, I’m an American. I have a background in the sciences, and I’m married to a scientist. I like science. When I see an event like what I saw that day, I tend to think, “Bad luck.” But everyone here would tell me differently, and it’s enough to make me wonder if I need to be more open-minded.

Let me set the scene. I was sitting on a wooden bench on the porch of an abandoned building right next to the major road passing through town. I was with eight other people, all of them Togolese, all of them professionals. We were discussing the work schedule for the NGO we’re all associated with for the upcoming year. Over on the road, where the shoulder would be if such a thing existed on roads here, a black sow walked by.

Here’s a little bit of background: black is the color associated with sorcery in my part of Togo, when referencing an animal. Black animals are what sorcerers prefer to possess when they have mischief to make, and because of that you can’t bring a black animal into the market or other very public places. It’s considered bad luck and tempting fate. We have a black dog, and the few times we tried taking him to the market, back when we were still naïve in the ways of Togo, the dirty looks and the shouting were enough to drive the point home that, if something bad happened, not only would our dog be blamed but we would be too. We hightailed it out of there tout suite.

The black sow that walked by was enormous by local standards. Her back probably came up to my mid-thigh, and she was utterly black, not white-footed or splotched or spotty or even dirty. Perfectly black. A very noisy moto raced by on the road next to her, and the sow startled and began to trot across the road to the other side. The moto that had been tailing the noisy one didn’t swerve in time and ran smack into the side of the sow. There was a crash, the moto tipped and slid along the pavement and the sow was knocked prone. She squealed and kicked so hard she rotated herself in a circle, but she clearly had internal injuries and died shortly after.

The man on the moto, who wasn’t wearing a helmet (because who apart from Peace Corps volunteers does that here? No one!), was prone on the ground. I got up to go over and see if there was anything I could do, but my homologue grabbed my arm and hauled me back onto the bench. “You don’t need to go over there,” she told me firmly. “There are plenty of people to help without you getting involved.” And there were plenty of people crowding around the man to give him assistance, but no one touched the sow.

Everyone I was sitting with was muttering darkly about “le porc noir” to each other. When the man stood up and was taken away to the hospital, they all were very relieved. The crowd dispersed, but still no one touched the body of the sow.

The road on which the sow died is part of the major road that runs the length of Togo. It’s the only real road in this country, period. The only paved road outside the capitol. The only road for commercial trucks to make their way on. This pig was lying in the middle of it, and no one would move her. Even the huge trucks just went around without hanging on their horns, which was amazing. Finally I turned to my homologue and asked, “Shouldn’t we move the body?”

“Oh no,” she told me. “If we move the pig, it’s as good as a confession and we’ll have to pay that man’s hospital bills.”

“But why?”

“Because the pig was put there by sorcery. Someone cursed that man. It’s a good thing the pig died, because otherwise the man would have had to kill it.”

“You never see black pigs like that in town anymore,” another person spoke up. “Only in little villages, or at night. That was a curse, for sure.” Everyone nodded.

Right then it started to rain, hard, and so we moved our benches inside the abandoned building and finished out meeting inside. When we reemerged, the pig had been pulled to the side of the road, but still no one claimed the body. It was a lot of meat to just go to waste, but no one wanted to touch it because of the sorcerous taint.

In the States, firstly, I’d keep my livestock off of the road, but secondly, if someone ran over my pig, I’d expect them to pay me for it. If it caused them to fall off their motorcycle, well, then we might both get lawyers. Here, nothing is tied down except during planting season to keep the animals from destroying the young crops, and if you run something over, meh. You keep going. My husband and I, in our two years here, have been in cars that have hit chickens, goats (two at once), a pig, a monitor lizard (that was especially sad) and a cow. Yeah, a cow. The cow kept walking, but none of the other animals did. Do I think those animals were put in front of us deliberately? No.

My opinion about this incident, that it was a dumb accident, was the tiny minority. Everyone else knew it was sorcery and accepted the fact. Christian, Muslim or animist: it didn’t matter. It was sorcery. Their opinions were so steadfast that it made me stop and think about some of the things I take for granted, way deep down inside. Just because I don’t believe in it doesn’t mean sorcery doesn’t happen. My beliefs aren’t ruling the world. I’m not the center of the universe. Solipsism bubble, consider yourself popped.

Next time, back to our regularly scheduled posting.

1 comment:

  1. It's spooky that rain came at the right time for the 'sorcerer' to move the pig unseen. I struggle to keep a straight face when Icelanders tell me, another American living abroad, 'true' ghost and elf stories. But when the occult explanation is true to them, no amount of rational explanation will suffice. It's never easy to put the shoe on the other foot and accept beliefs another person considers basic. However, I can't deny that I've met people more sensitive to things I wouldn't have imagined without experiencing it for myself. Maybe that's why I stopped practicing science.