Book Review : An Apprentice of Sorcery and the True Nature of Man

In Sorcery’s Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship Among the Songhay of Niger by Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes (University of Chicago Press: $19.95; 254 pages)

Paul Stoller went to Africa first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as an anthropologist, and finally as a sorcerer’s apprentice. To hear him tell it, Stoller was marked, quite literally, as a candidate for the study of sorcery when two birds colonized his mud-brick hut in the remote village where he had come to study the folkways of the Songhay. “I co-existed with my conquerors until that day in February when, in the presence of a farmer named Djibo Mounmouni, one, perhaps both, of the birds (defecated) on my head,” Stoller recalls.

“Today I have seen a sign,” said Djibo, who revealed himself to be a sorko, a Songhay magician-healer. “I want you to learn to be a sorko.”

On this ironic and comical note, Stoller and Cheryl Olkes (his wife and fellow fieldworker) begin the story of Stoller’s initiation into the arcane secrets of tribal magic among the Songhay of the Niger River. By the end of his tale, Stoller is persuaded that he has acquired the ability to inflict paralysis through the casting of spells, and to divert the death-curses of rival sorcerers to other victims. But even if the reader is not quite so convinced, “In Sorcery’s Shadow” is also offered as an “ethnographic memoir” that captures the special kind of magic that the back country of contemporary Africa worked on the imagination of an earnest young social scientist who came to study the Songhay and ended up falling in love with them.


Like Father and Son

“When we shared food from the same bowl and slept in the spirit hut,” he writes of his principal informant, a 103-year-old sorcerer named Adamu Jenitongo, “we became father and son.”

The manifestations of sorcery which Stoller describes are mostly ambiguous, oblique, dreamlike--the sounds of a phantom creature in the night, an episode of transitory paralysis which might well be psychosomatic if not wholly coincidental, a particularly violent attack of intestinal distress. (With all the powders and potions that Stoller imbibes so eagerly at the suggestion of his various tutors, he should not be surprised!) Still, Stoller treats the magic which he learned as a powerful and dangerous secret.

Stoller and Olkes are wonderful writers, and their prose--so vivid and yet so graceful--occasionally achieves the quality of poetry: “Afternoon had crept into dusk in Mehenna . . . Soft monotonous thumping reported that Songhay women were pulverizing dried peppers, leaves and roots with their pestles to make zesty evening sauces . . . Like the people of Mehenna, had I not withstood another day when the sun had blistered the countryside and its inhabitants? Frequently, dusk brought a smile of victory to my face.”


Stoller is enough of a scientist to confess his errors of interpretation and to point out the flaws in his data. (Indeed, he announces that all 179 respondents to his very first anthropological survey lied to him!) Djibo, his first tutor, turns out to be more concerned with “money talk” than magic, and Idrissa, another confidant, attempts to exploit Stoller’s credulity to extract money from him--Idrissa reports that a spirit called Cirey had possessed a medium in order to demand that Stoller turn over $200 to Idrissa for the purchase of a new costume. Even then, Stoller doubts Idrissa’s sincerity but not the authenticity of Songhay spirit-possession:

“My heart cracked,” he recalls. “I knew that spirits like Cirey never possessed their mediums after sunset, especially on days other than Thursday--the day of the spirits. Idrissa was lying and would no doubt pocket the money himself.”

‘Face to Face With Reality’

Stoller allows that “ethnographers can go too far. They can pursue the other’s reality too hotly, crossing a line that brings them face to face with a violent reality that is no mere epistemological exercise.”


Still, he clearly regrets nothing about his studies in Songhay sorcery: “Sorcery is a metaphor for the chaos that constitutes social relations--Songhay and otherwise,” Stoller and Olkes conclude.