Fate as told by an African Witch to William Seabrook.
This is not an easy descent into history. There are witch doctors, cannibals, murders, deep dark jungles, ritual magic and racism. This is Africa in the midst of massive changes. Tribes that lived the same way for thousands of years suddenly find themselves on a global platform and western seekers appear on their doorsteps trying to exploit, study, and objectify their way of life. What appears here is an unlikely hero, a woman named Wamba who balances the madness and leaves us with a profound way of seeing Fate.
When others ask what it is that drives me away from the asphalt, draws me toward deserts and jungles, I answer so sensibly, with fine, fair, honest words, which sound so well: love of travel, desire to see a strange thing, to learn more, perhaps, of savage customs, a sincere liking for primitive people — William Seabrook
The Proto-New-Journalist William Seabrook was hunting for Cannibals deep in the African Jungle around 1929. He was a rational, wealthy, educated but superstitious man, who seemed to revel in the fringe and taboo. Seabrook wrote about Wamba on three occasions, in his book “Jungle ways” published in 1930, in his 1941 book “Witchcraft” and a short article for Hearst Publishing about an African Rain Queen. It is mentioned in that article that Wamba claimed to have descended from a different “Rain Queen”, a position among the tribal peoples of West Africa that contained much local respect. A “dowser” or “rain-maker” is a typical magical being known across the world from China, Europe, and back to the small “County” positions that once operated the American landscape. In that sense we can begin to understand that Wamba was one of these highly specialized magical practitioners who traveled her continent performing miracles and aiding odd Western men in search of Magical and Cannibals.
But Wamba believes differently. She believes that Fate, though written, projects itself into the future not as a straight line but fan-shaped, in myriad alternate paths multiplying to infinity. She conveyed this difficult concept of fan-shaped destiny by an ingenious analogy. I am walking in an unknown forest. There are as many directions to walk as there are points of the compass. I know nothing of what awaits me in any direction, but in all directions Fate awaits me, things already written in the sense that they exist already, and are there inevitable, but alternate, depending on the path I take. …… All these things are written fan shaped in the future. And all are true potentials.
It is this strange discussion that seemed to haunt William Seabrook for the rest of his life. Wamba and Seabrook often debated about the nature of Magic and the Supernatural, as they travel hundreds of miles together into unknown African Jungle. He documents several of her magical miracles he witnessed but it is the way she describes Fate that shook him up. Wamba called it the “fan shaped destiny”, an idea that centers on travel through “the jungle” we all live in metaphorically, as well as the literal jungle in which she thrives. Fate with it’s myriad of paths, with all the outcomes and dangers, that these paths exist in a sort of “multi-dimensional” fan from a single point of origin. This concept is indeed very much ahead of it’s time. Seabrook would document this conversation and obsess over it’s meaning with his own personal explorations into “the Fetish”. A Fetish is a West African object with magical powers, sometimes describing the act of magic itself. Why this is relevant to anyone, lies in your personal ability to see the multiverse of quantum entanglement and realize that Wamba explained something profound with her unique Magical eyes. This is why we must examine this written record to discover what other the pearls lie within.
William Seabrook had a sort of circus-type madness flair wherever he went. With an entourage of porters, hammocks, his wife Katie, a massive Bugler, drummers, suitcases, and long marches up and down the Ivory Coast, Seabrook’s crew cast quite a scene. A wise old witch-doctor named Diagbe had guided him to early on to safe places, taught him how satisfy the “the river spirits” with offerings, how to say incantations over sacred places, and drove a superstitious angle to Seabrook’s journey to find the Cannibals in the inner hidden realms of the Continent. Yet Seabrook wanted to go deeper into the bush and needed a mobile magical guide.
As for me, I was back again at Dananae, seated again on a mat in the Diagbe’s hut, with his masks and skulls grinning down on us as we palavered far into the night, Mori had rejoined me, and we were planning a longer trail excursion, perhaps into Liberia. I was trying to persuade the Diagbe himself to accompany us. He was protesting that he was too old and feeble. I was disappointed, for experience had convinced me that my only hope of penetrating deeper beneath surface things lay in travelling sponsored by the actual presence of someone who had intimate, authoritative contact with the depths.
Diagbe had a plan, his younger cousin might be willing to travel with the strange white man… if the Fetish was willing. A Fetish is a charm or hand-made object that was worn by West African people for protection or magical power. It was also a European term used to analyse what was perceived as superstitious magical behavior. It had been adopted by African medicine practitioners who spoke with the Anthropologists and the Western curious minds about the ways of the Fetish. Seabrook was different somehow, he had a reputation among the Haitians and West Africans as a “black man with a white face”. He had a curious way of getting deep into the rites, and rolling with tides of the “jungles ways” that was most unusual for a white man. He wanted to shake the western notion of the “savage” or backwards tribal methods, and see the beautiful people and write about this mysterious universe operating with its own rules.
What we saw when we re-entered the Diagbe’s hut next morning was by no means what I had bargained for. There was no sign of a second witch-doctor, but seated cross-legged beside the Diagbe was a handsome youngish female creature, scantily garbed, in a red leather hat with feathers, who fanned herself nonchalantly with a silver-handled cow’s tail and contemplated me with a bland, disturbing smile. “But where is your cousin.’*” I demanded of the Diagbe. “ But here is my cousin,” he replied. “ She is willing to go with you—in a hammock—if the signs are favorable, but the Fetish must be consulted first.
Thus we have our first description of Wamba in her red leather hat. She wore many necklaces and bracelets as power objects and had been trained by Digabe himself. Our first description of their magic comes next, as the old Shaman puts a calabash seed between his teeth and creates a rhythmic whistling drone sound over Wamba as she goes into a trance. Her swaying form and fluttering eyelids disappears for a period, Seabrook describes it as if she was electric. In her arms were two antelope horns, and at a certain point she grabbed his hands in hers and shook with the sounds of fetish beads ringing in the small hut. As soon as it started … it was over and she looked into his eyes.
While I was speculating the young sorceress had emerged from her abnormal state, still serious. She said that she had seen trouble on the trail, obstacles, disappointments for me and trouble for her, but that the Fetish had told her to go with me, and she would go. She seemed a different sort of woman now, and I wondered whether my first impression had been wrong. I was to learn that this Wamba was, in fact, two sorts of woman : spoiled and high-handed, an impudent comedian, as Mori had said, a luxurious young she-devil who would have been the better for a good beating ; yet a true illuminee, a true abnormal, a black sorceress in very truth, whom the natives recognized and feared.
So the adventure with Wamba would begin, as they went along the border of Liberia. There was of course one other important issue to deal with before leaving.
So I said authoritatively, “ We will start at dawn, then, tomorrow morning.” “ Oh, no, we won’t,” said Wamba. “We will start on to-morrow’s morrow, if I can get ready.” It was clear who intended to be the important one and give orders from then on, but though I am never really much good at commanding I wasn’t ready to establish precedent quite so easily for a whim. I knew she could have got ready in ten minutes if she had wished. I said a bit truculently, “ Did the Fetish tell you you must wait ? She laughed and said, “ No. But I have a circumcision class at Flambli which I must visit tomorrow. . . .”
As they traveled in day marches like a wandering circus making a lot of noise to scare the panthers and dangers, much like the customs of the tribal chiefs. Trails were only so wide, as the bush surrounded them like a canopy of green. Every once and awhile a small trail would disappear into a dark place decorated with skulls and little shrines. The offerings on the shrines would never be touched, even by the “murderous” panther men, as food, liquor and treasures slowly eroded in the wet jungle heat. If the main trails were the highways, the side paths went deep into magical sacred spaces where Witches, Evil Spirits and lost Tribes kept the rush of civilization away with magical procession. One evening the trail was blocked by raffia-grass partition like a mysterious dark doorway, which was a magical warning sign. The procession was superstitious and nervous wanting to turn back. Wamba disappeared behind the curtain as one who was angered to have been stopped by a such a simple grass device, but nonetheless contained a sort of power that made an average man quake in fear. Emerging she commanded the torches to be extinguished and in a silent manner they walked by her single flame through the heavy dangerous path to safety.
I have said that with Wamba I seemed to be dealing with two women rather than one, but I think that in reality, absurd as it may appear to present an African jungle witch in such paradoxical guise, she was not only a true sorceress, but a true Negress, true to type and true to the genius of her race—light-minded, sensual, a luxurious, pleasure-loving animal, comic at times, gaily insolent, yet good-hearted—but with another side, another soul, dark and primordial, in continual unconscious deep communication with old, nameless things, demoniac and holy.”
Magical fetishes of all kinds flared up during their long journey. Seabrook was able to perform or witness a variety with the practioners. Near a river early on the journey, Wamba took Seabrook to the river and they buried a bottle that contained oil, water, palm-wine, and the blood of a bird which she killed there, and whose entrails she examined with great care. Little wooden man-kins were spit upon by a Sorcerer near Globli, with Kola-juice, a sort of Voodoo type ceremony that protected the group. Seabrook pushed closer towards Liberia, a place Wamba warned against, and every sacrficed animal whose insides saw the sun for the first time, spoke to her of danger.
She placed a round-bottomed calabash bowl on a flat stone tile. Across the top of the bowl she laid a stout flat wand. One end of it pointed west, toward Liberia, the other east. She called in a young man, a random villager, who had been convoked outside the hut. She stripped him completely naked, removing not only his loin-cloth, but even a leather bracelet and the strings in his hair. After a number of abortive efforts she managed to get him balanced on the rocking calabash, crouched like an ape, his toes gripping the wand, preserving his balance by spreading out his arms and touching the ground with his fingers. This arranged to her satisfaction, she began to moan and sway, invoking the Fetish. Presently the calabash spun suddenly clockwise and sent the young man sprawling, not toward Liberia, but in
the opposite direction.
Seabrook was not swayed by continual bad news and took off at the border to cross into Liberia with a small crew, leaving his wife and spiritual guide behind. They did bring some suitcases with gifts and clothing, and made their way to a small British outpost, that was now under Liberaian control. The small band of men were rounded up, and thrown into a wooden jail. The man in charge almost killed the crew simply because he wanted Seabrook’s boots, but finding they were a size too small, he sent the small party back as to not deal with the “hassle of hiding their bodies”. Seabrook somehow seemed to doubt Wamba and they parted ways shortly after. Wamba would disappear from history, perhaps taking the place of Digabe as his successor or maybe Fate was not her friend one day in the jungle, no written record exisits. Seabrook summarizes his experience with the African Magical Fetish.
And since I am continually moving in some path or other, from the womb to the grave, since even
stopping to stand still is a form of moving, no tiniest choice in the most trivial matter, no event, however
trivial itself, is without its potentiality to change one’s future life. Therefore the Negro primitive consults the Fetish; therefore he devises charms and grists to protect him in the labyrinth. If we have no faith in his methods
we can at least begin to understand why he deems it necessary to try to do something. We whites often
recognize, and sometimes with a shock, that despite all our processes of logical foresight we also walk in this
blind labyrinth, not knowing where any path will lead. But our very logic seems to teach us that there is
nothing we can do about it.
Here lies the separation between the two worlds. In Seabrook’s western mind, we are all blind when it comes to fate. A single individual sitting at a cross roads between death and success is alone. Seabrook personally descended into many occult practices, dark fantasies and never found anything supernatural. While Seabrook did have a superstitious nature and saw many miraculous sights, he believed there were no Gods or Spirits behind the Veil. For Wamba, she saw herself as a part of the fabric of the jungle. Her individual spirit was just one of the many that danced on the edge of chaos and survived with the guides and training passed down through her ancestors. When she stood at the edge of the Fan Shaped Destiny, the path was chosen for her by that which was behind the Veil.
Now, the basic difference between Wamba’s mind
and mine or yours is that while we regard all such
sequences as unpredictable, and therefore uncontrollable,
she believes they form a mysterious pattern,- and
can be to some degree deciphered. This, I think, is one
of the fundamental elements of the black primitive
psychology. In the fan-shaped labyrinth of life, where
neither logic nor consciously directed will seems
adequate, the Negro seeks for supernatural guidance
in his Fetishes, somewhat as the old-time Christian
sought it on his knees in prayer. Most of us who are more enlightened cross our fingers or flip a coin.
(only known photo of Wamba)
The 1920s was a time when the Western war machine had made a nasty mark on Africa. The Tribes knew the languages of the Colonizers and still retained their old ways. Some of the Dan tribes began to incorporate Christian Saints into their canon of power Spirits they learned from Missionaries. People who once roamed freely were suddenly finding themselves with invisible barriers known as “Countries” and International borders.
Wamba represents a person who could walk over the lines. She was a woman of power trained by many ancient Medicine Peoples. She could speak in many tongues, travel from tribe to tribe performing miracles and with a bravery that is worthy of a full length novel, and yet, history has forgotten her as it has for most of the true magical people who served their tribe and disappeared into obscurity. Seabrook captured for a us a tiny taste of her glory in his unusual and difficult book.
At the core of the Fan Shaped destiny is a line. When Wamba saw the danger in her trance state, and continued ahead knowing Liberia would possibly kill her client, was that magic? When she revealed that an evil idol was hidden in the village charming a young fisherman into sickness, fixing the problem under the eyes of the Western visitor was it all simply a trick? If Magic is real than what does one take as a sign of it’s working within an individual existence? When you stand at the edge of that Jungle and decide which way to go, is it your choice or is it Fate? Perhaps something is guiding your path, all one need do is consult the Fetish and let Fate be something chosen, or flip a coin like Seabrook and see where it leads by random chance. This article is simply an introduction into a mystery that is filled with more questions, than answers but leaves a profound after taste not easily explained.