Excerpt: In 1988 I traveled to the town of Tillaberi in the Republic of Niger, West Africa to attend the funeral of my teacher, Adamu Jenitongo, a sorcerer of great repute. During an apprenticeship that spanned seventeen years, he challenged me to tune my senses to the spirit world. It was a difficult challenge. In the black of night, I would often awake to watch him converse with his ancestors—all great sorcerers in their time. I could clearly hear his voice, but did not have the capacity to hear those of his forbearers. At the time I knew that no one could ever replace my teacher but I did want to continue my education in Songhay sorcery. Several days after the funeral, I went to Niamey, Niger’s capital city, to seek out the master herbalist, Soumana Yacouba. I wanted to become his student. I had known Soumana Yacouba for ten years. During that time, we would spend many days sitting behind a mat at one of Niamey’s main markets. Each day he would display his medicinal plants on the mats, and between client consultations we would talk about herbal medicine. In time we developed a rapport but never established the kind of master-apprentice relationship I had shared with Adamu Jenitongo. When I asked to become his student, he didn’t give me an immediate answer. “Come to my house. My wife will feed us lunch and then we’ll see what happens.”
We took a taxi to what was then the outskirts of Niamey and walked to a dusty compound of three grass huts encircled by a three-foot fence fashioned from dried millet stalks. We slipped into Soumana’s hut and sat on palm frond mats. His wife brought us a bowl of rice smothered with a chunky meat sauce, which we ate with gusto. After the meal Soumana looked at me.
“So you want to study with me?” he asked.
“It’s not my decision.”
I stared at him in confused silence.
“Because I am a do (master Niger River waters and plants) I must ask the ancestors if they accept you.”
He then engaged in a ten minute give-and-take with his ancestors. He described my history with Adamu Jenitongo and said positive things about my trustworthiness. I, of course, could not hear the voices of his ancestors, who, after some cajoling
from Soumana, gave their consent.
“They like you,” Soumana told me. “They think I should teach you about plants and about the river.”
“But,” I said, “I couldn’t hear their voices, couldn’t hear what they said.
“Of course not,” Soumana said with a broad smile on his face. “You need to learn how to listen before you can hear the voices of the ancestors.”
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Uttered in a dusty straw hut in 1988, Soumana Yacouba’s comment underscores a major premise in Tanya Luhrmann’s wonderful new book, When God talks back. How can a person, she wonders again and again throughout the pages of her illuminating text, claim to hear the voice of God? How could Soumana Yacouba or, for that matter, Adamu Jenitongo claim to have conversations with ancestors?