How a Witch Doctor Changed my Host Mom’s Life

How a Witch Doctor Changed my Host Mom's Life

foreign-correspondent badge finalI knew Mama, my Senegalese host mom, would be impossible to live with the moment I laid my eyes on her. Her short, stocky frame ended in a tightly pinched face and the smile directed toward me was strained.

“Call me Mama,” she said when I arrived in her Dakar home for a four-month study abroad program. The statement was more of an order than a request, and there was no warmth in her words.

How a Witch Doctor Changed my Host Mom's Life
Dakar, Senegal; photo by Kalyan Neelamraju (Creative Commons)

My first impression of her was spot-on. I quickly learned that I had been welcomed into Mama’s home as a source of income rather than cultural exchange. She never spoke to me, except to chastise. She locked the gate precisely at sunset, and if I was home late and locked out, tough luck.  Breakfasts were stale slices of unbuttered bread, dinners the scrapings leftover from lunch. And when I was out of town one weekend, the fan that “pumped too much electricity,” as Mama had often put it, mysteriously disappeared. I spent the remainder of my nights in Senegal sweaty and sleepless.

“She has a dark past,” Moussou would respond, unwilling to elaborate.

“Why is Mama so horrible?” I’d often ask Moussou, my host sister, in frustration.

“She has a dark past,” Moussou would respond, unwilling to elaborate.

One evening, as I was rushing to make it home before Mama closed the gate on me, the night guard next door caught my eye.

“Psssst,” he called, signaling me over. We’d only ever greeted one another with polite smiles and waves. I had never spoken with him before.

“Will you have tea with me?” he asked, gesturing to the attaya he was brewing on his makeshift coal stove.

“I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to get home before the gate is locked,” I replied.

“No problem. Take the tea with you. You can bring me the glass tomorrow.”

A moment later, I passed Mama’s threshold, relieved not to have given her an opportunity to lock me out onto the streets again. My last-minute arrival did not go unnoticed, however.  Mama fixed her dead glaze upon me, and I readied myself for the onslaught.

“I think it’s time I fill you in on Mama’s dark past,” she said.  “She was marabouted.”

“What do you have in your hand?” she asked.  This was unexpected.

“Tea,” I replied.

“Where did you get it?”

“The night guard from next door,” I continued nonchalantly, pleased that the conversation was steering away from my tardiness.

I was surprised, therefore, when she slapped the tea out of my hand. The glass shattered loudly. I looked up, bemused, but Mama stalked off without an explanation.

I stormed off to my room, cursing Mama’s latest bout of craziness. Certainly, this time, she’d gone completely off her rocker. A knock on the door broke my train of thought. It was Moussou.

“I think it’s time I fill you in on Mama’s dark past,” she said.  “She was marabouted.”

Mama had been different, once. Her eyes had exuded warmth, her smile the epitome of peace. She’d been the second wife of a gentle and kind man. She’d been happily in love.

The first wife sneaked into her home and tucked the cursed objects throughout the house—in the bedroom, the kitchen, at the front gate.

The first wife, however, hadn’t been so happy. Feeling neglected and unloved, her jealousy toward Mama was too much. And so, she consulted a marabout, a Senegalese cross between a religious leader and a witch doctor. Using the semen and hair of her husband, the marabout concocted a strong love potion and cursed a variety of household objects. She paid her fee, listening closely to the marabout’s precise instructions, and departed with her blackened items.

When Mama was out buying vegetables for that evening’s ceebu jen—her husband’s favorite dish of fish and spicy rice—the first wife sneaked into her home and tucked the cursed objects throughout the house—in the bedroom, the kitchen, at the front gate. These objects would so agitate the husband when he arrived that evening that he would be warded away.

Next she placed the marabout’s liquid potion into the pot of rice cooking on the open stove. Both would consume the potion, which would make her husband fall out of love with his new wife. When he came running back to her home, she would give him a second dose of the potion—with a drop of her own blood—to make him fall back into love with her.

Did I, in fact, owe Mama gratitude?

“And that is how Mama lost her kindness,” finished Moussou. “That evening, her husband became cold and annoyed with her.  When he left, mid-meal, for his first wife’s compound, he left for good. He never returned to Mama’s home.”

Suddenly, I understood why Mama had knocked the tea out of my hand—she believed I was being given a love potion.  Did she save me from being marabouted? Was her act actually a kind one? Did I, in fact, owe Mama gratitude?

As I pondered these questions, Mama called us to dinner. A bowl of chiakry—millet and plain yogurt—was served, enough to feed only a small child.  And the questions faded away.

How the Witch Doctor Changed my Senegalese Host Mother for Life
Me and my Senegalese host mother

Top image of Senegal by Frank Ellenberger (Creative Commons)

About Brittany Caumette

Brittany CaumetteBrittany Caumette has been traveling around the world almost non-stop for nearly a decade. What started as an obsession has now become a way of life. Currently three years into an overland around-the-world trip that has brought her through Africa, into the Middle East, and now into Europe, she writes about her experiences on her website,
, Wandering Footsteps.

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