The clouds that appeared out of a blue sunny sky in under an hour's time looked as if they would open up and give my village relief, but I knew better than to trust dark grey clouds. The day before the winds picked up, tossing pagne skirts and spraying dust into our eyes. Lightening lit up the sky Las Vegas style while thunder grumbled in the bellies of the clouds. This theater started up around noon time, a very convincing act that fooled me two other times that day into thinking we were finally getting some relief from the two week long draught we are still suffering from. I am concerned and at times I think I might be more concerned than the villagers. I wake hoping the sky is already filled with clouds, make periodic checks during the day and am developing a cramp in my neck from looking up too often. I use to get excited at the sight of clouds, but now the numerous false alarms have turned me rather pessimistic and cynical. I use to be the one telling my neighbors that it looks like rain, but now when they tell me rain is on the way I just laugh and say "I'll believe it when I see it." Villagers are remaining calm even though some of them are in danger of losing their crops and may have to replant if they have the ability and resources. Even though I am a health volunteer the lack of rain also affects my work. Fewer water sources means more water contamination, more people sick with diarrhea and worms, but it also means I have to hold off on my nutrition project where I will be planting a variety of tree who's leaves have the capability to end malnutrition in my village.
The first time I brought up the subject of rain it was with my counterpart's wife. Fadimatou is a fairly young girl probably in her late teens or early twenties (most people don't know their exact ages) who I have often talked to about many cultural aspects of Cameroonian village life and American culture. She, like many Mandamans, believes in sorcery and sorcerers who according to her are now at work preventing the rain from falling on Mandama. My first reactions to sorcery after settling in Mandama was to nod and change the subject, later when my French got better I started to explain that I didn't believe it to be real, but now after my almost two years here I am starting to understand its importance in village life. I must confess that when I came to Mandama I was chalk full of ideas and a vision of how this volunteer thing should be carried out and started out on a path that I laid down without even knowing the terrain. You have already heard of some of my failures and frustrations and it was these that have led me to be more cautious and speculative. I have found that after my deflation I was able to see my village more clearly; I became more content to sit around and ask questions, observe and learn. When the conversation of sorcery came up this time I set in on Fadimatou who is a person whom always tries to find answers to my questions and whom I love to push to think critically and objectively during our conversations. I asked every question I could think to ask: Where do they live? Why do they withhold the rain? How does one become a sorcerer of rain? How does he stop and start the rain? How often does this happen? From her husband, my counterpart, I also asked about the rain and was surprised when I got much of the same answers.
Abdou, besides being my counterpart, is a staff member at the high school. I asked Abdou to be my counterpart because he has on many occasions demonstrated the most forward thinking I have encountered in village. He is always one-step ahead of me in agricultural practices, is the president of the HIV/AIDS village committee, he has borrowed books from me concerning female and male contraception he wants to introduce at the high school and has an incredible tact for business. When I asked him about the whereabouts of the rain he responded in much the same way as Fadimatou, launching into an explanation about the man who is preventing the rain from falling. In addition to my counterpart I have also had similar discussions with the Director of the CETIC (a technical training high school) and a nurse. The first observation that is always made is about the man in Mandama who refuses to let it rain. From children to the wealthiest man to the university educated woman, the belief in sorcery is held among all villagers. From these conversations I have gathered some stories about these men who stop the rain. They are everyday men with farms and wives, their only special power is the ability to induce and stop rain. They stop the rain by retracting some type of stick from their yard when clouds start to form; without the stick the rain cannot fall. Villagers will sometimes collect money, 120,000 cfa ($250) according to one source, or sacks of grain and animals, and offer this to the man in hopes that he will allow the rain to start. Supposedly these men withhold rain because they believe someone is sleeping with their wife or that someone has stolen something from them. Last year our village chief asked the man not to withhold rain and if he did he would ask the local police to arrest him on the village's behalf. The matter of sorcery extends beyond the man who can stop rain; it is also the reason for deaths, illnesses, injuries, crop failure and other malevolence at the village level. Sorcery is an engrained belief that has affected village life since before Islam and Christianity converted many of these villagers' ancestors. The belief, despite the contradicting practices of Islam and Christianity, of sorcery has successfully created a religious syncretism that is not uncommon in other parts of the world where tribal beliefs are dominated and almost destroyed by fundamental religions.
Throughout my conversations I have been trying to push away my skepticism, science and ethnocentrism. For me sorcery conjures up images of Disney movie villans, red apples and sleeping beauties. I try to pick apart all these stories and ask so many questions, to which only a hand full can be answered. My analytical and logical brain is having a hard time processing and believing in sorcery. I guess one needs to look beyond the science, the 'facts.' We might look into our own beliefs and see seemingly unbelievable occurrences. Catholics believe in the rising of Jesus from the dead and the drinking of his blood and eating of his flesh every Sunday. There are even those who believe that after you die you will come back to this earth as another living creature, that coffee is sinful or that we are all descendants of an alien race. There are a lot of different beliefs out there and a man having the ability to stop rain isn't one of the more outrageous ones. According to villagers there are other ways to bring the rain.
During the first weeks of the draught, while laying in my bed reading around 8pm I heard villagers singing in the familiar call and response style. This is not out of the ordinary; I have heard the children running up and down my street and around the neighborhood many times at night singing. This time however, I was able to pick up a little of what they were singing with my limited Fulfulde. I lay in my bed listening to the girls asking Allah to bring rain, "Allah wartan iyeende" for about an hour. The next morning my neighbor Haoua told me she pumped four buckets of water for them, soaking them as a sacrifice to Allah. Other sessions like this will take place in other villages usually after two weeks of no rain. In the event of a month without rain an all day prayer session will take place at the main mosque in Mandama culminating in the killing of a goat or sheep, with the meat being distributed to the villagers. Everyone seems to taking the lack of rain calmly and with an air of familiarity I can't muster. I am trying to settle down and take on a Zen like demeanor, but I decided to offer up my own form of aid.
Yesterday I made my own effort to bring the rain, American style. I figured if the young girls, the elites and the men and women were all doing their part to make it rain then I had to offer up something as well. My ideas of rain dances are wholly informed by what little I have seen and heard about Native American cultural practices. I felt music should be involved, songs that invoke rain would be a start since I am at a loss of what types of body movements might entice the clouds the give up their water. I took my mini speakers and IPod out to my back steps deciding that a search for 'rain' in my IPod's search feature might yield some cloud pleasing melodies. I started my entreaty with a song that I often sang last rainy season when the humidity became unbearable and drudged up the lyrics from my memory. I started off with the Temptations' "I Wish it would Rain", not to in order to hide my tear drops, but the sweat that continues to trickle down my face and body. I followed them with Jill Scotts "Love Rain", Prince's "Purple Rain" and Soul For Real's "Candy Rain." I will take the rain anyway I can get it, purple, black, gum drops or skittles. I rounded out my rain chant with the theme song from "Singing in the Rain" and the Hawaiian singer IZ's rendition of "Somewhere over the Rainbow." As I sat on the steps singing to the clouds and myself, a few drops did fall. The clouds ended up passing Mandama by however and left me debating whether next time I should go all out with choreographed dance steps and a better sound system. I guess the real question is whether I believe in all our entreaties, bribes to the local sorcerers, late night call and response sessions and all day prayer sessions. As of now I am still undecided, but I am becoming more of a believer every draught filled day.