_Meeting the Invisible Man_ by Toby Green is an account of the author's travels in West Africa - specifically Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea-Conakry (officially known simply as Guinea, in West Africa it is widely called Guinea-Conakry to avoid confusion with Guinea-Bissau) - in search of authentic African magic. In 1995 Green became friends with a Senegalese photographer by the name of El Hadji (a devout Muslim), a man who swore that mystics known as Marabouts (pronounced "Maraboo", magical holy men with connections to Islam) possessed the ability to bestow invisibility and invulnerability upon people. Intrigued, Green returned four years later, met his friend, and undertook a journey of several months through these three nations to test these magical claims himself. Seeking Marabouts in the cities and in remote villages deep in the countryside, Green sought to verify if such magic could indeed exist.
These men didn't cast spells it seems but created magical charms or amulets known as gris-gris (pronounced "gree-gree"), items that might contain such items as a piece of burial shroud, the skin of a black cat, cloth once owned by a mute, or verses from the Koran written many times on parchment or paper. These items were generally constructed in secret away from the eyes of Green and El Hadji, often taking days to finish and coming complete with a number of verbal instructions that must be followed (lest either bad things happen to the wearer or the charm be rendered in effective); not wearing a gris-gris during sex was a common rule, as was not using one for evil. If the rules were followed and the owner wore the gris-gris (generally on their waists, attached to the belt, or on their arms), depending upon what the amulet was constructed for, it might bestow invulnerability to knife attacks, gunfire, or even make one invisible (or wealthy, as Green visited a moderately prosperous village that believed it owed its great fortune to the powerful Marabout resident there).
I found it interesting that many Muslims in West Africa believed in Marabouts and in gris-gris. El Hadji and others claimed that there was nothing in the Qu'ran that forbade visiting a Marabout (though not visiting a sorcerer, which was apparently an altogether different type of individual). Additionally, a number of people Green talked to, including Marabouts, claimed that they possessed secret knowledge or secret verses from the Qu'ran itself. The author noted that many Muslims outside the region and some in the region firmly believe that gris-gris is not acceptable in orthodox Islam, though Marabouts have a long history in the region, arriving simultaneously in West Africa with Islam in the eleventh century.
Green began the journey convinced that gris-gris simply could not work, but once he spent time in Africa he seemed to waver some. Once he became immersed in the culture and the people, he began to appreciate the often radically different worldview of many of the locals. He often felt that he and they inhabited completely different worlds, his technological, rational, and materialistic, theirs a world largely alien to him, one that the locals saw populated by devils and spirits, a "place where magic and undiluted faith were so important," where "djinns hang in the air with the heat, and the fear and the illness."
Green also feared that he would be exploited by unscrupulous people. A foolish tubab (white person, whom just about everyone in that part of Africa at least assumed was of course rich) would easily find many Marabouts who would gladly write gris-gris for him for money of course. At first quite a bit on guard against this, Green felt that in his travels he met Marabouts who cared little about money and genuinely believed in what they did.
The author did provide an interesting portrait of the countries, the people, their rituals, their way of life, good descriptions of the terrain and flora, and a sense of the area's problems. He and his companion were quite glad to leave Guinea-Conakry for instance, a place "redolent with fear and despair," an often deeply unpleasant place, its citizens with almost nothing, with what little they had stolen by a corrupt state. He also recounted some of the terrible wars and wretched conditions faced by the refugees in the region (whose plight the West was largely ignorant of), many of whom vanished in the various conflicts, their fate unknown. Though he was hit up by corrupt border guards and police, a great many people though were quite kind to him, welcoming him into their homes with little explanation from him as to why he was there, offering what little food they had and even allowing him to sleep in their beds, their owners choosing to sleep on the floor while they had guests. He had a number of memorable West African experiences, many of them good, such as listening to griots (pronounced "gree-oh," praise singers whose lineage goes back to the old West African empires, still important as repositories of oral history and in performing ceremonies), hearing the kora (a West African harp with 21 strings), and riding in pirogues (the dugout canoes of the region), some bad (such as a bout with malaria).
Oh, did Green find any gris-gris that worked? Was he successful? Read it yourself! I did enjoy the book. Though he included a helpful glossary and an appendix listing important historical figures from the region, I do wish he had incorporated a bit more history into the text. I enjoyed his often amusing interactions with El Hadji and I appreciated the detailed map and the color photographs that were included in the book.