- Save 10% on selected children’s books, compliments of Amazon Family Promotion exclusive for Prime members .
- Also check our best rated Travel Book reviews
Meeting the Invisible Man: Travels And Magic In West Africa Paperback – 6 Jun 2002
- Choose from over 13,000 locations across the UK
- Prime members get unlimited deliveries at no additional cost
- Find your preferred location and add it to your address book
- Dispatch to this address when you check out
Special offers and product promotions
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
If you are a seller for this product, would you like to suggest updates through seller support?
To call Toby Green's Meeting the Invisible Man merely a fine of piece travel writing doesn't begin to convey the ambition (and achievement) of this remarkable book. Subtitled Secrets and Magic in West Africa, this book really defies categorisation. The reader is conveyed on a bizarre and exhilarating journey into unknown waters that takes in such diverse themes as the grim history of the slave trade, the awe-inspiring scenery of West Africa and the literary invisible men of H G Wells and Ralph Ellison.
Green (whose previous epic journey Saddled with Darwin can now be seen to give an indication of his eccentric vision) became acquainted with a Senegalese photographer, El Hadji, who revealed to him that certain West African mystics had mastered the secrets of invisibility and invulnerability. Meeting up with his old friend in 1997, he decides to test the truth of these phenomena with a surreal journey through the intimidating territory of Casamance, Guinea-Conakry and Guinea-Bissau. This is a world where the natives live in terror of magic and religions such as Islam and more primitive beliefs are synthesised in a culture in which mysticism reigns supreme.
Taking a dangerous journey to hidden settlements in the brush, Green encounters the mysterious keepers of ancient knowledge and finally undergoes a trip into the heart of darkness with a conclusion that beggars belief.
Freighted into this astonishing narrative are meditations on racism, the sometimes dark power of religion and Marco Polo's groundbreaking journey through Zanzibar. As well as evoking the horrors and splendours of a strange land, Green's phantasmagorical book is a rich exploration of magic and belief, finally confronting us with the limits of the possible--and the impossible. --Barry Forshaw --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Author PRSee all Product description
Top customer reviews
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
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.
There is a powerful current of political correctness running through the text that is irritating. Slavery is a big issue brought up repeatedly, the author
falling into the common attitude that most of the problems of modern Africa and of Africans everywhere in the world derives from that practice and a
racism itself deriving from it. The realities are that slavery as practiced by Westerners ended nearly a century and a half ago, the 'legacy' ot it is a fantasy merely utilized as an excuse-machine; Africans practiced slavery for thousands of years before ever setting eyes on a white man; slavery was extensively practiced in the Mediterranean as Africans enslaved Europeans for many centuries; the biggest slavers were perhaps the Islamic Arabs whose religion and practices have been widely adopted by Africans; and lastly - slavery is today alive and well in various parts of Africa and even in major cities in the Western world where Africans reside and is thus an African custom and tradition and form of commerce and not a white invention. In short - GET OVER IT already.
If the author would have just avoided the whole irrelevant subject of slavery this could have been a much better book. Another unfortunate aspect is his unquestioning belief in the glowing interpretations of African history involing great empires, glittering civilizations, fabulous wealth, et cetera. Actually these are inventions found in wishful oral traditions much amplified by Western leftist authors e.g. Basil Davidson et al, whose work consists of an attempt to artificially create a heritage that is not real and merely serves to prop up national and ethnic identities with an unmerited pride.
All in all I can't really recommend the book, unless purely for the bibliography, which is fairly useful I think. Even the tedious jouneys undertaken
throughout Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, and elsewhere do not provide much in the way of information about the local peoples and their lives and customs.