21st Century Charlatan

“Charlatanism” is not a common charge in a modern court of law – even in Kolda, Senegal where spiritual forces play an important part in daily life. Yet in late June Thierno Mamoudou Diallo stood in a crowded court charged with charlatanism, in addition to defamation and extortion. His crime: creating and disseminating a mp3 recording of the confessions of a young woman to all manner of sorcery – including cannibalism – that went “viral” via the social networks in the city of Kolda and surrounding villages.

Belief in a spiritual world that interacts with our own is common in West Africa. This story is about “ñañebe.Ñañebe, in the Pula Futa language, are people who have flirted with dark magic in order to gain special powers such as shape shifting and flying. They are most notorious for eating other people, literally and figuratively.

Where there is dark magic, there is also a savoir, and ndurebe are people who make their living revealing ñañebe in their communities. Not all ndurebe are the same. Some peripatetic ndurebe offer their services over a wide area while others might never leave their village and only use their secret knowledge a handful of times in their lives.

Ndurebe find and expose ñañebe using their own brand of magic. Some mix written Qu’ranic verses with various leaves and powders and store this under their pillow at night in order to stimulate ñañebe-revealing dreams. Others concoct brews they claim to be truth serums (usually local mild hallucinogens), which induce a state where suspects divulge their secrets.

Thierno Mamoudou, a self-described ndurebe, originally hails from near Bafata in Guinea Bissau. No one knows exactly when he arrived in Senegal and up until a few weeks ago he was peddling his services in a small village outside Kolda.

Thierno Mamoudou’s case began when the worried parents of a 15 year old sought his mystical assistance to heal their perpetually sick daughter. They paid 150,000 CFA (around US $250) for the “medicine” but when they turned their backs to leave he played them a recording on his phone in which a young girl claimed she wanted to kill their daughter.

This three hour, 22-megabyte recording of questionable sound quality is at the center of this story. In the recording, the young woman who identifies herself as Mairam claims she is a ñañejo and relates specific details regarding her victims, her powers, and her co-conspirators.

Throughout the recording a familiar pattern develops where she ignores Thierno Mamoudou’s questions, then answers before re-starting the same process: ignore, answer, ignore, answer. Her voice drones monotonically; could she be drugged or in a trance? There are also a few whiney groans and during one episode Thierno Mamoudou encourages her to yell even more – “scream so I can really hear you!”

In the recording she claims to change into a black cow and a donkey while her mother turns into a black bird; they change at night and roam the earth searching for victims. She says she can fly, from Senegal to Spain in one night, explaining that it was her mother who taught her dark magic. In addition to her mother, she also names other people as ñañebe, details their crimes, and reports on the whereabouts of a ñañebe secret lair in the forest nearby. There she claims to have met with the other ñañebe, learned the craft, and hid the knife she used to cut people into pieces before eating them.

There are many reasons to question the authenticity of the gruesome recording. The accused girl denies the voice on the recording is hers and she says she never met Thierno Mamoudou. Moreover the person in the recording is speaking Pula Futa, while the girl speaks Fulakunda, two different variants of the Pulaar language in the Kolda area.

Ten or twenty years ago the story might have stopped here with these accusations being heard only by only a few. However with the cell phone being a ubiquitous tool of modernity throughout rural Senegal, all with a microphone, speaker and Bluetooth –it is easy to record anything and transfer that recording to people 1 km away and 100 km away. The recording went viral, passing from cell phone to cell phone along long established networks of kinship and friendship.

Thierno Mamoudou’s skeptics say he made the recording for self-promotion and to attract more customers. They suggest that as the recording spread Thierno Mamoudou has seen a huge increase in “patients” looking for “cures”; his fees now range from 15,000 CFA (US $25) to 250,000 CFA (US $425).

The girl accused of being a ñañebe says she has been stigmatized at school and in her community. According to a local journalist, the situation in her village got to the point where village leaders had to intervene to avoid outright conflict; this led to reporting Thierno Mamoudou to the authorities in mid-June.

Thierno Mamoudou was arrested on June 20 and appeared in front of a judge nine days later. As he was led into court, handcuffed and wearing a Barcelona football jersey, the assembled crowd rushed to catch a glimpse. There were over one hundred people and court authorities had to limit spectators to half that number who could be seated in the unusually chaotic courtroom.

The first to testify were the worried parents of the 15 year old sickly girl who heard the recording suggesting that their daughter would be killed by Mairam, the young woman accused of being a ñañebe. Next Mairam told the assembled she went with her father to confront Thierno Mamoudou after hearing the accusations against her; Thierno Mamoudou denied making the accusations of cannibalism.

When it was Thierno Mamoudous turn to speak he began by explaining he heals the sick through verses of the Qur’an. When the sickly young woman and her parents first visited he just did his job and tried to heal her: “after I did my ablutions, I covered my face with a black cloth and said the verses.”

But under cross examination his story quickly fell apart. When pressed about Mairam stalking and infecting other young women, he said he “did not know.” His demeanor sank as he repeated those words, “I do not know”, to further questions about Mairam’s supposed powers. When the judges asked Mairam if the words on the recording were hers she replied simply, “no”. At the end of the questioning one of the presiding justices asked Thierno Mamoudou to look at the people he accused of sorcery. After a brief moment Mr. Diallo responded, “these people are not sorcerers.”

On July 13th Thierno Mamoudou was sentenced to two years in prison and a ten-year ban on entering Senegal. This was met with various reactions. According to Madame Toure, a believer, “he came to cure people, and they lock him up? Its not good”. Others, such as Boubacar Badji, are less sympathetic – “he cheated people, he should be in prison!”

Despite all the evidence to the contrary many people still believe Thierno Mamoudou. Rumors and myths about his abilities and their source continue to circulate the city. A common rumor describes how when Thierno Mamoudou goes to pray every day walks through the walls of his cell and prays outside the prison, returning after he finishes.

We tend to think that as the accoutrements of modernity spread and more people become connected western ideas will supplant local beliefs and traditions. This is too simple and does not give enough agency to the adopters of technology. Instead, as Thierno Mamoudou and his recording shows, the trappings of modernity can facilitate the diffusion of unique cultural concepts to a wider audience then ever before.

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