Azé and the Incommensurable

Par : le 05/02/2012

Written by Léocadie Ekoué, with Judy Rosenthal

 Léocadie Ekoué and Judy Rosenthal sit in a café at La Place d’Italie with notepads next to their coffee cups, and pens in hand.  In the midst of a story about her life Ekoue mentions aze (la sorcellerie, or « witchcraft »)  « Shit, Leocadie, » Rosenthal growls.  « I’m so tired of hearing about aze.  Why do all of you Togolese women always bring it up to explain practically everything !  On this matter I’m a clueless Westerner, even after years and years of working with Vodu, and I don’t like all the aze talk.  It depresses me.

Léocadie smiles.  « I’ll try to humor you« , she says.  « I’ll try to interpret the reasons why we interpret all of our interpretations and everyone else’s interpretations with talk of aze. »  Rosenthal listens. It is indeed about interpretation of interpretation—interpretation all the way down, no « transcendental signified. »  What follows is Ekoue’s text with a few questions and comments by Rosenthal.  After Rosenthal transcribed the conversation and the story, Ekoue reworked much of it so that it said (at least in the original French) what she wanted it to say.


L.Ekoué :  When I am asked to speak about witchcraft with a European or American I am expected to enter into another dimension, a sort of conformity with western notions.  As soon as I do that I begin to cheat (agir en porte-à-faux), whereas I cannot cheat in the clinic (in ethno-psychoanalytic practice).  Today I can speak honestly about witchcraft because for all of these years I have not been able to cheat in clinical work.  In the presence of patients I cannot censure what is not Western.  Elsewhere, an African is necessarily in a position of auto-censorship, is always brought to censure her words and her interpretations when it comes to talk about sorcery.


Westerners always have their own notions of sorcery and the way it has functioned in Europe and the U.S., and they use that frame to investigate African sorcery, but that simply does not work.  The questions themselves are full of traps so that the answers are pulled into a discourse that has its own agenda and cannot result in an African interpretation.  Sorcery [or witchcraft] as interpreted by Westerners is always about trials, the law, judgment, and capitalism.  It is as though when we speak of sorcery in terms of sociology [and anthropology] , we use a huge fishing net for catching sharks, when we should be using a very fine spider web made of silk.

Aze and most other Mina and Ewe words that are translated as sorcelleriein French [and "witchcraft" in English] are used to talk aboutthe incommensurable.  It’s not only about the latest versions of capitalism’s invasion of Africa, and the vampire nature of some individuals’ exploitation of others, such as we read in the recent ethnographies about witchcraft [e.g., Geschiere 1997] .  It’s also about the untranslatable difference between the West and the rest, and about the unspeakable, the unrepresentable[1] , that which resists all explanation, even in Ewe and Mina worlds.   It is especially about n’bia—jealousy and deathwish—the banal yet destructive rivalry that exists to some extent in the psyche of every person in the world, but that we Togolese have made conscious with our concept of aze.

 We know that we feel wounded in our narcissism when others succeed precisely there where we ourselves have failed, whatever it is we are lacking that the other possesses—a good job, beauty or wealth, love, a brilliant child, etc.  And we know that our feeling of loss in the face of another’s gain, and the strong emotion of resentment or hatred of the other who « has, » sometimes the feeling of the unfairness of our own emptiness there where we perceive the other to be full—we know that these negative feelings we harbor against the other can harm us and can harm the other, socially, psychologically, and in Togo and Ghana, magically.  That is why there are so many recipes for undoing n’bia and the aze that it can lead to, for protecting ourselves and our children from it, for punishing those who do not take care to monitor their own negative emotions towards others.  We say that some people with aze literally (thus spiritually) join aze coteries who meet during the night and plan their success at the expense of others’ health or even with the sacrifice of others’ lives, or their children’s lives.  We say that they turn into owls and watch and wait in trees to do harm.  We say that such people trade on their natural aze so as to use it intentionally to destroy others.  Other people may be destructive without even realizing it because they are not conscious of their desire to harm.

Now I’m going to tell you a typical story of aze, one from my childhood.

In my memory it is as though it happened yesterday.  I was born in Abidjan of Togolese parents, and we lived in Treichville, the most African outskirt of the capitol city of Côte d’Ivoire.  I was seven years old when a strange event took place in the large compound in which we lived.  A little boy of four died suddenly, and his death arrived like a thunderbolt, shaking the lives of everyone in the neighborhood.  The morning before he died he was quiet, although since he had begun to walk he had filled the compound with his baby talk and later with his singing.  Very quickly everyone had recognized the strength of his intelligence, for without even trying he remembered better than the older children who attended school all of the songs and lessons that they recited and practiced at night before going to bed.  However, that morning his silence shocked all of us and worried the children who hurried off to school while the adults spoke in low voices.  When the children returned home from school they heard the wailing that had already for several hours accompanied the pain and tears of the mother.

During those days burials took place the same day as death.  The mortuary cold room had not yet made its appearance in sub-SaharanAfrica.  Heat reigned, so funeral wakes were forbidden.  The child had died that morning and was buried that afternoon.  All the members of his extended family and their close friends were there to accompany the little one to his resting place.

Now the courtyard shared by his family, ours, and several others, was to become the theatre of a strange scene.  Facing the lodging of the mourning family was a tiny two-room hut practically in the middle of the large collective courtyard.  The hut was occupied by an old woman and her niece.  It was adjoined to an enormous baobab tree.  It was made of adobe and therefore was cooler than the other dwellings, which were built of concrete blocks.  Strangely, the tiny porch just outside the door of the hut, usually curtained off for privacy, was left open that day, so that the little funeral cortege could see the old woman inside, dressed in a simple piece of cloth (pagne).  It was not like her to sit there visible to others, and only in pagne.  She sat on a mat, her legs stretched straight out, inside a circle marked on the mat by chicken feathers, with alternating black and white feathers.  She stared at the little casket that was carried out of the courtyard by way of the central path, on its way to the cemetery.  Alone among all those who could not ignore the sad event, the old woman had thus made her first appearance that day.  No one had seen her offer her condolences to the mourning family, or even exchange a single word with the other neighbors of the concession.  The adults were stupefied, and the children began to enter a world of disquieting strangeness and fear.


During the months that followed the funeral the members of the mourning family remained inside their lodging.  They finally moved, so they said, because they had other children to protect.  That is the way this story of aze began among us.  Our neighborhood, which had sprung up quite recently, was quite the opposite of the more elegant administrative residential quarters inAbidjan.  Ours was inhabited by Africans from other countries—immigrants.  The old woman and her niece belonged to an Akan family, expatriates of long date, from the Gold Coast (now Ghana).  Her niece was from the border area of the Gold Coast, and the two women kept in close contact with their family and friends on the other side of the border.  The other families in our compound came fromDahomey (now Benin), from Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), and from Togo.

The old woman was still attractive, and her niece adored her.  She was the only person of her age in our quarter, and not a single child dared appear on her porch (which was pleasant for its cool shade thanks to the baobab).  The niece had already lost her grown son.  Since his death she had remained alone except for her aunt, to whom she was devoted.  The unexplained death of her son came back to the surface during this period.  The two women were Christian, of a Protestant denomination, and it was therefore permitted for them to not search for the causes of her son’s death; above all they were not to search for a meaning through divination.  [All West Africans not of a monotheistic persuasion would have gone to a diviner—an Afa bokono among Ewe and Mina—to find out why the person had died; but Christians considered that practice to be pagan.]  Everyone in the concession was either Christian or Muslim, and the moments consecrated for religious practice provided the rhythm of daily life, of the end of the week and rest from work.  Like numerous other African citizens, we all thought of « traditional » African practices as backward.

The circumstances surrounding the little boy’s death and burial stunned us all and stirred up memories and ideas of obscure origins.  The huge baobab that was hanging over the lodging of the two women was so high and so thickly leafed that it had become a kingdom of owls [azeheviwo, or « witchbirds »].  From that day on children no longer tried to stave off the moment they had to go to bed.  As soon as they lay down for the night they closed their eyes tightly so as to go to sleep as quickly as possible.  The baobab that had become a tree for night-birds was thereby also a tree for azetowo (witches).  That image fed the children’s night terrors.  It was good to sleep together, and heaven help the child whose parents thought they were favoring him by giving him a bed of his own.


The days went by.  The atmosphere had completely changed in our big courtyard.  We all avoided the two women but were careful to show our respect for them in all of the usual ways.  We went about our daily business in silence, whereas before that event our activities were full of the banal noise of life, exclamations of pleasure or of anger, laughter and crying of children.

The old woman’s niece was troubled by her aunt’s behavior the day of the child’s death.  Without knowing exactly why, she went to consult a diviner.  She wanted to know why she herself had remained without a husband and children for so long.  The old diviner smiled and gave her some leaves to put in her bath water.  She used this whitish amasi (mixture of leaves and water) for her daily ablutions. It was as though she was protecting herself from her aunt, whom she silently accused, through her ritual behavior, of having killed her (the niece’s) husband as well as the little child who had recently died.  Then her aunt’s legs began to change form and become cylindrical.  The old woman soon returned toGhana with her niece and stayed there.  Later the younger woman came back to our compound in Treichville, spoke of her aunt from time to time, and said that the old woman’s limbs had become cylindrical.  But she said less and less to us as time went by, and eventually she left the neighborhood.


That is a childhood memory, my own childhood memory, shared with a certain number of children.  In it there is the element of the Imaginary [2] .  On the basis of that story, what happened inside the head of each one of us?  It was said that the little boy had “returned home” (“to his own country”).  Many questions remained with regard to the cause of that child’s death, but also with regard to the physical transformations of the old woman.  Such phenomena are interpreted in the same fashion inGhana,Cote d’Ivoire, andTogo.  Obviously, as a little Togolese girl I knew about the physical modifications the old woman was said to have undergone after her niece accused her of having harmed her own family.  (The niece did not, however, employ the word “sorcery.”)  I had always heard the description in Togo, by people who were speaking of the sorcery of old women… Often what was said about that form of sorcery was that the old women’s limbs changed shape.  In these stories of sorcery, in the descriptions of the witch, she or he is never someone who will be lynched, for example, but rather someone who will be abandoned, left in some corner.  People will come and insult her and say to her, “You are the one who killed so-and-so.  You must leave.”  But she remains a member of a lineage, in which she has harmed one of her own, a family member (close or distant), and one cannot in all decency condemn a member of one’s own family [or lineage] .

But what is extraordinary, what is often said, is that even before the situation becomes clear (before accusations begin) our azetowo (witches, sorcerers) enter into a process of internalizing the representations of sorcery—they have already taken the first step, by feeding the representations of sorcery, by saying, “That child who has died, I killed it.”  (“Enye xoe” – “I’m the one who took it.”)  They also say, “You are persecuting me,” speaking to the child’s spirit.  And, addressing others,  “It’s because of you that I took the child.”  It’s a vicious cycle.  The witch is speaking both to the spirit of the victim and to the family of the victim.  It is an old woman or man speaking to spirits persecuting her and at the same time saying to the family of the victim, “Leave me alone.”  “Enye wu devia—devi hou-an amega degbedo la va nyi eye nti me xoe do.”  (“That child became a powerful person—that’s why I took it.”)  The witch says of a child that is still alive but ill, “I tried everything to have that child, but his soul (kla) is too strong.”

What is interesting is that the person doesn’t ever say that she is crazy; she waits for the title of azeto to be accorded her.  She won’t necessarily be harmed.

J. Rosenthal:  How does she feel about all of that?

 L. Ekoué:  Her experience is that of feeling n’bia, or jealousy, or something that troubles her sufficiently for her to demand the title of azeto, even when she wants to get out of the role of azeto.  Judeo-Christian thinking makes of sorcery something that can’t be remedied, but inAfrica the azeto is someone with links to other persons.  Her deeds have to do with her links with others, her kinship.  Individuals who have lost most of their family members might be azetowo or victims of azetowo or both.  Ewe and Mina ideas of aze go beyond Judeo-Christian thinking of the good/evil oppositions and beyond the discourse of guilt.  A person can actively claim the title of azeto.   West Africans in rupture with tradition, especially those who became Christian, looked elsewhere for the answers to their disquiet over the existence of unexplainable and unjust death and other misfortune.  (The geomancer or bokono (diviner) was said by Protestant missionaries and Catholic priests to be the Devil.) To avoid grave problems African Christians fasted, prayed to Mary, gave God gifts, etc., which were the same sorts of solutions that would be resorted to in non-ChristianAfrica.

My story constitutes an important instance of an endless constellation of stories that nourish and give meaning to the relationship between West Africans and aze.   One cannot refuse to recognize the influence of Christianity that came to make sorcery into something linked to Satan.  So we might draw a parallel between Christian visions of sorcery and Christian interpretations of Legba, for example.  Legba was the absolute trap trickster of Christianity, for since the days of the colonial occupation missionaries have translated the word Satan as “Legba”, although Legba had nothing whatsoever to do with Satan.  (It was as though Legba had indeed tricked the Christians.)  Now the azeto does in fact have to do with evil, but with a basis in n’bia.  And that is something basic to human nature, not just to the nature of some transcendent Satan.  In Togo and Ghana we say that human nature has been both good and bad since the beginning, both peaceful and violent, both creative and destructive, like everything else in the world, everything in the entire cosmos itself, according to West African religions.


So the West African discourse on the subject of sorcery is constructed of such stories.  We might say that when an anthropologist interviews an informant on issues of sorcery, the stories that are told are the result of this cultural construction carried out over generations around the predicament of sorcery, suffering, and misfortune.  Every individual contains within herself positive and negative elements—they are integral to all human beings.  They have a power to act on reality (agency), and the result can be violent.  Thus one could say that a person is (considered to be) more powerful in Africa than in Europe.  That is why there is such a discourse about the danger of keeping jealousy or rivalry in the stomach (edome); these negative passions have their own agenda, so one must get rid of them.


 (Here, I must remind you that the relationship between ethno-psychoanalysis and anthropology is always deeply unstable.  The symbolic and practical wealth of the clinic is that in essence it pushes us towards a balance.  We have to be watchful.  If we lean more towards anthropology or towards psychoanalysis too entirely we put ourselves or the patient in danger.  Devereux already wrote about that.  We need an anthropological reading of psychoanalysis as well as a psychoanalytical reading of anthropology.)

The West African community develops a strategy of enculturation and of specific rules of conduct and laws so that the good of all might reign, so that aze can be used for the good.  Aze in its constructive dimension is a motor for a creative Imaginary, both in its social sense and in its very personal form.

 (Reader – Stop here if time is almost up!)

 J. Rosenthal:  Several elements of your narrative make me think of René Girard’s [3] writing about how Oedipus and Apollo are both cursed divinities who are accused of bringing on the plague, and whose punishment then stops the plague.  They are the ones responsible for the crisis and responsible for bringing order back to society.  He says that this duality characterizes all forms of the sacred.  Women who say they are witches sometimes are the sacrificial lambs or the scapegoats of a crisis.  They know that they are not guilty in the strict sense, but they are ready to take upon themselves the weight of guilt or shame so that a ritual may be performed, so that something is done about the crisis and about those who are ill.  Then healing can begin.  I think that the work of René Girard on sacrifice, mimesis, and ritual violence can be interesting in our study of West African religion, even if we don’t agree with his use of the word « primitive » and don’t adhere to his almost doctrinal position on mimesis.  We can’t deny that many origin stories and foundational myths in face-to-face societies include a murder that is situated at the beginning of everything.
« Our long-lasting incapacity to perceive the threat that internal violence constitutes for primitive society prevents us from recognizing that ritual provides a relatively effective protection against this threat » (Girard 2002 p. 249 [Rosenthal’s translation] ).
While you were describing the « cylindrical shape » of the azetowos’ arms and legs (a changing of shape, or a shape shifting that is interpreted to be part of the person’s wish to harm others), I was thinking about Girard’s (p. 252) discussion of Artaud’s Le Theatre et la Peste (p. 29).
« [Artaud] interprets the physiological process as a dissolution of organs, a sort of fusion, a liquefaction of the body, or, on the contrary, a desiccation and pulverization.  This loss of organic differentiation is mythical as far as medical science goes, but all powerful with regard to aesthetics in the sense that it models the pathological symptoms on the falling apart of the culture, producing an irresistible impression of disintegration. » (Girard)
L. Ekoué :  Yes, the frightening aze that we are speaking of is the power for good and evil that is not controlled.  It therefore can easily slide into evil consequences.   It exists as potential power in everyone.  Working with Afa divination helps a person to become conscious of her personal powers and potentials, and therefore to not fall into the trap of unconscious acts that would harm herself and others, especially her loved ones, the family and the lineage.  Should that happen s/he becomes an azeto and thus a pariah.  Initiation in Afa protects a person as well as others.  Certain Afa signs include particular forms of violence, and so when the person knows this s/he can work on herself so as to avoid commiting violence against herself or others.  The azeto develops harmful and destructive power consciously or unconsciously.  Her desire is unconscious, but the acts might be conscious.  The person can wonder why she is doing harm.  That conscious dimension is what brings some people to confess acts of aze.

 During an Afa ceremony, when it comes to praying to the Na (female forest spirits), one never thinks of a person, but rather of spiritual entities.  They are the archetypal mothers of the beginning, myths, and not real women or souls of the dead or ancestral shadows.  They are a sort of Vodu substance, the numinous.  Twins (venaviwo) also are of the same nature—principles of the beginning—a duality necessary for the beginning of the world, the fetume (dzogbese—the beginning, before conception, where the kpoli, or life sign, already exists).  Na and venavi are in the space where life and non-life exist together).

 J. Rosenthal :  That makes me think of Nana Ablewa, the Gorovodu deity among Ewe and Mina, who is a primordial mother vodu (whose color is white) and Nana Wango (whose color is black), the fiercely protective mother and grandmother, the passer, the piroguier or ferryman in her masculine form.  Gorovodu worshippers pray to both of these mothers to protect them from aze and from azetowo.

L. Ekoué :  That is full of resonance for what I’m saying.  We are truly speaking of the same thing, the same cultures.  It is necessary for those of us working clinically to employ these representations, and when we hear these myths we know more about how we ourselves are structured (especially we Africans).  You and I validate each other with these examples, this close knowledge; it’s like magic.

When you and I speak together all the experience of the clinic comes into my head as well as the representations woven from the memories of my childhood.  Childhood memories give body to theory.  We have a creative tension in this work.  We confront each other with our knowledge and our theorizations.  It is better than supervision in the clinical setting in which a “superior” watches over one’s work.  Supervision is a sort of maintenance of one’s clinical work.  But this kind of work delves more deeply.

The notion of aze is extremely complex.  We have to take into account the universe in which it occurs.  People live these stories as pieces of life.

Léocadie Ekoué, Judy Rosenthal. Translation by J. Rosenthal.

[1] This would be « the thing, » a material/psychic dimension, « abyss, » suffering without a name, that no words can describe, that cannot be represented at all, the Lacanian « Real, » that will appear from time to time in these narratives.
[2] Here, rather than simply use the word « imagination, » which would almost have been equal to the task, Ekoué employs a Lacanian term, « l’Imaginaire, » referring to the element of the psyche that is linked to images, the ego, identities, dualities of self and other, « duel relationships, » etc.  Thus it is a perfect term to refer to a situation ofn’bia or rivalry, with its attendant passions of envy and death-wish.  The other two Lacanian terms that accompany the Imaginary are the Real and the Symbolic, both of which are also useful for ethno-psychologists, anthropologists and writers of all sorts.
[3]  La Voix Méconnue du Reel: Une théorie des mythes archaïques et modernes; pp. 248, 249


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