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 , 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
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  . 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 
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
« 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
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.
 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.
 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
 La Voix Méconnue du Reel: Une théorie des mythes archaïques et modernes; pp. 248, 249