Friday, August 27, 2010

Gris-gris – sometimes attractive and always practical

A few days ago, Kelly spotted a couple of ornate leather belts on a chair just inside our front door which she figured belonged to Sonko. She thought they’d look nice with some of her skirts, so she asked him about them. (One is pictured above)

“Those are for protection while I am guarding the house. If someone tries to stab me with a knife while I am wearing them, the knife will not penetrate me,” he said. “I wear them very late at night.”

We live in a safe part of one of Africa’s safest cities, but the use of gris-gris(pronounced greegree) – or protective charms – is as active here as anywhere else on the continent. They come in the form of necklaces, earrings, rings, armbands, and belts and generally have very specific uses.

“They also make them for bullets,” Sonko said.

Senegal’s professional wrestlers are perhaps the most decadent users of gris-gris. The sport is cherished by the Senegalese, who flock to stadiums each Sunday night to watch muscle-bound men with shaved heads duke it out in a circular sand ring. But before the matches begin, there is a drawn-out gris-gris ceremony during which the fighters put on their magical arm bands and have jugs full of good-luck fruit juices poured over their heads by a fawning entourage.

Taxi drivers also use gris-gris to protect them on the road. In this case, the gris-gris is applied to the vehicle itself, instead of to the driver – usually it is a lock of horse hair tied to the rear bumper, sort of like a tail. From the looks of the cabs, though, these things don’t prevent bust ups.

Elsewhere, in the region, gris-gris is a must-have for anyone who engages in battle. Fighters in Liberia’s civil war are famous for having worn women’s wigs while taking potshots at eachother, believing the wigs would deflect bullets. Creepy.

More recently, in Congo where rebels are up to some nightmarish things on a routine basis, a Spaniard was taken hostage during a bizarre vacation. Congo’s Information Minister announced to the press before his release a few days later that the rebels had shaved off all of the Spaniard’s body hair to make good luck charms, believing non-African hair has special powers in battle. A great story that turned out to be false – his hair was still on when he was released.

Anyway, none of that really matters. Gris-gris or not, Sonko’s belts are cool and Kelly’s likely to have some made to wear for aesthetic reasons.

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