the Congo

Witch Doctor of the Mayombe

This is a story about clichés, about how we often limit our imaginations when we let canned images tell us how things are. This is a story about an afternoon I was honored to spend visiting a practicing witch doctor in the Congo's Mayombe uplands outside of Brazzaville. One of the best aspects of travel is the people you meet, the opening of your own world to different ways and customs. You learn of many solutions to common problems equally valid as your own. In this respect I have been very privileged in my life in having a job which permits travel to such interesting places.

Recently my work landed me in the Congo in order to visit the local Ministries of Energy and Hydrocarbons. We were met in Brazzaville by the Director General of the local Shell office. Because of scheduling concerns we found ourselves with a free afternoon in which the Shell rep invited us for a drive to the uplands east of Brazzaville to have lunch at the place of a local witch doctor. Working on the clichés, he had a good deal of fun regaling us with what we were to encounter and the types of food which would be served. The reality of course would be rather different and much more fascinating.

The drive out included a stop at the "atelier" or shop of a local wood sculptor named Massengo where we viewed many incredible pieces carved in gray and black ebony, ironwood, and other tropical woods. Sculpting in wood has always been a local specialty in Africa. The vision imparted into the forms differs markedly from western esthetic giving them (to me at least) an exotic beauty. I bought, after a good deal of negotiation, a few pieces which grace my home and bring back good memories to this day.

Brazzaville itself sits on the Congo River on the edge of a vast and nearly circular depression called the Stanley Pool. The river issues from a narrow canyon where it opens out into two branches. The branches form a giant circle of water nearly ten to fifteen kilometers across with a flat island in the center and then rejoin before flowing back into another canyon with huge rapids and standing waves. Outside the valley of the Congo River and the Stanley Pool the land rises onto the Mayombe plateau, an open rolling country built on Tertiary gravels. The gravels give the land good drainage and the lush tropical vegetation of the lowlands give way to open prairies.

We drove slowly along paved roads in bad need of maintenance and had a good view of the country. The sky was a heavy tropical gray with a hint of rain. At one point we turned off the road onto a dirt track down into a small valley. At the bottom we were presented with a scene of lush beauty which remains burned into my mind as if yesterday. There was the white stucco restaurant of the witch doctor framed by a great tropical tree, palms and shrubbery with every kind of flower. All this was reflected off a pond as still as glass. We parked the cars and stepped out into air heavy with humidity and were greeted by the doctor.

The doctor himself was a study in contrasts. No Hollywood cliché, he was dressed in simple shorts and shirt. He was a small unassuming man with a shy continence and a very complex personality. Our host explained that he was a doctor indeed, educated in France, he held a Ph.D. in medicinal botany from the Sorbonne. He spoke Latin and French as well as local dialects. On his land he had the dream of building a spa-resort where people could stay and take a cure and find relaxation. To date he has built a small restaurant and several bungalows but remains chronically short of capitol and has advanced no farther. Although highly educated, he lacks a business sense and works in a country which does not reward industry. His primary income therefor comes from his practice of traditional medicine. He has used his education to research the medicinal qualities of the local flora. Growing all about his property, he walked with us explaining the uses of the various plants and flowers we saw.

With the plants he makes a number of medicines and potions which he then sells or uses in his practice. One item in high demand is his "love" potion, in reality a potency brew or "stay-hard" solution. It is considered an important responsibility as well as a sign of masculinity in the region for a man to well satisfy the sexual appetite of his woman. On leaving the place we noticed in the car a bottle filled with a milky liquid. The driver was somewhat embarrassed at first when we asked about it but then we had a good laugh. Yes, it was the famous potion. The appellation "witch" is also no misnomer. While educated in Christian France, he retains his own religion and beliefs. In addition to the medicine, he also casts spells and practices his magic.

While we wandered about the property enjoying the tropical wonders about us, the drivers went out and purchased a couple chickens from a local resident and these were prepared for us along with roasted plantains, a sort of local starchy banana, and other fruits and vegetables. All was washed down with that other, more prosaic potion one sees all across the Congo, Ngok' beer. The afternoon passed in good company and good food. It was with some regrets but much satisfaction when we finally took our leave and began the slow journey back down off the Mayombe and back to Brazza. On the way down I had the time to reflect on the picture in my mind of the cliché "witch doctor". It is such a shame that the image of grass skirts and wild painted face's remains strong, the reality is so much more interesting. In the Congo, as everywhere, people are people. Everybody has their concerns, their expectations and dreams. I pray that the witch doctor on the Mayombe is able to realize one day his dream of a successful spa.

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