A couple of years before I met my husband, I was crying ugly sobs about my latest breakup when my friend Ibrahima suggested that I could have a rab, the Wolof word for a kind of guardian spirit. We were sitting in my living room in Dakar, drinking the herbal tea I often make when he comes over. I paused mid-mewl to consider the possibility.
I would have rolled my eyes at such a notion when I first moved to Senegal in 2011 for a writing fellowship. I always tended to dismiss the idea of spirits as magical thinking; they were superstitions from a past when people made sense of a world too vast and mysterious by imagining beings who could control the unpredictable.
But over the years, as I finished the fellowship and decided to stay in Senegal, the country started to colonize my mind. I started to bend an ear a bit closer when people made oblique references to the world of the invisible, a world populated by spirits: the ones who walk the middle part of any road; the ones who come out at timis, the time when the sun sets and most good children know they should stay inside; the ones who live in and around baobab trees; the ones who ask that you toss a bit of water to the ground at the door before you start on a journey.
Now if a friend tells me that her enemies at work left a fetish near her desk, I don’t roll my eyes, but cluck with sympathy. I might even suggest, Hey, maybe you need to get a gris-gris of protection? Even so, I cannot say that I believe a gris-gris protects you, only that if you believe it does, it could make you feel better.
My younger self believed that heartbreak would get easier as I got older, but my sample of one demonstrates the opposite.
So, when Ibrahima mentioned a guardian spirit, part of me perked up at the idea of having my own private angel. I imagined a non-corporeal being, a presence with so much goodwill that it had already woven a soft shield around me, a bulwark against the rough winds of life.
Maybe it had protected me that time in Guinea’s Fouta Djallon highlands when the rickety car skidded close to the edge of a slick mountain road and my door swung open exposing me to the rocky cliffs below? The brakes held, just barely, and I clutched the door to keep it closed. When I got back to Senegal, a man I knew asked, “Why would you take these risks? Don’t you worry about the people who love you?” I shrugged. I hadn’t thought about it then. I only thought of the adventure that awaited me at the end of my journey – the lush mountains and waterfalls; the hand-dyed indigo fabrics that smelled like the sweetest earth; the clear nights full of crickets and stars.
Or maybe the rab had been there that time in Nouakchott when I came back to my guesthouse and found that the concrete ceiling of my room had fallen while I was out? The ceiling crushed the bed where I had slept the night before and cracked the chair where I would have been sitting at my computer had I not forced myself to go for a walk in that desert city amid the sand, fumes, and baking, fainting heat.
Ibrahima and I have known each other for many years, and he has seen me pass through many heartbreaks during my time living in Senegal: the man whose family could not and would not accept a foreigner and a non-Muslim; the man who was forced to marry his cousin; the controlling artist; and this one, the man who said he wanted us to build a life together and then disappeared like a magic trick.
My younger self believed that heartbreak would get easier as I got older, but my sample of one demonstrates the opposite. My experience suggests that emotional resilience declines as you age, each cut bringing forth more blood and each wound hitting deeper, making it harder to stitch the skin of your psyche back together. Left behind are scars, jagged and ugly to you no matter what others may see, that hurt on damp days or in the belly of a cold winter.
…sometimes the rab does not protect you from relationship problems and is, instead, the cause of them.
Damp days are rare here between the savanna, the desert, and the ocean, but the dust stands in for the winter, dimming the sun and covering the city in layers of Saharan sand mixed with gas fumes, fine particles of sheep shit, and so many different bacteria that, for my peace of mind, I long ago decided not to investigate. Even when the windows are closed, that dust squeezes through the cracks in the frames, the holes in its defenses; it fills the air and covers the floors, walls, and tables – including the coffee table in my living room where we were drinking a tisane as I cried.
But, why, I asked Ibrahima, why wouldn’t my guardian angel want to protect me from this pain? Doesn’t it want me to be happy? Why would my guardian spirit bring me so many painful experiences?
He explained that sometimes the rab does not protect you from relationship problems and is, instead, the cause of them.
Ibrahima told me a faru rab, or a “boyfriend” genie, could love me so much that it gets jealous of other people. It could want me all to itself. I said, That’s not love; that’s obsession. That rab did not sound like a guardian spirit at all. It sounded like a stalker.
I’m sure that Ibrahima thought that naming a cause – even a rab – would bring me a kind of comfort. It feels good to have a reason for our misfortunes, and it is convenient if that reason is something outside of us. How comforting that it has nothing to do with you but is caused by some mischievous spirits – spiritual thugs who roam the streets and amuse themselves pranking you.
I asked him, How do you get a rab? He said it is just luck – not bad or good – just life’s luck. It chooses you. Maybe it chose you, he said, a long time ago.
Until I settled in Senegal, I had never really thought much about marriage. When I moved, I was in my early thirties and few people in my peer group in cities from New York to Chicago to San Francisco were venturing into this voluntary conjoined state. Despite (or maybe because of) widespread reality TV dating and marriage propaganda à la The Bachelor(ette), or Married at First Sight (or, my personal favorite, Say Yes to the Dress) each generation in the United States is getting married later than the last, and many people are foregoing marriage altogether.
But a change in country meant a change in perspective. As I eased into a new life in Senegal, random people would regularly ask me if I was a mademoiselle or a madame, and, when they learned that I was still (still!) a mademoiselle, they would offer to pray for me so that I would find a husband. I did not feel that my situation was dire enough to require prayer.
In Féminismes Africains, political scientist Rama Salla Dieng interviews feminists from around the continent. In Dieng’s interview with a couple of fellow Senegalese feminists, one of them noted this key challenge in their society: “It is important to know that in the Senegalese popular mindset, the essence of the woman derives from her rapport with men. For them, a fulfilled woman is above all one that is married and has children.”
…it is only when a woman marries that she comes into her own as a person, achieving what anthropologists call, “social adulthood.”
Of course, this point of view is not unique to Senegal; many women might feel the same in, let’s say, half the countries in the world, including many corners of the United States.
There are some differences, though. In Senegal, it is more common than in the United States for potential matches to be made as agreements between families, a pact between colleagues or best friends or, sometimes, siblings, leading to cousin marriage. Before moving to Senegal, my exposure to cousin marriage was limited to 19th-century British novels (I’m looking at you Mansfield Park), textbooks making brief references to inbreeding and genetic disorders, and pop culture depictions of life in isolated rural areas such as the movie Deliverance. So, when a good friend in Senegal told me he was going to marry his first cousin – his mother’s brother’s daughter – I was shocked. But his was not the only marriage that I’d heard of involving cousins of varying degrees of closeness. People here often say, “les cousines sont faites pour les cousins,” – girl cousins are made for boy cousins – and everyone around me seemed to be doing it: my handyman (a distant cousin), my computer repair guy (first cousin), the aforementioned ex-boyfriend (distant cousin), a good friend’s sister (distant cousin), a helpful research librarian (his cousin’s cousin). In each case, the people didn’t marry despite being cousins; being cousins was a point in the couple’s favor since it’s one way to honor family traditions and consolidate family land and wealth. Again, Senegal is not an outlier; cousin marriage is still common and broadly accepted in many parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Women here also do marry for love on their own terms, but they try to do it before they age out of the first-marriage market. After all, early marriage is a societal norm; it is only when a woman marries that she comes into her own as a person, achieving what anthropologists call, “social adulthood.” The average Senegalese woman first marries at the tender age of nineteen.
I initially heard a bit about rab as an idea more than a decade ago on my first reporting trip to Senegal.
I had gotten a grant to produce a radio feature about medical research in the region and an editor asked me to tack on a story about traditional medicine, a broad term that includes many different practices, from herbal remedies and massages to mystical baths and ritual sacrifices.
The rab does not make it easy for them; ndëpp ceremonies can last for days. As part of the ceremony, the ill person and a group of women dance to the beat of drums until the spirit takes over their bodies.
The editor was keen to focus on a ceremony called ndëpp that was used to treat a person with a mental illness. Ndëpp involves elements of possession, animal sacrifice, and dance. But only people from the fishing communities up and down the country’s long coastline practice the ritual and, even then, only on rare occasions. I made no promises but said I would make inquiries and see if I could find a ceremony happening during my stay.
After many calls, preliminary meetings with people who said they knew people involved (but didn’t), and some begging, I managed to reach a man whose mother officiated ndëpp ceremonies – a ndëppkat. He said that I could come to a ndëpp ceremony happening that weekend and the next; in fact, the whole village would be there, so I would be welcome.
To prepare, I read up about the ceremony to understand why some traditional healers considered this to be medicine. The theory behind the ceremony holds that if you are ill in your mind – it could be depression, but it could also be, say, schizophrenia – that your illness could be caused by a discontented rab – or several – who need to be wooed back into happiness with pageantry, kind words, and gifts of fresh meat, milk, and kola nuts. The rab does not make it easy for them; ndëpp ceremonies can last for days. As part of the ceremony, the ill person and a group of women dance to the beat of drums until the spirit takes over their bodies. This is how the healing happens.
An acquaintance told me to be careful about what I saw and ate while there; it could be dangerous. What kind of danger? I asked. Like, Hepatitis A danger or magical danger? He wasn’t clear. Maybe he was worried about the allure of the tam-tam and the jembé and the spirits who could make my mind fall away so that they could take its place?
The ceremony was in a town called Thiaroye, an old fishing village that had become a crowded, suffocating suburb of Dakar, choked between a polluted bay on one side and, on the other, a highway that connected the Cap Vert peninsula to the rest of the continent.
When I arrived, the house’s courtyard was bursting with the old and young. I found that I had missed the sacrifice of the bulls. Helpers were still separating out which steaming parts should be given to the spirits in their secret chamber, an enclosed garden with pots sitting in the sand and bottles hanging from the trees; which parts should be fed to the sea; and which parts should be cooked with a hearty millet couscous and fed to the multitudes of well-wishers and onlookers.
I wonder if that ndëpp is why I have been living here for so long. Did the rab find me there?
I waded into a crowd that was undulating like the ocean just a few dozen paces in front of us. With a bit of maneuvering and a couple of well-placed elbows, I found a distant corner with a good view to watch the dancing part of the ceremony. The drums started slowly, beating in sync with the human heart, and then got faster. Their vibrations moved up from our feet to our heads, making our bodies into instruments themselves with the sea as an accompaniment.
Women who had been covered in multiple scarves for modesty now flung themselves around the courtyard, careless with their clothes, careless with their limbs. Only the bravest spectators or the silliest of children would stand near the front, and then only if they had good reflexes. The drums beat faster and faster. It was a syncophony, a jumble of discordant sounds and colors and smells and feelings. At one moment a dancer stopped and started to weep. Another woman suddenly had the strength to pick up one of the drummers and carry him on her shoulders, her eyes wild. The spirit had arrived.
I, too, was eventually overwhelmed, not with the spirit, but with the too-muchness of it all. I slipped out and walked toward the ocean’s shore, hoping its rhythm would soon restore my own.
Later, I sat with the ndëpp priestess, a tiny old woman swathed in enormous shawls, along with some other older women. A communal bowl of millet and meat from the sacrifice – the part the rab didn’t need – appeared in front of us. I remembered the man’s warning about eating there, but it seemed rude not to join in and, bon, I had already been vaccinated for Hepatitis A, and I did not believe in magic.
The ndëppkat made a joke about me marrying her son and staying in Senegal. She sang a song about it – a song about me staying there with them permanently.
I did not marry her son. But I did come back to Senegal, and I stayed. I wonder if that ndëpp is why I have been living here for so long. Did the rab find me there? Was this the moment the rab decided it wanted me to remain by its side forever?
Several years ago, I saw a documentary about marriage in Senegal, one with an evocative title: Qui suis-je sans mari? (Who am I without a husband?) In it, a few accomplished women of various ages – including a doctor, a businesswoman, and a professor – discuss how society treats them because they’re unmarried. They talk about the pressure they feel to get married, about the discrimination they encounter, about their solitary combat against the status quo. One of the women characterizes her situation in stark terms: “The worst thing that can happen to a woman in our society is to have reached a certain age without finding a husband.” In an interview, director Mariama Samba Baldé said she was motivated to make this documentary because the stigma seemed unjust to her. “I noticed that unmarried women in Senegal were suffering because people looked down on them, no matter how much education they had, no matter their achievements, no matter if they were financially independent or not, it didn’t matter.”
In a race to get married, many women here will join polygynous unions, since Senegalese law allows Muslim men (Senegal is more than 90 percent Muslim) to have up to four wives at a time. More than a third of Senegalese adults are in a polygynous marriage. This is especially common as a woman gets older. A woman in her thirties, for example, would probably have to settle for life as a second, third, or fourth wife. But at least she would be a wife, everyone would say.
No one ever prayed for him to find a wife; no one joked or treated him like a pariah; no one told him that a spirit was keeping him from fulfilling his destiny as a husband.
This isn’t always just a choice of desperation. In The Sex Lives of African Women, a collection of interviews curated by Ghanaian writer and activist Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, she speaks with a Kenyan woman in Senegal about her experience with polygamy. Nura was in her early forties when she married the man she has nicknamed, ironically, “His Excellency.” Despite her tense relationship with her two co-wives, she says that there are many advantages to the situation: “I like that I don’t have to see my husband every day. I don’t even have to talk to him every day. This gives me a lot of time for myself. I can read, I can study, and I have time to work on my art.”
Still, in this context, people wonder about a woman who has made it through a few decades of life without a husband. Everywhere the “older” never-been-married woman goes, people say, like it is a gift, that they are praying that she will be able to be a wife one day. They offer up cousins or brothers or neighbors, single or not since a man’s current marital status is no obstacle to his future marital bliss with one, or two, or three more women. If all else fails, they will drag her to consult with a marabout. A marabout could be a proper Muslim holy man who uses the religious channels to ask for divine guidance in such matters, but it often is a man who is something between a seer and a shaman.
What kind of science journalist would I be if I believed in the occult?
On a popular Facebook group in Senegal, people write anonymously about their relationship dilemmas and submit them to the mob for commentary: whom to marry, whom to divorce, whom to talk to about their insecurities or traumas or secrets. I am always moved by the stories anguished women write about their lives as reluctant single women. Many who write in assume that because they have had multiple breakups, or sometimes have erotic dreams, a faru rab must be with them.
When I tell my husband, who is Senegalese, about all this research, he doesn’t believe that things are as bad as I say. But he’s a man. No one ever prayed for him to find a wife; no one joked or treated him like a pariah; no one told him that a spirit was keeping him from fulfilling his destiny as a husband. These are not things that happen to men. After all, I have yet to hear about a documentary called, Who am I without a wife?
After Ibrahima told me about the possibility of the faru rab, I didn’t really think about it for a while. Sure, I told other friends about his amateur spiritual diagnosis, but it was just an interesting anecdote to trot out while I talked about my bad luck. I definitely didn’t consider doing anything about it.
But as time went on, my work stalled. I was depressed – not eating, not seeing people, and not sleeping. And then my geriatric dog died suddenly of heart failure, gasping for breath on the tiled floor of my apartment. He was a street mutt who had a sweet attitude toward humans but was vicious when it came to other dogs. Rottweiler or toy poodle, Sammy’s dog enemies were legion, at least in his mind. He was crazy – what my Arkansas relatives might have called an ornery cuss – but I loved him.
It was in this state that I started thinking about consulting a marabout myself.
When I first mentioned the idea in passing to my therapist, still seeing it as a kind of joke meant to express how unmoored I was feeling, she asked, “Why are you saying this like you are ashamed of it?” I reminded her that I come from a religious family, one where the only spirit allowed was the Holy Spirit. So, that was one reason – childhood indoctrination. And the other reason was that I’m a journalist who writes about science. What kind of science journalist would I be if I believed in the occult?
When her marabout told her that she should sacrifice a sheep, she gave him enough money to do it on her behalf. Still, her faru rab did not go away.
Part of me longed for the days when magic and science kept company, when Sir Isaac Newton believed in this thing called gravity, and also in alchemy; when Marie and Pierre Curie studied radioactivity and magnetism, and also visited psychic mediums; when Alfred Russell Wallace was outspoken about the theory of evolution and the study of spiritualism. Knowledge, they might say, can be pursued in many different forms.
I decided to bring up the idea of seeing a marabout with the woman who had been cleaning my apartment for the last decade, a never-been married cheerful lady in her late fifties. Whether I want to know it or not, she tells me everything – or at least it seems that way: her gripes about her sisters, the details from her latest family marriage or baptism, the hot gossip about the cooks, maids, and guards in the building and, of course, about the neighbors who employ them. But she had never told me about the many marabouts she had seen to chase away her faru rab over the years. “All the times you remember you told me that I needed to try to save money, if only you knew what I was spending my money on,” she finally admitted to me when I revealed that I was interested in a marabout consultation.
When her marabout told her that she should sacrifice a sheep, she gave him enough money to do it on her behalf. Still, her faru rab did not go away. She went to others, too: one told her to take a bath while standing on a mortar; another told her to do a banana cure (she was to eat one while standing up, another while lying down and another while sitting); and still another gave her herbs and salt to bathe with to chase the rab away.
…women here, women everywhere, sometimes feel bamboozled by marriage, mixed up in the dreams and drives of whole societies.
Eventually she stopped going to marabouts altogether, and now she warned me not to start down this path. Her own path eventually led back to something adjacent to her Catholic upbringing. She started frequenting an evangelical prophet who said he would use spiritual intercession to help her to get a husband. Instead of paying marabouts, she gives offerings to the prophet, and attends his tent meetings.
Recently, though, she told me that it didn’t matter if she found a husband or not. She likes her carefully crafted life and its rhythms: summer vacations in the village visiting with her mother; holidays at the homes of different relatives; pork brochettes and beer with her sisters at the end of the month. It’s a good life, she said.
In Sekyiamah’s The Sex Lives of African Women, she also interviews an extraordinary woman in Senegal named Fatou whose story is so unusual in this conservative context that I had trouble believing that she was real. She’s a woman in her sixties who divorced her husband long ago and lives a polyamorous lifestyle, maintaining relationships with men and women. She says she’ll never marry again: “I think the institution of marriage has been set up to trick women. They tell you that once you get married the guy takes care of you, but that’s not true. Many women lose all the privileges of a free woman when they get married and what they gain is nothing compared to what they lose.”
She might be right that women here, women everywhere, sometimes feel bamboozled by marriage, mixed up in the dreams and drives of whole societies. Fatou shows that there’s room, on rare occasions, to think about embracing another path. I held onto Fatou’s atypical life story like a person lost, seeking a voice in the darkness.
I imagine that wherever Fatou lives, many people have told her she has a faru rab – sisters, neighbors, exes, market women, guards on the street. Everyone. But I also imagine that she does not care what they think.
I decided to contact a man I’ll call the marabout whisperer, a friend of a friend who frequents dozens of small-time marabouts across the city. He agreed to act as my guide. We slipped in and out of tenement apartments, family compounds, and sun-dappled courtyards, asking questions and listening to the answers that came back.
All the marabouts I met worked differently. One man held shop at the back of a corner store near the city’s prison; he told me to tell my problems to the kola nut and then searched for a word that looked like my name, as written in Arabic script. The next marabout drew little lines on a piece of paper to make patterns, a form of geomancy that is widely practiced across the Muslim world. Another said the spirit spoke to him when he rubbed coconut oil on his face, legs, and arms.
Each toss gave him new information and sometimes he chuckled or nodded his head. The spirits were whispering in his ears.
The one who drew lines, sure enough, told me I had a rab and I needed to get rid of it. He prescribed a mystical bath, prayers, and a sheep sacrifice, all of which, naturally, he could take care of for me for a low, low price. When I went back and told the marabout whisperer about the diagnosis and cure, he dismissed it saying my problems weren’t serious enough to warrant a sheep sacrifice.
Another marabout’s preferred medium was fresh dirt from a termite mound in his home village in far eastern Senegal, but Dakar was a long way from his village and its termite mounds, so the lines of geomancy would have to do. He told me that, yes, a spirit walks with me, a rab. The goal, he said, was not to vanquish it, but to tame it. “It’s like when you have a right leg that wants to go one way and the left leg wants to go another way, then you can’t go anywhere.” For him, a rab was a shadow, a twin from the invisible world. By taming it, he said, I could convince it to work with me instead of against me. I could get it to walk with me on the same path.
And then there was the marabout I liked the best. He unveiled a little bag of cowrie shells and gave them to me so I could whisper my questions into their curves and crevices. Then he gathered the shells up and tossed them to the ground while he cocked his head, listening. Each toss gave him new information and sometimes he chuckled or nodded his head. The spirits were whispering in his ears.
I asked him directly, what about the rab? He said, no – no, that’s not it, and he continued throwing his cowries. Eventually he stopped and pushed away the shells; he had heard enough to understand the situation. He told me the cure for my worries was simple: I needed to wake up every morning, give thanks, forgive, eat well, and sleep well. That’s it. He said, sometimes you knock on a door, and no one answers. Life is like that sometimes. But don’t worry, he told me. Every door opens in its own time.
When I was planning my wedding a couple of years after that consultation, the husband-to-be and I decided to forego a religious ceremony. He was raised Catholic, but doesn’t practice anymore, and I was raised Baptist, but haven’t seen the inside of a church for many years. So, we elected to just get married at city hall in Dakar. The pandemic was in full swing, which meant that even many friends and family members in Senegal could not come in person, and we livestreamed the event for people near and far. No one in my family speaks French, so after the ceremony a few of them sent me messages about why the crowd had laughed uproariously at one point and why, at another point, I had frowned and shook my head. The laughter was because the officiant read out my husband’s full name – including all five of his middle names – and made a funny comment about it; and the grimace was because the officiant read out the parts of Senegalese family code statute that say that “the husband is the head of the family,” and “the husband chooses where the household will live,” among other bons mots. Obviously, I didn’t agree, and neither did my husband.
My husband also doesn’t believe in the spirits – not in rab, not in the Holy Ghost – and he does not believe in psychics or seers or throwers of cowries or clerics or priests who purport to commune with those spirits. He believes in the rain that blesses the earth, in the birds who bring us messages from the sky, and in the trees that bear witness. When he tells me this, I think, but do not say, that maybe these things are one and the same.