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In Sorcery's shadows. A memoir of apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger

Written by: Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes

Book in a nutshell
original title: In Sorcery's Shadow. A memoir of apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger Photo of front page of book 'In sourcery's shadow' of Stoller and Olkes; click left mouse button to view enlarged.
author: Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes
ISBN : 0-226-77543-7
size: 236 pages (152 mm * 229 mm)
published: 1987, in English (paperback in 1989)
publisher: The University of Chicago Press 1427 E. 60th Street Chicago, IL 60637 USA
on internet: http://www.press.uchicago.edu

Review Structure of book Text on back The authors

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The motto of the book is « Bundu si te kaare». This Zarma proverb on the second page of the book - just above a citation of Wittgenstein - is often used by Paul Stoller in his conversation with the peoples he encounters to express he knows that although he mastered the Songhay-Zarma language he will never be one of them. Literally the proverb signifies « The (floating) log never becomes a crocodile ».

The book reads like a novel. It is a suspenseful book full of danger and intrigues. Stoller and Olkes describe how Stoller was absorbed into the world of Songhay sorcery step by step. It all began when a bird took a crap on Stollers head in the presence of Djibo, a Zarma farmer who regularly visited Stoller for a talk. Djibo turns out to be a sorko, one of the three kinds of Songhay healers. Djibo said that it was a sign and that Stoller had been appointed to him as an apprentice. Being doubtful and full of questions about Djibos motives and his own motives as a human being and an anthropologist, he accepted this apprenticeship. After this first step there seems to be no way back and Stoller gets deeply involved in the world of Songhay and Zarma sorcery.

Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes tell in this book the stories Stoller couldn't recount in his scientific publications. And this is probably not only because « in formal settings anthropologists are supposed to be dispassionate analyst ». The stories take you to a world that is full of magic and things that can not be explained by ratio.

This book gives you insight into the Songhay-Zarma world behind the world we would see when we live and work as expatriates in Songhay-Zarma territory.

Bartlomiej Walczak (University of Warsaw) wrote a scientific discussion about the field study described this marvellous book.

Structure of book

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The main part of the book is made up of five parts, describing events in 1976-1977, 1979-1980, 1981, 1982-1983, and 1984. These are the periods Paul Stoller worked as an anthropologist in Niger. Cheryl Olkes worked in Niger among the Songhay in 1981 and in 1982-1983 and stayed with Stoller in Niger several times.

In addition to this main part and the table of contents, the book has a prologue, acknowledgements, an epilogue and a glossary. The prologue gives insight into the study area and gives a reflection on the position of Stoller as anthropologist and apprentice in a society he is to suppose to study. The epilogue gives a reflection on Stollers feelings when he left Niger in 1984, the field work in anthropology and importance of languish skills of the anthropologist, the crossing of the line of interfering in the society studied, and Stollers return to Niger in 1985-1986. The glossary contains a list of Zarma words / concepts used in the book with their explanation.

The main part of the book has in total 41 chapters. The first period, 1976-1977, makes up half of the book. It describes the start of Stollers apprenticeship and initiation as a sorko, his meeting with Adamu Jenitongo, a sohanci and zima, who becomes his teacher, and end with his first act as sorcerer. In the second part, 1979-1980, Stoller makes to trips to Ayoru and Wanzerbe to meet powerful women. In Ayoru he meets Howa Zima to give her a message from his new teacher Adama Jenitongo. After this meeting he has a frightful night and more or less flight from Ayoru the next morning. In Wanzerbe he tries to meet the most famous and powerful Kassy. He does not succeed, but he meets another powerful woman Dunguri, a zima and friend of Kassy. This is a very strange meeting, and at night he experiences an magical attack that he succeeds to ward off with difficulty. In the third part, 1981, he continues his apprenticeship with Adamu. In part four, 1982-1983, finally he succeeds to meet Kassy, because she invites him. In the last part, 1984, Stoller and Olkes are together in Niger. They learn more about medicinal plants, and Adamu helps Stoller to enter a new path and leave the path of ongoing battles of the sorcerer-warrior. His relationship with Djibo, who is mainly interested in money, comes to an end, but Stoller discovers that his brother, who always kept himself in the background, is an expert on plant medicine.

Text on back (partly)

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The tale of Paul Stoller's sojourn among sorcerers in the Republic of Niger is a story of growth and change, of mutual respect and understanding that will challenge all who read it to plunge deeply into an alien world.

« Stoller spent years of head work and faced many difficulties to stay with people he and Olkes portray as interesting and beautiful, sometimes petty, occasionally terrifying, often difficult to understand, but always human.... This is one of the most engrossing accounts of fieldwork that I have ever seen » John M. Chernoff, American Anthropologist.

« In Sorcery's Shadow also ... captures the special kind of magic that the back country of contemporary Africa worked on the imagination of an earnest young social scientist who came to study the Songhay and ended up falling in love with them ... Stoller and Olkes are wonderful writers, and their prose - so vivid and yet so graceful - occasionally achieves the quality of poetry » Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times.

The authors

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Paul Stoller is professor of anthropology at West Chester University. He has conducted ethnographic research in the Republic of Niger in West Africa and among West African immigrants in New York City. He was also a research associate in the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution. And currently is member of Advisory Board, Human Studies Film Archives of the Smithsonian Institution, and of Advisory Board of International Centre for Contemporary Cultural Research of the University of Manchester. Stoller published 13 books, amongst others the book related to the book reviewed: 'Fusion of the Worlds: Ethnography of Possession Among the Songhay of Niger'.

Cheryl Olkes was director of Harmattan, a gallery of African arts in Washington, D.C., USA. She died in 1998. She graduated from the Chatham college in 1970 with a B.A. in English and immediately entered Ohio State University, where she received an M.A. in Journalism in 1971. She then entered the University of Texas, Austin, where she received a Ph.D. in Communications in 1978. Her dissertation addressed the potential uses of mass media in the Republic of Niger. In the 1980s Cheryl Olkes lived in Africa among the Songhay people of Niger. Her experiences are recounted in the book reviewed in this article, she wrote with her husband, Paul Stoller. Cheryl Olkes collected African art during her many visits to the continent. She later owned and directed the gallery Harmattan African Arts in Washington D.C. and was an active supporter of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. She bequeathed her collection of art to Chatham college.


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