Braided Worlds is something of a literary miracle. First the story: In 1979-1980 anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and her husband Philip Graham spent 13 months among the Beng, a small language/cultural group in Ivory Coast in West Africa. A decade later they published Parallel Worlds, a gorgeously conceived and beautifully nuanced co-discovery of the Beng, part ethnology, part narrative and part family conversation. In the intervening years, Philip and Alma have returned twice for extended stays with their friends, the Beng. They brought their children; they immersed themselves in the village. But wars and revolution have torn up that part of the world, too. Darkness descends. The result of these later visits is a brand new sequel to the first volume, the just-published Braided Worlds (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
The literary miracle part comes from the neatly contrived cross-perspective of two gifted writers with different yet co-operative points of view. Both Alma and Philip bring different life interests, education and obsessions to bear: the one is studying the Beng with an arsenal of anthropological concepts and tools; the other is writing a novel while living amongst the Beng, bringing his literary sensibilities and his native curiosity to bear on his experience at every turn. The result is an amazing book, an amazing conversation, and a sense of life energized by difference, surprise, sympathy, respect and intelligence. (It’s needs to be mentioned that both Alma and Philip are very conscious of the debt they owe the Beng for their intellectual and emotional generosity and hospitality — all the royalties from these two books go to the Beng, not the authors.)
In the passage from Braided Worlds here published, through interweaving narratives, Alma and Philip recount unexpected dramas of cultural contact, including a religious leader’s declaration that the authors’ six-year-old son Nathaniel was the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, Graham’s late father being accepted into the Beng afterlife, and the deepening and increasingly dangerous madness of Matatu, a tormented young villager.
The air still chilly from an overnight rain, our village hostess Amenan stepped among the puddles in the compound to sit beside Philip and me and fill us in on village doings. I wasn’t surprised to hear her begin with a story about Matatu. Shortly after we’d left the village for our short trip to the capital, he came to our compound, and when Amenan explained that we’d gone to Abidjan, Matatu announced that he’d follow us. Soon, he picked a fight with his older brother over borrowing a bicycle. “His brother refused to lend it. Who rides a bicycle all the way to Abidjan? But Matatu grew so angry he attacked his brother with a machete.”
I sucked in my breath. Matatu’s madness had moved undeniably from eccentric to dangerous. After the failed assault, Amenan continued, Matatu fled and wandered around the Beng region. When a group of farmers heard he was nearby, they abandoned their fields and beat a quick path back to their village, terrified that Matatu might try to attack them too. They sent messengers to Asagbé, begging for strong men to bring him home.
“Once Matatu was returned to his compound,” Amenan said, “his older brother strapped him to a big log. That’s where he’s been for the past few days.”
Amenan paused to let the weight of her words sink in, then added, “But Matatu is trying to free himself. He’s pulled so much that his hand tied to the log has swelled up. They’ll probably free him even though he’s still crazy . . .”
“My god, this is terrible!” I burst out.
Philip said nothing, but I read misery on his face and imagined he was thinking that our presence in the village, our western goods had fueled Matatu’s deepening madness, his conviction that he was the prime minister of Côte d’Ivoire. He deserved riches . . . and why not? But what else might come of Matatu’s longing?
I pounded at the typewriter keyboard, its slow clatter the soundtrack of my novel, when through the screen door I heard Germain’s voice offer his greetings in the compound, followed by Alma and Amenan’s responses. I decided to stay put in the work of this developing scene in my novel: the imagined setting of a model train museum, where a secret hid among a tableau of tiny plastic figures in a miniature downtown.
Alma peered inside. “Germain is here, with Matatu’s father, Yao. You might want to be part of this.”
I did. Here was another drama I felt bound to, however unwillingly, haunted by Matatu’s relentless wandering about the village with a sack of discarded, useless objects, which he presented as treasures to anyone who would listen. I left my desk and sat beside Alma on one of the chairs set out in a circle.
With the typical Beng formality of a village elder, Germain began to speak for Matatu’s father, asking us to travel to Bouaké to buy medicine for his son’s madness. Alma and I had grown accustomed to Germain trying to squeeze some financial or political advantage out of any situation, though in this case he clearly employed his position in the village to represent Matatu’s family in their crisis.
I turned to Alma. “What do you think?”
She kept her voice low, even though we were speaking in English. “I don’t think drugs are the answer . . . ”
“I agree, they didn’t help him the first time. And anyway, after we leave, those pills or whatever would run out.”
“Maybe an African solution would be better,” Alma said, and she turned to Amenan. “Aren’t there good healers among the Jimini people,” Alma asked, now in French, “ones who can cure madness?”
Amenan nodded, pleased that the discussion had turned to an area of her expertise. “I know a Ghanaian man who healed a woman in Asagbé. She used to be mad, but he cured her. He’s very good. He lives nearby, in a little village, Kaklagbé. It’s between Wati and Bedara.”
Alma and I looked at each other. Since we felt certain that Matatu’s illness was deeply embedded in his own culture, maybe this was worth a try, at least for starters. We offered to pay for the healer’s treatment. Matatu’s father and Germain huddled into their own whispering, and then announced that the entire family would have to decide.
Their decision wasn’t long in coming. Matatu soon broke free of his hand chains, though he no longer seemed violent. I would drive with Amenan’s husband Kofi to Kaklagbé, where my friend would ask the healer to take on the case.
The next morning, Amenan greeted me with bad news: “Matatu’s not better.”
“Now what?” I sighed, afraid to hear details.
“Last night, Matatu came by and said, ‘Big Sister, you were very bad when you didn’t give me anything to eat this afternoon. I was hungry!’ I’d given him a snack a little earlier, but he wanted more and I refused. So he returned to complain. I told him it’s not my responsibility to feed him. I was nice enough to give him anything.”
“Of course,” I sympathized, silently admiring my friend for her courage in standing up to Matatu.
“The problem is,” Amenan continued, ”he doesn’t stay at his mother’s house long enough to eat. He just wanders around the village.”
“You should be careful,” I warned her. “He might try to hurt you if he thinks you should feed him.”
“I’m not afraid of him,” Amenan countered, “he can only hurt people in his family.”
I nodded, relieved by Amenan’s reminder that among the Beng, witchcraft worked only with relatives bound by matrilineal ties. Yet a nagging doubt remained. Would a madman like Matatu follow the cultural script?
“Still, he isn’t improving on his own,” Amenan observed. “We need to fetch that Ghanaian healer, so Matatu can start treatment.”
Scrunched in the back seat of the car beside Alma and Nathaniel sat Ajei, the Ghanaian healer who’d agreed to take on the case of Matatu’s illness, and beside me Kofi warned of especially impressive upcoming potholes, though I could easily see them myself. The French word for a narrow little trail like this was piste, but a true piste boasted superhighway status compared to this horror of crevises and fault lines that constantly required maneuvering, and the dirt banks on either side of this piste stood close enough to scrape the car. Whenever patches of sandy soil sucked the wheels to a stop, Kofi and I pushed the car from behind, while Alma gunned the engine and the healer and Nathaniel stood safely off to the side.
Too often we came upon a four- or five-foot-high termite mound in the middle of the trail that I had to squeeze around—sometimes with two wheels high on the edge of one of the raised banks. I had to apply constant attention to the slightest trick and trap, and the trail stretched on and on as if it would never end. I’d already driven back and forth to the healer’s village days earlier, to ask for his help and offer him a chicken as a sign of respect. Now here I was again on this nasty seven-kilometer stretch. Perhaps this was a minor hell assigned to me for all my sins when I drove a cab one long-ago summer in New York City.
Finally, after emptying everyone out once again for another termite mound so the car wouldn’t tip over when it angled against the trail’s raised bank, some tenuous constraint snapped inside me. With the latest obstruction safely behind us, and the car full once more, off we drove. But now added to the dutiful rrrrrr of the engine rose from me first a murmur, then a full-throated string of the worst insults in any language that I could summon, a rising and falling, a rolling along of a Frenbenglish twisted eloquence that surprised even me. Once started, with no internal ignition key to switch off my running road trip commentary, I couldn’t stop.
Alma normally would have bored a hole in the back of my head for this string of curses I let loose within hearing range of Nathaniel, but this was one of those moments that demanded cursing, a protest against this reprehensible road. In the rearview mirror I saw my son’s six year-old self hunched over his drawing pad, pen carefully applied to the page, deep in his own world of art. Even if he listened, he’d have to learn these words some time in his life, and what better pedagogical moment could there be than the provocation of this road? On and on it perversely re-revealed its unique features, as if egging me on.
I would have protested Philip’s string of curses let loose within hearing range of Nathaniel, but I suspected that my husband’s foul mouth was less a complaint against this path-in-the-guise-of-a-road and more an outpouring of pent-up sadness at his father’s death back home. So I took the diversionary tactic of talking to the healer about his life. I posed questions in English to Kofi, who graciously translated to the healer in Fante, then back in English—and Nathaniel had the rare experience of actually understanding what was said around him.
The topic piqued his interest, and at times he suggested new questions. At first, since the subject of the interview was so—well, adult—the mother in me didn’t want to upset Nathaniel. But my young son seemed to have developed his own anthropological curiosity. After all, he’d already accepted his new village name of Grandfather Denju, bestowed because he was considered to be a reincarnation of an important clan ancestor.
“Do you know why Matatu went mad?” I asked the healer.
“I do know,” the healer said quietly, after Kofi translated, “otherwise I couldn’t cure him. I can’t discuss it now. But I’ve spoken with Matatu . . .”
“Ah, bon?” I commented, surprised. I hadn’t heard about any recent visits the healer had paid to our village.
“I heard Matatu speaking to me in my mind, just as a diviner would do. I could hear that Matatu speaks nonsense . . .”
Nathaniel looked up from his drawing pad. “What medicine will the healer use?”
I repeated the question to Kofi, who translated without having to raise his voice. By now, Philip had reverted to muttering.
“The same I use for any patient, though I have a very strong blend of herbs and plants for people who are very mad.”
“Ah-heh,” I said noncommittally. I’d expected some ritual approach to re-position Matatu in his social universe—not an herbal cure. Maybe the healer sensed my skepticism, for he added, “I can cure a lot of other diseases, not just madness. But I also tell a patient if I don’t know the cure for whatever disease they may have.”
Nathaniel joined in, and Kofi translated, “How come Matatu is crazy?”
“I might find that a disease is caused by witchcraft,” Ajei hinted ominously. “Then, one night while I’m alone in my house, I beg the witches to reverse the spell. I ask what they need, and I buy back the spell from them with whatever they ask for as payment. It might be a sheep, some money, or alcohol—or just a chicken or some eggs. Last night, I talked with the witches who bewitched Matatu.”
Ajei paused while this statement sank in. “I met the witches,” the healer continued, “and they said they wanted money, nothing else.”
“How come they didn’t get arrested?” Nathaniel asked me quietly.
“I think the healer meant they met invisibly. Like in dreams.” Accustomed to hearing of his dead grandfather appearing in our friend Kokora Kouassi’s dreams, Nathaniel nodded and once again bent over his drawing pad.
“The witches said they’d need 200 CFAs—all in small change,” the healer concluded. “To pay them, I’ll give the money to the children in the village–one small coin to each child–and the witches will un-do the spell on Matatu. Then, when I give Matatu my herbal medicine, the witches will allow the medicine to work.”
“But who are the witches?” Nathaniel asked.
The healer remained silent for a few seconds after Kofi translated, then said quietly, “Actually, the witch responsible for Matatu’s madness is his own mother.”
I should have been able to predict this accusation, since Beng witchcraft always operates within the maternal line. Still, I was impressed. Ajei must have lived long enough in the Beng region to be able to chart their paths of sorcery. I glanced at my son. What might Nathaniel make of this unexpected, perhaps unthinkable answer? A new set of especially bumpy bumps claimed our attention, and we were left to ponder the upsetting news in our solitude.
When we finally returned to Asagbé, Nathaniel tugged at Philip’s shirt and said, with an open-faced enthusiasm, “Dad, look at what I did.” We both looked down at his sketchpad.
The page bristled with nervous, jagged lines, each one running from left to right, line after line, repeating down to the bottom edge. Philip stared, clearly trying to figure out what it was so he could praise it.
“It’s . . . ” he hesitated.
“It’s a seismograph,” Nathaniel said.
“A . . . what?”
“A seismograph. It’s a souvenir of the road, the bad road.”
We looked again at the drawing. I’d been so intent on my interview with the healer that I’d barely noticed Nathaniel’s determined concentration. With the drawing pad on his lap, he’d applied the pen lightly to the page and let the road do his work for him . . . and charted very twist, turn, rattle and shake we’d all suffered through. Seismograph! Where did he get that word? It certainly hadn’t been in any of the phrases Philip had employed while driving. Yet maybe my husband’s extended stretch of curses were recorded too on this drawing pad, in some pre-alphabetic stenography.
“Amazing. Thank you, Grandfather Denju,” Philip replied as he held the pad and examined that skittish map as if it were a record of all this summer’s surprises.
—Alma Gottlieb & Philip Graham
Portions of this excerpt from Braided Worlds first appeared in the anthology Being There (Harvard University Press, 2011).