Women in Niger pounding millet - photos by Alexis
Niger: A Visit to the Fortune Teller
By Alexis Wolff
[Editor's note: The zima in this story declined to be photographed.]
Piles of herbs and black pots lined the walls inside the thatched hut. I was studying them when, all of a sudden, I heard the faint thunk of the first batch of cowry shells hitting the ground.
It was a month or so into my semester abroad in Niger -- a West African country that few Americans have heard of, let alone visited -- and my Zarma professor had decided that instead of having our normal class, she was going to take me and the two other American students to see her zima, also known as a fetisher, or a seer, or reader of cowry shells.
I'd never had much faith in such things, but if this was a part of Nigerian culture, I was eager to experience it. Opportunities like this were why I'd decided to study abroad here.
I wanted to learn about West Africa, but I knew that since the region -- and Niger in particular -- had almost no tourist industry, the few foreigners who visited had trouble tapping into the local culture.
The director of my study abroad program, however, was an American who had lived in Niger for almost two decades; her connections allowed the other students and me to experience things few foreigners ever had.
When I saw that the zima was wearing FUBU jeans and thick gold chain, though, I lost any hope of authenticity. I no longer expected to witness an age-old Nigerien tradition. Still, mostly because I suspected it would be amusing, I followed the zima into the thatched hut behind his home and sat cross-legged beside my professor and the other students.
I watched curiously as the zima scrutinized the arrangement of the seven shells scattered across the dirt. After a moment, he turned to my classmate Jenn.
"You're very close to your father," he told her in Zarma, which our professor translated for us.
It was a general comment, but it was true, and it wouldn't have been if he said it to me.
When I was three, my father had chosen his cocaine habit over his family, and I'd had a complicated relationship with him since.
The zima swept the shells into his hand, gave them a slight shake, and pitched them back onto the dirt.
"You're drawn to the water," he continued.
My eyes darted to Jenn's neck, around which she usually wore a flip flop pendant. It wasn't there, and neither were her wave earrings. I searched her up and down for any clue of the carefree summers she spent life guarding on the Jersey shore, but I found nothing.
I looked quizzically to my professor, who raised her eyebrows and tightened her lips as if to say, "I told you so."
I listened a listen more carefully.
The zima finished advising Jenn about her career and love life, and then, after a pause, he tossed his shells again. He studied them for a moment before leaning forward, looking me straight in the eye, and whispering something in Zarma.
"Don't worry," my professor translated. "You will get married."
Again, it was a broad statement, but it seemed like an odd coincidence that his first insight happened to address my longstanding but rarely spoken fear.
I probably worried that I'd never get married because, after my dad left, my mom's life became more and more difficult.
It wasn't just raising two daughters by herself that wore her down, but going through life without a confidant. I loved my mom, but I didn't want to end up
like her. At times, however, I thought that I was destined to.
"For you," the zima continued, breaking for translation, "love is often in secret and rarely reciprocated."
It was true.
Men in Niger praying
My romantic relationships all followed the same pattern: I harbored a secret crush for months, sometimes years, and when I finally confessed it, I entered an unfulfilling relationship with someone who, for one reason or another, was never able to like me as much as I liked him.
In high school, there was the fanatical Christian whose religious beliefs prevented him from getting serious about someone who was agnostic. In college, there was the best friend whom I fell in love with, but who, unbeknownst to me, was slowly realizing that he was gay.
I didn't understand why I kept winding up with the wrong people, but it was starting to seem less and less likely that anything would ever change.
"But don't worry," the zima said, "because it's not your fault."
That idea intrigued me.
The zima threw the shells three more times before he spoke again. Several deep breaths and pensive stares at the shells later, he grabbed my hands, looked me in the eye, and said, "You have a black genie."
My eyes darted to my professor, who was chuckling. Suddenly, my skepticism returned.
"Your genie has been with you your whole life," the zima continued, "and he's in love with you. He thinks you're married to him, and he's very jealous of other men. He wants you all to himself, so he finds ways to scare off your suitors."
I rolled my eyes.
Another throw of the cowry shells revealed that my genie wanted me to have his baby. He wanted me to have a black baby, though, so he was working on changing the color of my skin, which the zima said was why I was getting so tan in Niger.
Never mind the searing Sahelian sun.
The next throw, which landed between my classmate Mitch and me, told the zima that my genie was currently staging a plan to kill off Mitch, who the genie suspected I was falling in love with.
Jenn gasped. Wide eyed, she exclaimed, "I knew it! We all knew it! I wish everyone else was here!"
Boatmen on the Niger River
She went on to explain that the others in our study abroad program had been betting for weeks about when Mitch and I would get together.
My professor chuckled.
"Brilliant," I said, trying to come off as sarcastic.
Truthfully, I was interested in Mitch. Not that he had any idea.
"But you wont marry him," the zima continued in Zarma. "You'll marry a man you haven't yet met, one who's big and tall, and depressed."
"That makes me feel better," I grumbled under my breath.
The zima tossed the cowry shells toward my crossed legs and exclaimed, "Look! It's your genie! He's trying to have sex with you now. Right now!"
Things only got worse.
The zima catalogued every sexual act imaginable, complete with hand gestures and occasionally full body reenactments, and told Mitch the sacrifice necessary to appease my genie into allowing it. (The most I was worth, it seemed, was two black roosters.)
My professor was laughing so hard that she started coughing. I wondered whether, traditionally, zimas were expected to entertain above all else.
After a while, though, the zima sat back down. His face straightened.
"If you want your black genie to go away," he told me in a serious tone, "You need to bathe in wine and herbs."
Over the next few days, I couldn't stop contemplating my visit to the zima. It wasn't news to me that something was keeping me from meaningful romantic relationships, but I doubted that something was a black genie. I knew perfectly well it probably had to do with my
relationship with my dad.
Still, while I wasn't naïve enough to think my romantic anxieties were a secret to those close to me, I couldn't figure out how the zima could have possibly known.
A Housa village
I knew that American psychics looked for suggestive responses to seemingly routine introductory questions, but the zima didn't speak English and I knew only limited Zarma, so our conversation had never advanced beyond basic greetings. The only explanation I could think of was that he had detected something in the way I looked at Mitch.
That must have been it.
Just in case I was wrong, though, I told the other students I was going for a walk one afternoon, and I headed instead to a nearby market. There, I bought a large calabash hollowed out to make a bowl, a handful of herbs, and a bottle of cheap red wine.
As I crept back up our apartment, I peeked around the corner to make sure no one was outside. The coast was clear, so I scurried to the bathroom, where, after I locked the door behind me, I poured the wine into the calabash and sprinkled the herbs on top.
I lifted my T-shirt off over my head, then I untied the string that held up my skirt and let it fall to the floor. After I peeled off my bra and underwear, I rubbed the concoction over every inch of my sun burnt skin. It stung a little, but I stood there for a moment anyway, giving it time to work, if time was what it needed, before washing it off and disposing of the evidence.
Alexis Wolff earned a BA in African Studies from Yale University and an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University. She is now a freelance writer living in New York City.