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Alternative Culture Magazine

Meeting the Invisible Man: Secrets and Magic in West Africa - by Toby Green

Review by Nowick Gray

Toby Green went to West Africa in the company of a Senegalese friend, El Hadji, who had told him stories of the miraculous powers of the marabouts. Together they traveled across Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry to find these men of magic - medicine men, witch doctors, shamans, fetishists - makers of charms, or gris-gris.

In particular, the narrator is determined to find out for himself if the charm for invisibility is authentic, or just a hoax.  The answer is not immediately obvious, yet the narrator (and reader) are surprised by the results.  Even more intriguing is the final first-hand test of West African magic, the charm for invulnerability.  In this case Toby’s right arm is the test subject, under a dozen hard thrusts of a sharp 20-inch knife.

While the search for these charms and their makers composes the plot line of the travelogue, the meat of the book is in its vividly tangible descriptions of life in rural Guinea.  The heat, the sicknesses, the desperate poverty, the decrepit condition of houses and automobiles, the limited diet, the implacable spirit of the people, the overwhelming desolation of the landscape in countryside and town, all come palpably alive in Green’s prose.  The style manages admirably the difficult balance between original color and natural ease. 

If there is one book which captures and makes visible the moment-by-moment immensity of the West African experience from the ground up, this is it.  Green sprinkles in just enough of the appalling history of the region to gives its invisibility weight. The narrative whole is completed with well-placed reflections on the spiritual implications of the native magic, for those within the culture, and foreign visitors (and readers) alike.

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