Peter, the Nigerian Necromancer
by Charles M. Saunders
The sign was bold, audacious even, and decidedly garish. It stood on two posts. Its dimensions were roughly four feet square. It was painted with house paint; a pale green background with red lipstick colored printing, written line after line with nearly incomprehensible information.
The house on whose front yard it rested was set back off of U.N. Drive in Monrovia. It was markedly different than the other buildings which clustered nearby. They were mainly fairly typical looking African urban dweller shanties, with tin roofs and non-descript siding material.
This house was of a more substantial build, with two stories and a covered entryway. The door appeared to almost always be ajar. This was not strange for West African dwellings. Openness and hospitality are the hallmark of life there. My Liberian friends remarked on more than one occasion that they found it queer that white peoples’ houses were always closed up tight. They wondered why they always needed to ‘make an appointment’ to stop by for a casual visit. That was viewed as a very peculiar trait which the foreigners all seemed to share.
Anyway I first saw the place after a visit to see a sick friend who had been admitted to the hospital, just on the outskirts of the city. Its formal name was the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Medical Center, but the local people called it JFK or ‘Just for Killing’ Liberian people. It had a countrywide and well-deserved reputation for shabby treatment of the unfortunates who were brought there often as a last resort once traditional country medicine and the local clinic had failed to produce a remedy.
Many people who checked in never checked out.
In fairness to the staff the deck was stacked heavily against them. Inadequate training, understaffing, lack of Doctors, insufficient supplies of medicines and equipment were endemic.
The exasperated Administrative Manager ordered a guarded checkpoint at the end of the long driveway which exited the building. Searches were conducted of all taxis and vans and trucks which were exiting.
The list of confiscated items that were recovered at the gate was truly mind boggling. Along with medicines, bandaging and all manner of medical equipment there was also discovered a wide array of the buildings electrical, plumbing, facilities, sanitary and kitchen equipment.
Toilets, sinks, faucets, shower heads, piping, pots, pans, wiring, utensils, bed clothing, mattresses; you name it, they stole it.
Not that the extirpators were entirely to blame. Most of the people in ‘Molovia’ were desperately poor; and they were kept that way.
The ruling class or Americo-Liberians, the descendents of the former slaves who established the ‘Republic’ in the mid-nineteenth century, expropriated nearly every penny which entered the country; whether it was revenue from exports or loans from the cadres of NGOs and first world country agencies which heaped a portion of their largesse onto the less fortunate. They kept it all in their very tight circle of favored families.
All of this aside, there was this house and that sign. I don’t remember how many times I passed it and stared in fascination at the numerous lines of print which completely covered the sign. The words seemed to be drawing me to them, but as it was impossible to make out what was written there, why they held a fascination was not clear.
At some point when I couldn’t take it anymore, I had my driver stop just across the highway, near the entrance to the Richard M. Nixon cook shop [yes, that’s our Tricky Dick!] and I ran across the busy roadway effectively risking life and limb, so that I could finally read the words on the sign.
Essentially the sign was a sort of menu and a skills inventory for an accomplished magician. Specific types of spells, potions, castings, divination, foretelling, remedies, poisons and many other specific practitioner activities were inventoried.
Both white magic and black were on offer and specific situations were enumerated along with the going price for the magician’s services.
The very top line listed the practitioner’s name, which was Peter and his home country, Nigeria. That was followed by an extensive set of abbreviations which outlined his professional credentials along with a portfolio, so to speak, and his areas of expertise. Heading the list was the one that caught my eye and stopped me cold. It read: Necromancer or one who communicates with the departed.
All in all, the graphic depiction of the variety of curses and remedies available, for a price, was at the very least quite daunting and at best, downright intimidating.
Before we delve much further into the realm of West African magic and assorted mischief, now might be a good time to explain just how it is that you and I are together here in this beautiful and very troubled land in the equatorial clime on the Bight of Benin.
Curiously we have none other than the Honorable JFK himself to thank for this one. After all he was the inceptor in Chief of the United States Peace Corps, who in their wisdom invited me along to aid those who couldn’t quite help themselves to a better life.
It was 1972 during a slice in time when the Corps recognized that the college kids whom they were recruiting did not come packaged with many usable skill sets other than a gung-ho spirit and big hearts.
So they extended their recruiting efforts to include experienced trades people who could handle the construction project management while the grads taught English and science and whatever.
As for me I was blissfully awaiting my assignment to a rural village project; all self help stuff, very light lifting: small clinics, market stands, one-room school houses, stuff like that. The villagers were to form a committee, choose a project, hire a local carpenter and a mason and off we’d go.
Meanwhile some bright light State Department type spotted my credentials and thereby was alerted to my construction management experience. So he pulled me aside and proceeded to con me into working for a new ‘high level, top notch, direct action’ Liberian Ministry called ADP or Action for Development and Progress which was reporting directly to the Prez, old Billy Tolbert himself.
To my chagrin I learned too late that it was actually a front for building roads and farms on expropriating land for Tolbert and his cronies. The massive amount of trouble that this caused me will have to be recounted at some other time and space.
For now one more point which might help clarify our soon to occur meeting with Peter, the Nigerian Necromancer.
Besides helping people to elevate their living standards, I had some private goals for my sojourn in banana-republic land. For reasons I won’t go into here I wanted to learn all that I could about African music, magic, witchcraft and drumming. There you have it!
Now let’s return to Monrovia and our little macabre adventure.
Weeks, even months passed and every time I drove by the sign my anxiety began to blend in with anticipation and excitement about who might be waiting inside that intimidating threshold. And finally one late, late night of partying and heavy drinking along with the prompting from a group of curious friends carried me over the tipping point.
It was a typical Saturday night on Gurley street smack dab downtown in the nightclub cum street jive area of town. Hawkers and vendors shrieked out the wonders of their wares and that blended with the uproarious cacophony of drunken locals and expats and streetwalkers and pickpockets and hustlers, along with a smattering of somewhat inebriated police officers. A raucous din poured out into the street from the blaring disco dance music emanating from the clubs and bars.
It seemed like everyone was there and we were all as usual, getting very carried away. I sat late into the early morning drinking, chatting and intermittently dancing with a host of other volunteers and African friends.
At about 3 AM I had a brainstorm and I shared it with the other three people at my table. “Let’s hit the street, grab some pepper chicken, wolf it down and then go see this magician I’ve been telling you about.”
They were too inebriated to know any better and so the two gals and one guy and myself headed out.
We hailed a taxi and traveled the 2 or 3 miles out past Singhor to Peter’s place.
It was about 3:30 AM when we disembarked and stumbled our way up the steep concrete stairs where the aforementioned sign stood. There was enough light from the tall highway lights that illuminated U.N. Drive for my friends to read the menu.
Once well read they probably were not feeling that brave because they insisted that I lead the way and go in first.
Just inside the open doorway stood a stairway which lead to the second floor, which in itself was a rarity in that part of the capitol. At the head of the stairs there was an opening. Two somewhat shabby draperies were hung and parted slightly so that I could sense the space inside.
I called out a hello softly. It was after all past 3:30 in the morning.
As there was no immediate response I stuck my head into the upstairs, shyness was never quite a feature in my approach to life.
Someone said, “Enter” and so I did.
No one was visible in the room so I took the opportunity to make a quick scan.
The L-shaped room was small but in a strange way sort of comfy looking. A doorway on the adjacent wall lead to what must have been the adjoining spaces but I never saw those.
The room itself resembled what must have been what the monk’s cell from medieval times was like. Scant furnishings with a single day bed tucked against the smaller segment of the L-shaped space. The remaining area contained a long shelf-like desk. Atop it was an agglomeration of mostly unrecognizable items: a hand mirror circled with cowry shells, various amulets, containers, bottles and jars with curious colored powders and liquids, candles plus a number of lace-covered bric-a-bracs.
A shelf hung just above the table surface. It held what I could see to be a well-worn copy of the Holy Bible, the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead and a variety of other manuscripts which I could not make out.
Being so absorbed in my scan I barely noticed that a small slim quiet seeming man had silently entered the room.
He spoke softly, above a whisper, yet clear and very distinct. There was a hint of sadness behind his bespectacled eyes.
“How can I help you?” he intoned.
Taken aback I muttered, “I’m not sure.”
“Well”, he asked, “What is it you want?”
“Just to speak with you, I guess.”
He replied, “That is not possible, you must purchase something from me.”
He handed me a piece of cardboard. It was a menu of sorts. His one-time services and the price for each were neatly printed there.
Fortunes Told- $1.50, Horoscope-$1.50, both were listed as lasting one hour.
There were other choices but I don’t recall what they were.
Since those were the only two that were familiar to me I requested the horoscope.
“Did anyone come with you?”
“Yes, three friends.”
“Have them come up.”
They sheepishly tipped up the stairs and entered the room. Peter motioned to them to sit on the bed. They did so and sat there together, huddled quiet as church mice.
“Now, what have you selected?” We sat on two straight backed chairs facing one another.
“The horoscope; was my reply.”
“That will be $1.50.”
Before Peter could commence, I blurted out; “But before you begin may I ask you a few questions?”
“Yes” he said.
“Please, Tell me how you became a magician, if that is how you are addressed, and what is it that you perform for people?”
What follows is to my best recollection the gist of what he told us about himself, his life, and the magic services he provided.
Peter had been born in Nigeria. At the age when most boys enter secondary school he had decided to become a Catholic priest. To this end he was enrolled in a seminary and began his priestly studies. A year or so into his studies, his people, that is, a group of the elders of his tribe along with his parents, came to see him.
They brought news of the death of the oldest and most important country doctor or magician in his home area. Upon his deathbed as was customary he shared with the elders the name of the person who was to be selected to succeed him; it was Peter.
Now this is where the story begins to take on a weight that not many of us westerners can probably entertain.
The elders made it abundantly clear to Peter and his family that this was no random selection. Peter was now destined to abruptly and permanently alter his life and his connection with his parents and the rest of the world.
Over, above and beyond that he had no right to refuse his selection. In fact the price he would pay if he attempted to refuse would be with his life.
In many parts of Africa the local doctor is the only mediator between the people and the variegated host of afflictions, psychological disorders, evils and black magic that they faced daily in their lives. It took a very special and highly trained and skilled practitioner to care for their spiritual and physical needs.
At any rate Peter was forced to quit the seminary and undergo years of rigorous training deep in the forest; away from any prying eyes. He mentioned that he also was forced to agree to forgo any thought of having a family of his own. Beyond that he could never again take part in any type of sex act, whether with a female or a male. And right there he stopped.
“Satisfied”, he asked?
“Shall I continue with your horoscope?”
“Yes, go ahead.”
He turned his back to me and faced his working table. From a hook just above the surface he took down a stole, kissed it reverentially and placed it around his neck.
He turned back to face me. After crossing his legs he picked up that mirror with the cowries encircling it and placed it on his lap. He stared down into it, blessed himself with what looked like the sign of the crossed and very softly intoned some sort of prayer which I could not make out.
He then whisked his hand across the face of the mirror and said to me, “I now have your horoscope right here, what would you like to know?”
I quickly flashed across my mind any and all options which might have proved interesting; like when and how would I die or what dangers would I face as I continued my two year stay in Africa? (There had already occurred some noteworthy and intimidating events to date.)
But nothing really seemed too appealing and so I quite honestly replied, “I don’t really have any questions for you. What can you tell me?”
He looked at me silently for a moment and then began to speak; “You were in a war and during that time you learned two things about yourself, first that you were not afraid to die, and second, that you did not believe in any god.”
He paused and then continued, “You left a young woman at home who you promised to marry but realized when you returned that you did not want her or to be married. She continues to cry over this even up to today.”
Now I have to admit that I’d been studying and researching magic for a number of years and become pretty much convinced that most of what passed for magic was just parlor games and balderdash, but this was something different. Peter had been specific enough that I was not able to shrug off what he said. What he did say was almost verbatim what I had spoken to myself. It was clear to me that he had some type of ability to gather my past internal self-talk.
Now I was intrigued. He asked if he should continue and I said no.
He turned his attention to my friends who remained seated together on the bed. The white woman was completely quiet but it was easy to see that she was impressed and enthralled.
The Liberian woman was very drunk and just kept giggling and chortling to herself as if all of this was quite amusing to her. And as for the other white guy, who I didn’t know personally, he too was quite inebriated. He sat on the far end of the little bed with his head slumped over between his knees and seemed somehow to be lost in his drunkenness.
“Do any of your friends want anything from me?” There were mumbles of no and no thanks from them.
At that point he pulled himself bolt upright and angrily pointed at the African woman.
“You,” he intoned; “do not destroy what you cannot create!”
At that point she broke out of her drunkenness and began to moan and to weep uncontrollably. Her girlfriend tried to console her but she only continued the more blubbering and crying.
[Later I learned that she had just undergone an abortion two days previously and was grief stricken about it.]
Peter now pointed at the drunken man sitting with his head bowed and again in a forceful manner said, “You see that man, he was cast off and deeply wounded by a woman six months ago. He can’t even hear a single word I’m saying to him.”
Well it was clear that he heard something because he immediately awoke from his stupor and sat bolt upright, just staring in amazement in Peter’s direction.
[Amazingly enough, this fellow had been dumped by a woman he had been engaged to marry and had been lost since that time. It had been a half year, almost to the day.]
Suffice it to say that Peter’s psychic fusillades and the startled reactions of my two drinking companions brought my horoscope session to a screeching halt.
Peter then turned back to me and in a most composed and friendly manner asked if I had any more questions.
My chums obvious discomfort not withstanding I knew that an opportunity like this might never pass my way again. And so I asked;
“What sort of work are you involved in presently and for whom?”
“Presently,” he replied, “much of my work serves the needs of people overseas.” He went on to explain how a number of Nigerians who were desirous of taking up residence in the US were in need of his help.
For them he had concocted a powdery substance. The persons carrying this substance was instructed to keep it unobserved until the very moment that they were standing directly in front of the customs and immigration official who was about to examine their documentation. At that point they were instructed to place a small amount of the powder in the palm of their hand and to hold it up eyelevel with the agent. A soft blow onto the palm would then place enough of the powder into the official’s face and eyes, thus rendering them compliant with whatever was suggested to them next.
I struggled with my incredulity and Peter picked up on my reaction. He merely casually mentioned that the powder did no permanent damage and that the immigration official would have no memory of the event or that he had just conveyed some level of temporary residence status to an illegal alien.
Time was slipping away and I needed to collect my friends and to get them a safe distance away from the Necromancer. So, having no time as yet to process what I had just learned I threw out a last question;
“Peter, do I possess any of the skills which you have?”
He gazed at me silently for a moment and then softly replied, “No, you do not.”
At that point I breathed a sigh of relief. It was suddenly clear to me that Peter could only pick up on the peripherals in my life; the external baggage, so to speak; not on the deeper internal private world that belonged only to me.
We quickly departed at that point. Each of us went our own separate way. My companions never spoke of the night’s goings on ever again, perhaps for the better.
As for me I came away with the distinct impression that on that early morning on the outskirts of Monrovia that I had been face to face with a person who exhibited and displayed a type of life force and power which I could not comprehend.
During my sojourn in ‘the Republic’ I experienced many strange and mystifying things and met numerous one of a kind type people. But on that night at the Necromancer’s house I felt the magic and mystery that only the real thing can provide.
Think what you will my friends. We in the West are inclined to dismiss anything relating to magic or fortunetelling or horoscope projections as superstitious cant. So be it.
But there are human sciences of which we are not aware and I am certain that if ever I came across Peter again I would give him a very wide berth and would hope that he would think of me as being on his good side; if he even has one.