Sunday, December 20, 2009

Crocodile Men

Some years ago in Bangui, I met a man from Obo. He had been working for an ill-fated American anti-poaching militia and was involved in untold drama: he'd accused his colleague, a South African mercenary, of embezzlement (diamonds, LandCruisers), who then accused him of murder, and he spent half a year in prison. Near the end of our conversation, he pulled out some photos of a corpse in the shallows on the banks of a river. The body was bloated, pummeled, and dismembered. “You Europeans don't believe it, but it is a very real problem for us – crocodile men. They are men who transform themselves into crocodiles and kill people in the water.”

I didn't have time to ask more then, but the image of the corpse and my interlocutor's grave mien – even graver than when he described his rivalry with the South African – as he talked of the crocodile men stayed with me.

Evans-Pritchard, meanwhile, in his extensive work on Azande notions of witchcraft and magic, makes no mention of the “pili” (crocodile men). So I was curious to find out more while out in Obo. The problem of crocodile men dates to the early 1980s, when many Yakoma functionaries were assigned to posts here. The president at the time, Andre Kolingba, was a Yakoma, an ethnic group concentrated in riverine areas near the capital, and his loading of the civil service with his kin marked the beginning of the ethnicization of CAR politics.

Many Yakoma are fishermen, and pili developed as a strategy to increase catches. A man who takes the pili medicine, imbibed under guidance of a magician, gains the strength to stay underwater all day and finds all the biggest fish. Only, it can be used for ill as well; pili can also employ these superhuman skills to slay a foe, provided the foe is in the water. As Yakoma moved into Obo, they mingled with the Azande living there and the pili skills passed between friends. Very often, crocodile murders involve rivalries over women.

The pili problem reached its height in 87 – 96. It felt like an epidemic to residents, who sought out and sanctioned any suspected pili in their midst. The usual practice was burning accused crocodile men at the stake. As the flames began to lick at their bodies, they would denounce others. For a while, the Catholic mission stopped giving communion out of exasperation with its members' excitement for the crocodile-men-burning.

Few Yakoma remain in Obo, as indeed few functionaries at all remain. The crocodile men problem has abated too. (Now, ill will is enacted upon others through inflicting sickness, a sickness that resembles AIDS but is not AIDS because it kills people so much more quickly than the doctors say AIDS usually kills, explained one interlocutor. Incidentally, there is no functioning hospital in Obo, so any opportunistic infections would go pretty much untreated.)

But there was one big crocodile man case last year. A boy from the nearby village of Gugbere came to Obo for a soccer tournament. In the afternoon, he and his friends headed home, but found themselves blocked by the ferry, which was at the far side of the river. Undeterred, the young man jumped in and began swimming to pull back the barge that would bring them home. Halfway across, he began yelling, “They've gotten me! The crocodile men have me! You will never see me again!” His head and torso emerged from the water, as if propelled, once, twice, three times, and then he disappeared.

People searched for his body for four days before they found it. The internal organs and the penis had been cut out. People understood them to have been eaten. Investigations ensued, and three men were accused of the killing: the boy's cousin, a man from Sudan, and a boy from the neighborhood. They confessed to being pili and killing the boy. The man from Sudan was the ringleader, in a way. He had been paid by a patron in Sudan. The patron had lived in Obo until the UN decided to repatriate Sudanese refugees a few years ago. He had his eye on a girl in Obo, but the girl thought him too old and preferred the soccer playing boy. So the patron dispatched his associate to deal with the rival. The associate paid the boy's cousin and another young man to help him.

The three accused sat in detention at the gendarmerie. But an angry mob yelling passages from the Bible (an eye for an eye) led by the murdered boy's mother broke down the door and killed all three. Their bodies now repose in a cemetery established by a Colonel who ruled as prefet of Obo a few years ago. This colonel is remembered as a particularly effective leader, because he could see through people to tell who was bad and who was good, a skill enhanced by his drinking, according to local lore, and he quickly dispatched the bad to his cemetery.

While in Obo, I read a novella by Mark Twain called The Mysterious Stranger. The story takes place in modern-day Austria sometime around the 1600s, a period marked by witch scares. The narrator, a young boy, enjoys a privileged view of the world thanks to repeated visits from the titular stranger, who describes himself as Satan. Satan enables his young friend to see the future and shows him how little humans understand about good and bad – early death might in fact obviate years of suffering; madness may bring greater happiness than sanity. What emerges clearly, through the witch burnings and unexpected changes in people's lives, is the ridiculousness of human efforts to make order out of the evil forces they see in the world. By the end of the story, Satan reveals to the boy that none of it exists. Not the boy, not himself; all is but a ripple, a sigh, a joke of the universe. A kind postmodern tale, a product of its brilliantly irreverent author. And yet, immersed in my own tales of crocodile men scares (not to mention LRA depravities), which have a social truth as well as a physical truth and yet are founded in what are, to a logical-rational mind, untruths, somehow it struck me as hopeful.

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