In western Africa, there is the land-locked country of Mali, about one-seventh the size of India, a large portion of which is made up of the largest desert in the world, the Sahara. A river, the Niger, cuts across the country, passing the port town of Mopti to undertake a journey into the heart of the Sahara. Just south-east of Mopti, the river’s flood plains rise gently into a large plateau that ends dramatically in the cliffs of Bandiagara.
At the edge and base of these cliffs, inhabit an ancient people called the Dogon. In 2001, I started a master’s in architecture in France during which I worked to build a school with the Dogon village of Begnematou. The Dogon were great storytellers and lived with a great sense of fun and curiosity. Even for the ones that had barely travelled, India was the land of films, of Vijay and Jimmy, heroes from our yesteryear Bollywood films. They loved the song-and-dance routines and found Indian film heroines to be the most beautiful in the world. They were impressed with India’s sheer size, and some, who had travelled, were in awe of its progress in the field of computers. But for everybody, irrespective of age, education or travel exposure, the most important part was that India was the land of black magic and as an extension, every Indian therefore, a black magician. The Dogon, themselves, were famous for their magical powers, masked dancers and a complex cosmology. However, with a mix of awe and disappointment, they told me, “We Dogon are powerful magicians, but you Indians are even more powerful. What we Dogon do is red magic and what you Indians master is black magic! Red is powerful, but black is most powerful.” And, just before I could explain that I haven’t come across it in my life, they would smile and slip in, “Eh, my friend, you will teach me no, before you go… some black magic?” The conversation usually ending in peals of laughter. But, sometimes, I did feel that they took this black magic business quite seriously.
Backpacking was popular in the region with many young Dogon men working as guides. Getting a Japanese tourist was a lottery, you could ask them for any amount and they would agree, never bargaining and always polite to a fault. One guide would rush toward me, whenever he saw me, hold my hand and place it on his head, and say, “You are my black magician. Bless me. Every time I get your blessing, I get a Japanese tourist!” He got Japanese tourists three times in a row! That freaked me out a bit and I stopped going to the restaurant where the guides would hang out.
Meanwhile, football was a popular sport in the region. The Malian national football team called The Eagles. Their arch rivals were the neighbouring country of Ivory Coast. One evening, in the village of Begnematou, I was asked, “India is such a big country, so advanced in computers, how is it that India doesn’t play in the football world cup?” They all looked at me with great interest, as if awaiting some grand revelation. I was taken aback, but I attempted a reply, “India had no sporting culture, we do not value sport. There is only one sport and that is cricket.” My response met with silence; they were not impressed.
After a few moments of silence, one of them said, “Wait, this is no reason, we will tell you why!” A story was brewing. “Once upon a time, India was at the FIFA World Cup. If they lost, they would be eliminated. The Indian defence had failed, the forwards were messing up, the midfielders were lost, and the opposition was scoring at will. The Indian goalkeeper was quietly observing all this.” Our narrator stopped to pause and work the twist in the tale. “But you know Indians, the Indian goalkeeper was a powerful black magician. To him, it was clear that something dramatic needed to be done. With his black magic, he turned the football into a snake. The Indian players who saw this, treated the ball with respect and maintained a distance. However, for the opposition, it was just a ball. Soon, one after another, their players were rolling on the ground writhing in pain. The opposition team and the match referees couldn’t understand what was going on. They panicked, and the match was called off. India was saved from elimination! However, somebody among the spectators also knew some black magic and he could tell what was going on. He spilled the beans to FIFA, who banned India for life!” My Dogon friend caught his breath and continued, “So you see, black magic is the reason that India is not playing in the FIFA World Cup.” There was a triumphant pause, and we all burst out laughing. Though, to this day, I am quite sure that most of them believed the story!
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The writer is an amateur naturalist, architect and geographer by training