Sounds of drumming and singing became louder as I walked down the hill. Difficult to ignore after a long walk in a quiet, mountainous place, I look through the gaps of a fence of cacti. Trying to get a glimpse of where the music was coming from, the eye of a young drummer caught mine. He started waving, asking me to get closer. Joining the young drummer other people waved, and I went in.
I first see a group of drummers and men playing maracas sat at the back of a front yard. There were bright red flowers and banana trees by the house door. The musicians were surrounded by a group of around twenty or so observers and singers of all ages. Everyone was facing two men, and the centre of everything. One of them was sat down in a plastic white chair and the other, the eldest in the crowd, was standing in front of the first massaging his head.
Quickly being noticed, a third man in perhaps his fifties, approached me. He leaned towards me and explained to my ear, above the loud drumming and singing, what was happening. J’ai un malade, he said with a kind smile and in clear French. C’est la guérison, he continued as he extended his right arm towards the two men at the centre. He then went back to his initial position next to the old man. Everyone spoke to me in Creole, but from then onwards he chose to communicate with me in French only.
The old man, wearing a white hat and holding a green silk handkerchief, was leading la guerison; the person who approached me was not assisting him but stood alongside him throughout. A woman wearing a bright pink t-shirt assisted them both. She seemed to know well the entire process and repeatedly went behind the house to grab whatever item was needed next. The man sat in the plastic chair, in perhaps his twenties, was the malade.
From this point onwards, a sequence of events happen at a fast pace. The first one of these events started with the woman in pink giving the old man an old plastic bottle of coke filled with gasoline. The old man sprinkled the liquid on the ground on a well-delineated square of red earth right, immediately behind where the malade and himself were. The earth looked like it had been manipulated recently, lumpy and humid, and there were white candles arranged at various edges. A match is thrown on the earth and the square is on fire for a couple of minutes. People do not pause between songs more than a few seconds; the music is loud and inspires many to dance. I look at the flames, at the dancers, and at the tennis shoes and women underwear drying up on the tin roof of the house that is the background to this ceremony.
Soon after and against all the odds I had calculated, I am told that if I want to, I can take pictures. It is okay, they repeated. To my luck, the camera out did not divert their attention from what mattered, la guérison. At this point,the fire is out and the malade is instructed to take his t-shirt off. The man who had spoken to me is now carrying what is needed next: a rooster.
With a seeming easiness, he tied the rooster’s legs around the neck of the malade, with the animal’s head pointing down his back. After trying to fight back for several minutes, never leaving the neck of the malade, the rooster is sacrificed. With some of the blood that came out of its crest, the old man drew vertical and horizontal lines on the back of the malade. The rooster would be later on mashed in a carved wooden vase, where manioc is usually mashed too.
The woman in pink goes to get the next item: a red metallic bottle of sweet, baby-like smelling air freshener. The old man first uses it to spray the dead rooster around the neck of the malade. As I photograph this, one of the teenagers who is an alternate drummer, tells me that I can send them the pictures on WhatsApp, a word that seems to me entirely contradictory to everything else I’m seeing, smelling and hearing.
The porte-parole approaches me a second time. J’ai un autre malade, he says. He asks if I want to see; without the faintest idea of what that means, I say yes. He turns around and waves his right hand signalling to follow him, clearly indicating that I should only walk on the edges of the square of lumpy red earth. He stops, squats and pushes aside some of the earth; he has found the edge of a large knitted layer of banana leaves. The leaves are what delineates the square on which the red earth had been laid. I see him struggling to lift the banana leaves and tell him not to worry, and that I don’t want to disturb. He insists. After a few seconds, he finally finds the right angle to lift the layered leaves and asks me to bend over and take a glimpse in.
There was, the second malade. Underground was a woman lying on her back, hands on her chest, eyes closed, and with a red and black band tied on her hair. There she was, under the knitted leaves covered in red earth that had been sprinkled with gasoline and set on fire not so long before. The man points at my camera and then at the woman’s head. My mind is racing faster than my fingers can manipulate the shutter speed, let alone anything else, but out of several shots, I get one somehow clear.
Back at my place, I notice that a new item has been brought in: a medium sized dead fish. The old man is singing louder and dancing with more energy than anyone else. As he turns around and closes his eyes, he takes the fish and uses it to repeatedly slap the malade on various parts of his back. The drumming, the singing and the dancing continue.
The woman in pink goes to fetch the next item: a small blue plastic container of talcum powder. A white cloud is formed around the malade as he is sprinkled, fish on the upper left side of his back. The smell of the talcum powder is very similar to the air freshener’s, and the smells quickly merge with the smoke of a cigarrete that the old man lits, as he dances in circles.
More smoke invades the yard as charcoal is lit on the ground to boil water. The energy of the old man’s bends and hops is impressive to me. When he stops dancing he takes the air freshener again but this time he goes around the place spraying the heads of the singers and of the children, the hands of the drummers, and my face. The other man rushes to me a third time and with a worried face asks if I’m okay. Yes I say, I’m great, really great.
I continue watching for a little longer, but the sun slowly fading is sadly my alarm. I thank everyone for having allowed me to be there and accept the offer of one of the attendees to take me down to town in his motorcycle. Attendees wave goodbye and give me a last smile, as they continue with la guérison.
As I go down the hill, in a state of sheer excitement, the teenager driving the motorcycle laughs and wonders if I am really interested in things ‘like that’, he said. I try to ask questions about what just happened, but he seems determined to focus on getting my number. When we reach town, I get off and thank him again.
What I’ve written here, is exactly as I saw and photographed it, no additions, no cuts, out of respect to the kindness of the people that allowed me to take a glimpse of it all. Any misinterpretations to the expert eye are simply that, misinterpretations.