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Volume 14, Issue 2: Cultura

Potions

Roy Atwood

"May I make you a potion that will protect you against knife wounds and bullets?" our new friend asked in polite West African French. At first we thought he was joking. He wasn't.

Dressed in his finest embroidered native gown, the off-duty police officer and sometime security guard had come to the home of our missionary hosts, Csaba and Lisa Leidenfrost, early in the morning to thank us all for visiting him the previous evening at his hut on the other side of the rural village in the remote southwestern corner of Cote d'Ivoire. He offered the potion as a thank-you gift to show his appreciation for the honor of our visit to his home. But the honor was ours and his music had been gift enough.
Through one of the Leidenfrost's Burkinabe workers, Janvier, we'd heard that the police officer was a master of the "balaphone," a marimba-like instrument of hard wooden bars and gourd resonators held together by rough hemp cords. The officer and two young apprentices had given us an impromptu concert on their large instruments under the thatched overhang of his mud hut. Small beams from our flashlights were the only light by which to see the blur of hands and sticks striking the balaphone in the darkness. Electricity only recently came to the village and many cannot afford the wiring or the bulbs. Beyond the trio, fifty or more curious villagers looked on from the shadows. At first they'd been attracted by the white faces of the local missionary family and their American guests, but then by the pounding rhythms of the balaphone. Before long many were dancing in the dark on a bare patch of red earth between the huts.
The officer, whose name beyond "Balaphone man" we never learned and whose skill on the balaphone was amazing, was a large man with huge hands. He wore seed-pod bracelets that rattled with each stoke of the balaphone to enhance the percussive effect of his music. For our benefit, he explained that the songs told of lazy young men learning the value of work, of courtship, and parental concerns for their children. The music spoke of village life in West Africa where the span between birth and death is among the shortest on the planet. Life here is short, hot, and difficult. The region has long had the reputation of being "the missionaries' graveyard," according to Csaba, because so few missionaries survived the malaria, yellow fever, cholera, hepatitis, and venomous snakes. In the nineteenth century many missionaries didn't make it off the boat alive once they arrived. Eventually their replacements began the long journey to the Ivory Coast better prepared, traveling with their own coffins as luggage.
Initially, the officer had generously offered to make us a balaphone to bring back to the States, but our stay was too brief and our luggage, smaller than a coffin, wouldn't handle such a large gift. In a world where death and illness are constant companions, the next best gift he could think of was his knife-stopping, bullet-deflecting potion. Csaba politely responded in French that our God, the Triune God of the Bible, was more powerful than any potion, and He would protect us all the days He has determined: no more, no less. The officer jumped up smiling, and shook our hands, each in turn, in his massive grip. He affirmed the truth of what Csaba had said, even though he still saw the world through the fatalistic eyes of an animist.
We returned to Idaho without balaphone or potions a few days later, but we soon received news from the Leidenfrosts that the balaphone man had been shot—nine times—shortly after our departure. Apparently the village across the road had had several armed robberies during the previous month, so the villagers wanted to hire him to patrol the area. The night he started work someone on the other side of the village emptied his gun in him. Nine bullets. Somehow he lived. The Leidenfrosts report that he is doing pretty well and the incident is now being treated as attempted murder. The gunman is in jail awaiting trial.
Csaba visited our new friend, and found him seated on his mat surrounded by family and well wishers, as is the custom there. Csaba offered him a gift of a cell phone. It's such a strange world: no running water, no indoor plumbing, no electricity, but cell phone technology in the hands of a maker of potions. Balaphone man and his family were so pleased. And so were Csaba and Lisa for the opportunity to tell them about the real Magic, not the kind of potions and sorcery, but the kind which gives sight to the blind, heals the lame, gives hearing to the deaf, and raises the dead—even those who were as good as dead from the wounds of nine bullets.

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