This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The crisis in the Central African Republic has been ongoing for over a year, with violence between Christian and Muslim militias sparking very real fears of a Rwandan-style genocide. In fact, clashes between groups from the Christian anti-balaka and the largely Muslim Seleka — both of them umbrella militia organizations — have already left around 1,000 dead and over a million displaced, with innocents being caught in the middle and burned, shot or eaten purely on the basis of their religion.
While in Bangui, the country’s capital, my cameraman Leo and I met a leader of one of the local anti-balaka militias. Christian groups like his say they are attacking Muslims to prevent Islamist hardliners from taking control of the country, but their indiscriminate attacks on entire communities suggest there may be more of a sectarian motive at play — and, understandably, the anti-balaka have now garnered a pretty horrendous reputation for killing innocent Muslims in cold blood.
With that in mind, Emotion — so called because he cries a lot (apparently out of passion, not fear) — said he wanted to show us how well organized and peaceful his militia was. But before we set off to meet his men, Emotion said he had something to collect. Pulling the car over, he shouted out of the window to one of his comrades, who rushed over to hand him a necklace made out of a few large leather squares.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“It’s for my protection,” he said. “It’s better than body armor. When I wear it, bullets and machetes can’t touch me. Even rockets can’t kill me.”
“Is it magic?”
“Yes, it’s called gris-gris,” he replied.
With the necklace in his possession, Emotion drove us to a checkpoint manned by his militia. Stepping out of the car, we asked if we could film some of the guys hanging around, all of whom were wearing gris-gris.
“Sure,” one of them replied, “but you won’t be able to see me.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I’m invisible.”
I looked at the men sitting around him, expecting to catch someone sniggering. But there was no reaction, just a bunch of nonplussed faces staring back at me. Back in the car, I told our driver Harve — a local, and a sensible-seeming guy — about our new invisible friend, expecting him to crack a smile.
“He might be right,” Harve said. “A lot of people are invisible here.”
I couldn’t agree with him then and there, but promised to check our footage before passing a final judgement.
Driving back into town, we stopped to film the French and African soldiers who were searching vehicles as they passed through military checkpoints. The French officer in charge came over for a chat, which mostly amounted to him telling me what a great job the French army were doing. I asked him whether the African soldiers working alongside the French also believed in magic, or if they too wore the gris-gris.
“Some of them do, but I prefer this,” he replied, tapping his body armour.
Christianity is the majority religion in the Central African Republic, with Islam and Animism making up the two largest minority faith groups. However, most people — regardless of their religion — have as much faith in magic as they do in the Bible or Qur’an. For instance, around 40 percent of all prosecutions in the country involve witchcraft in some respect, with lawyers often instructing their clients not to cast any spells while in the dock. Shape shifting into animals is also apparently a pretty popular pastime.
So it was no huge surprise that so many soldiers appeared to believe that small leather patches could protect them from live ammunition. However, to us — with our dull, Western worldview — it still seemed absurd. But in a bid to find out where these beliefs came from, we asked Harve to take us to a witch doctor, who we hoped could explain what exactly you need to do to treated cow hide to make the wearer both invisible and invincible.
Deep inside a township on the outskirts of Bangui, we were ushered into a small, dark, one room hut, which was decorated with a picture of Jesus and some frayed posters of various former Central African presidents.
We were sat on some plastic chairs when Philippe the witch doctor appeared. In his mid-thirties, and sporting khaki trousers and a patterned Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt, he told us that the war in his country had been good for business. He’d been supplying gris-gris to the anti-balaka militias — something he claimed had played a pivotal role in their defeat of the Seleka rebels.
Leo explained that he spent a lot of time working in dangerous places, so needed something to protect him from bullets and rockets. Philippe laid out his herbs, explaining what each one did. We had agreed a price of $96 (more than 50 times the average daily wage in the country) and wanted to pay half now and half on delivery the next day.
Philippe said no, telling us we had to pay $82 then and $14 the next day. We agreed, deciding it was probably best not to argue with a witch doctor. Harve then asked to get some anti-magic injections to protect him from dark magic, explaining that he needed a top-up.
We returned the next day to find Philippe exactly where we left him. After exchanging pleasantries, he showed us Leo’s newest piece of kit.
All that was left to do before Leo could waltz through a war zone without any body armor was for Philippe to read us the small print. “When wearing this gris-gris, you must not touch a woman who is on her period, or it will cease to work,” he said. “You must also not walk under a washing line with women’s underwear on it.”
This went on for a while, and continued to mainly revolve around the menstrual cycle. I was distracted by this apparent obsession of Philippe’s at first, but soon realized that he was inadvertently responding to a question that had been bothering me: how does he explain it when a fighter, wearing gris-gris, is shot and dies? How does he justify its ineffectiveness?
This period preoccupation seemed to be the answer. Tell everyone that the wearer must have touched his partner while she was menstruating (or had walked under a washing line) without taking off his gris-gris, and Philippe gets off scot free.
After Philippe had given Leo his gris-gris, he asked me why I hadn’t bought one of his necklaces. I could have replied with my first thought (‘Because you’re a scam artist and €70 is a lot of money for some magic string.’), but instead found myself trying to explain through Harve that I had run out of money and couldn’t possibly afford it.
I then asked Harve to tell him that I would be back in the Central African Republic soon and would buy a necklace on my return. Being in a country where everyone believes in magic — and sitting in front of a man who claims to use it himself — I guess I also believed for a brief moment, too, because I was definitely very worried that Philippe would cast some kind of gruesome spell on me if I didn’t promise to buy one of his trinkets.
Back at the hotel, we checked the footage from the previous couple of days; to our astonishment, the man who claimed to be invisible was standing there in plain sight.
Magic in the Central African Republic seems a lot like a religion in itself, in that people use their faith in gris-gris as a kind of security blanket — a distinctly make believe presence that keeps them courageous when they should be fearful. But while there’s nothing wrong in relying on your religion for personal strength, it’s a little harder to endorse shaman swindlers who charge militias a small fortune for something that’s going to give them extra confidence while they’re slaughtering a bunch of innocent men, women, and children.