The Magicality of Cuisine 4: Feeding the Soil a Stew of Leaves and Bark to Guarantee Successful Gardening, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa

Just as people and spirits must be fed, so, too, is the case with the soils that are to be cultivated.  Hence, magically based recipes that are specially destined to nourish the soils and/or spirits associated with a woman’s garden plot were common features of smallholder agriculture as described to the Rev. Robert Nassau in the late Nineteenth Century.

The following example of such a magical recipe for garden soils is complicated - not only with regard to specific wild ingredients, but also in terms of procedures and products to be used and/or hidden.

While it is unclear which of the social groups residing in the Ogowe Watershed in West Africa used this particular recipe, it is probable that similar magical recipes for soils and their spirits were to be found in the area.

We would like to know more: was the dish to feed the spirits of the soil, the ancestors of the women who looked after her garden, or was this aspect of the recipe – who were to be the major recipients of the stew – well explained in local lore?

Now, of course, this process has been largely secularized.  Concoctions placed on the soil of women’s garden plots tend to be either fertilizers or insecticides.  An example of this in our own gardens here on the north shore of Lake Tanganyika is given at the bottom of the blog.

While women do the gardening, men are responsible for tending The palm trees in the gardens.  Source - Mary Kingsley, West African Studies, 1899.

While women do the gardening, men are responsible for tending The palm trees in the gardens. Source – Mary Kingsley, West African Studies, 1899.

Here is what the Rev. Nassau has to say –

Planting is accomplished almost entirely by women:

A man assists his wife in the clearing of the forest for a garden plot;
but she and her servants attend to the planting, weeding, and other working of the garden itself
  • If a woman says to herself,
    • “I want to have plenty of food!”
    • “I will make medicine for it!”
  • She proceeds to gather the necessary ingredients.
  • She takes her ukwala (machete), pavo (knife), short hoe (like a trowel), and elinga (basket), and goes to the forest.
  • She must go very early in the morning, and alone.
  • She gathers
    • a leaf called “tubĕ,”
    • another called “injĕnji,”
    • the bark of a tree called “bohamba,”
    • the bark also of elâmbâ, and
    • leaves of bokuda.
  • Hiding them in a safe place, she goes back to her village to get her earthen pot.
  • Returning with it to the forest,
  • She makes a fire, not with coals from the village, but with new, clean fire made by the two fire-sticks.
    • (These [fire sticks], used by natives before steel and flint were introduced, require often an hour’s twirling before friction develops sufficient heat to cause a spark. The sparks are caught on thoroughly dried plantain fibre.)
  • Then she builds her fire.
  • She goes to some spring or stream for water to
  • Put in the pot with the leaves and barks, and sets it on the fire.
  • All this while she is not to be seen by other people.
  • When the water has boiled, she sets the pot in the middle of the acre of ground which she intends to clear for her garden until its contents cool.
  • In the meanwhile she goes to some creek and gets “chalk” (a white clay is found in places in the beds of streams).
  • She washes it clean of mud and rubs it on her breast.
  • Then she takes the pot, and empties its decoction by sprinkling it, with a bunch of leaves, over the ground, saying,
    • “My forefathers! now in the land of spirits, give me food!
    • “Let me have food more abundantly than all other people!”
  • Then she again sets the pot in the middle of the proposed plantation.She takes from it the tubĕ leaves and puts them into:
  • Four little cornucopias (ehongo), which she rolls from another large leaf of the elende tree.
  • She sets these in the four corners of the garden.
  • Whenever she comes on any other day to work in the garden,
    • she pulls a succulent plant,
    • squeezes its juice into the ehongo; and
    • this juice she drops into her eye.
  • To be efficient, this medicine has a prohibition connected with it, viz., that during the days of her menses she shall not go to the garden.
  • When her plants have grown, and she has eaten of them, she must break the pot.
  • Having done so, she makes a large fire at an end of the garden, and
  • burns the pieces of earthenware so that they shall be utterly calcined.
  • It is not required that she shall stay by the fire awaiting that result. She may, if she wishes, in the meanwhile go back to her village.
  • She takes the ashes of the pot,
    • mixes them with chalk in a jomba (bundle) of leaves, which
    • she ties to a tree of her garden in a hidden spot where people will not see it.
  • Another strict prohibition is required of her by the medicine, viz., that she is not to steal from another woman’s garden.
    • If she breaks this law, her own garden will not produce.
  • The jomba is kept for years, or as long as she plants at that place, and
  • the chalk mixture is rubbed on her breast at each planting season.
  • From time to time also, as the leaves of the jomba decay or break away, she puts fresh ones about it, to prevent the wetting of its contents by raid or its injury in any other way.
Dabbing each plant with a small amount of goat dung slurry , our contract farming site. However, there are no magical ingredients in this slurry - only goat dung.

Dabbing each plant with a small amount of goat dung slurry at our contract farming site. However, there are no magical ingredients in this slurry – only goat dung.  It is a common method by which smallholders fertilize their crop.

Text source – Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau. University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A. 1904.

Other entries in this series are:

  1.  The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
  2.  The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon
  3. The Magicality of Cuisine 3: A Dish of Fish and Plantains to Guarantee Successful Fishing, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
Posted in Africa-West, Agriculture, Cuisine, Ethnography, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Magic, Missionaries, Recipes, Robert Nassau | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Magicality of Cuisine 3: A Dish of Fish and Plantains to Guarantee Successful Fishing, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa

KingsleyW.AfricanStudies.Batanga Canoes, Ogowe River region of West Africa.  Source - Mary Kingsley, West African Studies

Batanga Canoes, Ogowe River region of West Africa. Source – Mary Kingsley, West African Studies

While early travellers and explorers in Africa tended to ‘extract’ cuisine from its social and cultural context, thus walling off dishes as specific and secularized recipes,  missionaries often did not.  Perhaps due both to their lengthy stays in one region as well as to their focus on sacred as well as secular aspects of the people with whom they lived, their descriptions of rituals and related recipes are sometimes characterized as having fluid boundaries.

We have seen such fluid boundaries in the following entries:

  1.  The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
  2.  The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon

In the first instance, the recipe, which is part of a woman’s love charm, emphasizes the food aspects that are integrated with specific magical aspects.  In the second entry, food items are very specific but minimal, whereas the magical steps involved in the preparation are emphasized.

Today’s entry focusses on a magical dish for fishermen, as explained by Rev. Nassau (reference below; recipe-type template added to the original text):

Fishing was an integral aspect of daily life in the Ogowe River watershed and surrounding areas in which Rev. Nassau lived and worked. The following recipe addresses the serious business of guaranteeing success to a fisherman.  Both magic and food are emphasized and the steps involved are very specific:

  • Go in the morning early while the rest of the villagers are asleep, to an adjacent marsh or pond. (Almost all African villages are built on or near the bank of some stream or lake.)
  • Find a place where pond-lilies are growing.
  • Wade into the pond, bend low m the water, and pluck three lily-pads.
  • There are water-spiders, called “ mbwa-ja-miba” (dogs of the water) generally running over the surface of the water at such places; catch four of them.
  • Gather also leaves of another water-plant called “ngama.”

All these articles leave in the village in a safe place.

When other fishers come in from the sea, go to the beach to meet them; and if they have among their catch a certain fish called “hume,” having three spines, beg or buy it.

  • This you are to dry over the fire.

Watch the daily fishing until some one has killed a sharkobtain

  • Its heart, which also is to be dried.
  • Take also a plate full of gourd seeds (nganda) and some ground-nuts (mbenda)
  • also five “fingers” of unripe plantains cut from the living bunch on the stalk, and
  • a tumblerful of palm-oil.

All these above-named ingredients are to be mixed in one pot (which must be earthen) and are to be cooked in it.

  • While the mess is boiling, sit by, face over the pot, in the steam rising from It, and speak into the pot,
    • “Let me catch fish every day! every day ! “
  • No people are to be present, or to see any of these proceedings.
  • Take the pot off the fire, not with your hands, but by your feet, and set it on the ground
  • Take all your fish-hooks, and hold them in the steam arising from the pot.
  • Take a banana leaf that is perfect and not torn by wind, and laying it on the ground, spread out the hooks on it.
  • Then eat the stewed mess, not with a real spoon, but with a leaf twisted as a spoon.
  • In eating, the inedible portions, such as fish-bones, skins, rind, and so forth, are not to be ejected from the mouth on the ground, but must be removed by the fingers and carefully laid on the banana leaf.
  • Having finished eating, call one of the village dogs, as if it was to be given liberty to eat the remains of the mess.
  • As the dog begins to eat, strike it sharply, and as the animal runs away howling, say,
    • “So! may I strike fish!
  • Then kick the pot over.
  • Take the refuse of food from the banana leaf, and the hooks, and lay them at the foot of the plantain stalk from which the five ” fingers ” were cut.
  • Leave the pot lying as it was until night.
  • Then, unseen, take it out into the village street, and violently dash it to pieces on the ground, saying,
    • “So! may I kill fish!”
  • It is expected that the villagers shall not hear the sound of the breaking of the vessel ; for it must be done only when they are believed to be asleep.
  • When the bunch of plantains from which those fingers were taken ripens, and is finally cut down for food by others, you are forbidden to eat not only of it, but of the fruit of any of its shoots that in regular succession, year after year (according to the manner of bananas and plantains), take the place of the predecessor stalk.
  • You may never eat of their fruit.

Source – Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau.  University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A.  1904.

* * * * *

Notes on less well-known ingredients of the recipe -

  • Lily-pads – the rhizome of the lily is widely eaten in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia; the leaves can also be eaten in stews and soups.
  • Leaves of the water-plant called ngamaI cannot find the translation of this plant; perhaps it is watercress or a similar tasty herb.
  • Water-spiders – various insects are consumed throughout Africa, as discussed elsewhere in this blog.
  • The following fish, Icannotidentify:
    • hume
    • sharkobtain
Travelling by canoe, Ogowe River.  Source - Nassau

Travelling by canoe on the Ogowe River. Source – Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa


Posted in Africa-West, Agriculture, Cuisine, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Magic, Missionaries, Recipes, Robert Nassau | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon

Continuing our survey of pre-modern dishes with examples from the Gabon area of West Africa, I want to give a recipe for a love filtre for men as detailed by Dr. Robert Nassau, who served as missionary, doctor and ethnologist throughout the Ogowe watershed and surrounding areas of west Africa in the late 19th century

This blog complements The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Liberia, West Africa, which is specifically for women.  While the following recipe is not a dish to be consumed, it is a recipe requiring exactitude in its production and which is ‘cooked’ in the smoke of the kitchen.

Dr. Nassau states:

… the Bantu fetich worshipper depends on himself and his regular fetich charms, which, indeed, were made either at his request by a doctor (as we would order a suit of clothes from a tailor), or by himself on fetich rule obtained from a doctor; and when paid for, the doctor is no longer needed or considered. The worshipper keeps these amulets and mixed medicines hanging on the wall of his room or hidden in one of his boxes…

Fetich doctor, who may be employed to make a charm .

A fetich doctor, who may be employed to make a charm .  The patch of hair is a professional tonsure *.  Source – Nassau.

* Tonsure –  Tonsure is the practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp, as a sign of religious devotion or humility. The term originates from the Latin word tonsūra (to clip, or cut) and referred to a specific practice in medieval Catholicism, abandoned by papal order in 1972. Wikipedia

 The process of making a love charm by a man is more elaborate [than a love charm for a woman]. The ingredients are more numerous and require more time in their collection. Having fixed his desire on some woman, he decides in his heart, “I am going to marry such and such a woman in such and such a village!” But he keeps his intention entirely secret. He proceeds to make the male charm called “Ebâbi.”…

The first ingredient is coconut oil, which is poured into a flask made of a small gourd or calabash.

    • Then, going to the forest, he gathers leaves of the bongâm tree.
    •  Another day he will go again to the forest, and find leaves of the bokadi tree.
    • Then he plucks some hairs from his arm-pits, and puts them and the bruised leaves, with some of his own urine, into the flask.
    • This flask he then suspends from his kitchen roof above the itaka frame or hanging-shelf that in almost all kitchens is placed above the fire-hearth.
    •  It remains there in the smoke for ten days.
    • Then taking it down, he inserts into it, tip downward, a long tail-feather of a large bird called “koka.

He is ready then for his experiment.

Any day that he chooses to go to seek the woman, he first draws out the feather, with whatever of the mixture clings to it, and wipes it on his hands.

    • His hands he then rubs over his face rapidly and vigorously, saying,
      • “So will I do to that woman!”
    • He must immediately then start on his journey.

This act of anointing his hands and face must have been his very last act before starting. And there are several prohibitions:

He must have thought beforehand of all things needed to be done or handled, for after the anointing.

    • He must not touch any other thing. In taking the gourd-flask from above the hanging-shelf.
    • He must not touch the shelf.
    • He must not rub or scratch his head.
    • He must not handle a broom.
    • He must not shake hands with any one on the path to the woman’s village.

All these prohibitions are in order that the anointed mixture may not be rubbed off, or its effect counteracted by contact with anything else.

  •  When he reaches the woman’s village, he goes directly to her, and clasping her on the shoulder, he rubs his hands downward on her arm, saying,
    • “You! you woman! I love you!”
  • Instantly the medicine is operative, and she is willing to go with him.
  • If it is only a love affair, she goes secretly.
  • If he offers her marriage, there is first the amicable settlement by the council that is then held by the woman’s family as to the amount of the dowry to be paid for her.
  • Presents having been given to her by him, the woman goes with the man without further objection.
  • On reaching his house, he points out to her the gourd-flask hanging in the kitchen, and tells her,
    • “Let that thing alone.”
  • But he does not inform her what it is; nor does she know or suspect that it is anything more than an ordinary fetich.
  • Nor does any one else know; for no one had been allowed to see him perform any part of the several processes of the ritual in compounding the charm.
Region of the Ogowe watershed and surrounding areas in which Dr. Nassau worked.  Source -

Region of the Ogowe watershed and surrounding areas in which Dr. Nassau lived and worked. Source – africanhistory.about

Source – Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau.  University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A.  1904.

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The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa

Pre-modern cuisine in many parts of the world can be more fully understood not simply as a technical  ‘recipe’ to be constructed - but also in relation to the context in which it is situated.  Hence, there may be social, sexual, political, religious or other aspects that figure in the total recipe as presented in the finished product.  It is our Western proclivity to disassociate fact from context that may create difficulties in understanding a given cuisine in its totality.

Members of an Njĕmbĕ, a Female Secret Society, with cassava, oil and other items for cooking.  Source- Nassau, Fetichism  in West Africa.

Members of an Njĕmbĕ, a Female Secret Society, with cassava, oil and other items for cooking. The woman on the reader-s left and on the child’s right appear to display white painting, which was common in these societies – and still is, in some of them.  I will write more about this in another blog.  Picture source- Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa.

During his forty years of missionary work in west Africa, the Rev. Nassau seems to have learned this important fact – although it is not specifically stated as such in his works. To examine the approach he uses in incorporating what I shall call the ‘magicality of cuisine’  in an  otherwise secular dish I want to talk about the role of love philtres as a key ingredient of certain recipes in pre-modern Liberia (and elsewhere)  that figure into the finished cuisine. The Rev. Nassau explains:

For Loving, Love philtres are common, even among the civilized and professedly Christian portion of the community(**). Filtres are male and female(*). If a woman says to herself, ” My husband does not love me ; I will make him love me ! ” or if any woman desires to make any man love her, she prepares a medicine for that purpose. This charm is called “lyele.”

* - A philtre or philter is a magic potion. The word came to Western languages through the Latin philtrum, this from the Greek φίλτρον, phíltron, a love potion; from Greek φίλος, phílos, “dear”, “beloved”; thus a potion or concoction meant to secure someone’s favors or affections.
** – Notions of ‘civilized’ in the Nineteenth Century often were equated with ‘Christianized.’

The process is as follows:

1. Love philtre ingredients:

  • First, she scrapes from the sole of her foot some skin, and lays it carefully aside.
  •  Next, when she has occasion to go to the public latrine at the seaside or on the edge of the forest, she washes her genitals in a small bowl of water, which she secretly carries to her house.
  • Then, with a knife, she scrapes a little skin and mucous from the end of her tongue.
  • These three ingredients she mixes in a bottle of water, which is to be used in her cooking.

2. Meat or fish ingredients:

The most attractive native mode of cooking fish and meat is in jomba (“bundle”).

  • The flesh is cut into pieces and laid in layers with salt, pepper, some crushed oily nut, and a little water.
  • These all are tied up tightly in several thicknesses of fresh green plantain leaves, and the bundle is set on a bed of hot coals.
  • The water in the bundle is converted into steam before the thick fleshy leaves are charred through.
  • The steam, unable to escape, permeates the fibres of the meat, thoroughly cooking it without boiling or burning.

When the above-mentioned woman cooks for the man, her husband, or any other for whom she is making the philtre, the water she uses in the jomba is taken from that prepared bottle. This jomba she sets before him, and he eats of it (unaware, of course, of her intention, or of the special mode of preparation).

It is fully believed that the desired effect is immediate ; that, as soon as he has finished eating, all the thoughts of his heart will be turned toward this woman, and that he will be ready to comply with any wish of hers. No objection to her, or to what she says, coming from any other person in the village, male or female, will be regarded by him.

I know a certain Gabun woman who boasted of her power, by the above-described means, to cause a certain white man whom she loved (but who was not her husband) to do anything at all that she bade him.

Also a small portion from that bottle may be poured (secretly) into the glass of liquor that is to be drunk by a favored guest. This is practised alike on visitors, white or black.

Thus can an additional dimension – generally magical, as above – be incorporated as an integral component of a traditional recipe.  This is a fascinating area of cuisine, one that I will be further discussing.

Source – Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau.  University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A.  1904.

Thanks to  J.W. Frembgen for thoughts on love magic.  See – Frembgen, ‘The magicality of the hyena, beliefs and practices in west and south asia, in - Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 57, No. 2 (1998), pp. 331-344/

Posted in Africa-General, Cuisine, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Magic, Missionaries, Recipes, Robert Nassau | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Halloween Special – African Beef Stew with sweet potatoes and mangos, cooked and served in a Pumpkin

Pumpkin patch in Half Moon Bay.

Pumpkin patch.  Wikipedia

Halloween is tomorrow, and so here is a special recipe I learned in Kenya that Chef Richard, of the Hotel club du Lac Tanganyika, prepared.  It is tasty and provides a great presentation in a buffet – especially at Halloween time.

A group of international dignitaries came to the hotel for lunch, and so Richard made this African stew together with a baked rice-amaranth  ‘risotto’ with a cheese topping, served with several salads.  Fresh strawberry and apple tarts and fresh fruit were served for desert; it was all very good.

  • 10-12    Pound whole pumpkin (one large, or two small)
  • 1/4    Pound butter
  • 1     Cup sugar
  • 2 T    Olive oil
  • 2    Pounds beef chunks
  • 4    Cups sweet potatoes
  • 4    Cups white potatoes (or sweet)
  • 1    Cup onions, diced
  • ½    Cup green peppers, diced
  • 4    Medium ripe mangos
  • 1 – 2    Cups carrots, sliced
  • 1 T    Oregano *
  • 1    Bay leaf *
  • Salt & pepper
  • 2    Cups beef stock

* Can be used for European tastes, but in Africa the choice would be for red pepper ( ‘pili-pili ho-ho’)

  • Cut lid and carefully clean out the inside of the pumpkin, without damaging the external rind
  • Brush inside with the softened butter and sugar (mixed), helps reduce bitterness of the pumpkin shell and rind
  • Replace lid and bake at 350 F in a roasting pan for about 45 minutes or less
  • Place olive oil in a large skillet and brown beef
  • Remove meat and in juices cook sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and carrots
  • Remove potatoes and carrots and in juices cook remaining ingredients, including beef stock
  • Cook until onions are translucent
  • After pumpkin is finished cooking combine all cooked ingredients into pumpkin
  • Don’t over bake the pumpkin shell – which did happen in Chef Richard’s first attempt [see picture]; brown and too soft
  • Don’t overcrowd shells when placing cooked ingredients into pumpkin
  • Return to oven for about 45 minutes
  • Serve out of the pumpkins

The dish is not terribly spicy, but it is tasty and the meat becomes quite tender, baked in the pumpkins.  Adding a good helping of pili-pili ho-ho [fiery hot spice or sauce] is the African way in many areas.

Chef Richard and sous-chef Jean-Claude showing off their African stew in local squash ‘pumpkins,’ being served from the bain-marie

Sous-chef Jean-Claude with the Rice-broth-linga-linga (local amaranth) & cheese 'risotto'

Sous-chef Jean-Claude with the Rice-broth-linga-linga (local amaranth)  & cheese ‘risotto’

Part of the buffet

Part of the buffet.  The large ‘nuts’ are freshly picked coconuts from trees on the Hotel shore-front  of  Lake Tanganyika

Serving staff with Richard and Jean-Claude

Serving staff with Richard and Jean-Claude

On the following link, I talk about How to stock and run a commercial kitchen in central Africa. Well, how it is done here at the Hotel.

Revised 30 October 2014
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Final Project: The Early Dynastic Mastabas at Saqqara – A Spatial Analysis


Details of a group assignment by a member of the UCLA class that conducted this interesting exercise.

Published archaeological plans of north Saqqara are laid on the satellite imagery, geo-referenced, and the building footprints are traced into the GIS and digitized:

Image by Aria Klucewicz

Image by Aria Klucewicz

“Methods: Using a basemap given by GIS, I georeferenced 8 different maps of the necropolis. One of the maps has 1m contour lines, which I vectorized using ArcScan. I then added elevation values by hand. Several of the maps had the tomb locations outlined, although there were discrepancies in size and location. I made a best estimate to draw polygons in the tomb locations…”

Originally posted on Klucewicz - Geography:

Intro: For my project, I looked at the necropolis Saqqara in Egypt. This is the location of the famous Stepped Pyramid, as well as several other pyramids and many smaller mastaba tombs. I looked at the distribution of these mastaba tombs in Northern Saqqara. These tombs are from the earliest periods of Dynastic Egypt, Dynasties 1-3. They belonged to elite individuals of the society. Tombs of the 1st Dynasty are along the eastern cliff, while those of the 2nd and 3rd Dynasties move further and further west. The 1st Dynasty mastabas are much more elaborate than those of the 2nd and 3rd Dynasties with an outer niched facade. They were brightly painted, in contrast to the plain white color of the later tombs. I wanted to see if there was an explanation for the shift toward plainer and farther from the cliff. I first theorized that the 1st Dynasty…

View original 1,422 more words

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The Day President Sadat was Assassinated & What Followed

Reposting with readers’ suggestions:

What may be the ultimate demise of ex-president  Mubarak, his sons, and others – with all of their attendant intrigues – takes me back some 30 years to the assassination of President Sadat, which I want to talk about here.  This is a reposting of an earlier blog, updated with recommendations by colleagues.

The day of the assassination – October 6, 1981 –  I was visiting people in the area of Upper Egypt in which I had conducted my field research. I can remember so clearly standing in the house of Umm M., chatting with folks, when someone ran in with a portable radio shouting that Sadat had been assassinated. We were all stunned and unsure whether it was true or not. But over the next hour or so reports continued to be given on the radio, that this was indeed the case.

Assassination of Sadat. This is apparently the only photo of the event, the photographer is unknown. Source: Open

This was before electricity or telephones had been installed in most rural areas, and so we discussed the event and what we should do. It was the beginning of a variety of fundamentalist activities in Upper [southern] Egypt that were being organized and carried out by al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, which further jeopardized events.

We decided that everyone in the village would stay within their own homes, and that I had better leave and drive back up to Cairo. At the time I was the only person [American] fluent in colloquial Arabic in most of the country, and that held its own dangers.

I put-putted up to Cairo in my little old VW, a worthy contribution to my field work by the wonderful Cynthia Nelson, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo, with which I was affiliated as a Research Scholar.

On the way driving up to Cairo I visited various friends and colleagues to gain more news, of which there was very little. However, police and military were increasing throughout the country and so a friend – an old hand in Egypt – suggested we fly right down to Aswan for a few days, where we thought things would be a bit quieter.

Tickets were easy to get, and after calling the [then] rather down-at-the-heels Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan to secure rooms, off we flew. As we approached the Aswan airport I saw a fighter jet saddling up next to our plane, with wings almost touching, to accompany us into the airport. This is the first time I’ve ever been accompanied by a military escort into an airport and it was a unique experience.

Not only were we accompanied by jets going into Aswan, but the next week when I was back to the project area in S.E Egypt – N.E. Sudan, several jets appeared from the direction of the Nile Valley and flew into and along the base of the large wadi (valley) in which we were located, apparently avoiding sightings and radar as they continued over the Red Sea. A very unique experience.

The ground was thick with fully armed military and anti-aircraft guns. The Hotel had sent a vehicle for us, and off we went to unwind by the Nile. The next morning we went out walking and watched as public buildings were busily being sand-bagged. It was still not clear what was happening. I went to the offices of the Ministry of Interior, where I had a few contacts, and after some chit-chat and tea learned that an invasion to attack the Aswan High Dam was expected. Going to Aswan had clearly been a very bad idea.

I then visited the madyafa - guest house that was located on the outskirts of  Aswan – of the Ababda tribes of the Eastern Desert with whom, together with the Beja tribes of SE Egypt, I was at that time directing a project in the Eastern Desert. A group of elders were there and verified the fear of an attack. They were waiting to hear from some of their tribesmen who had been sent investigate.

The Old Cataract Hotel at the time it was constructed, 1899.

The Old Cataract Hotel at the time it was constructed, 1899.

I love Aswan, but this had been very bad timing. We flew back to Cairo and I found a note waiting, that I should immediately go over to see my Project Officer at USAID, which together with several other organizations*, was funding and/or providing support to the project, of which I was ‘Team Leader’ and Chief of Party. My Project Officer was furious. He said that -”security-types” had just flown in from D.C. and were looking for me, ‘to pick my brains’.

* NAMRU-3, [Naval Medical Research Unit Three], The Ford Foundation, Catholic Relief Services, The American Research Center in Egypt, and The American University in Cairo. 

At that time, USAID did not want their grantees to be ‘used’ by outside folk. So, he suggested I get out-of-town – go down to our project area in the Eastern Desert, which not only was as remote as one could get and still be in Egypt, but also was in the midst of a vast military zone. And that way, he could truthfully inform the folks from Washington that I could not be contacted.

That seemed an excellent idea, and so the next morning I visited my official counterpart in Cairo, who was the Minister of Health, to discuss a trip down to the project site; for which he agreed, saying that his offices would call the Governor to advise of my arrival. As all of us, he was frazzled over the whole assassination event and aftermath, which we discussed. He said that most of the wounded had been shot in the legs. It was still not clear what was happening.

I got the project’s Nissan Patrol organized with driver, extra fuel and tires, etc. This was a very long and rough drive – nearly two days, with roads giving out along the way.

My project area was the extreme S.E. corner of Egypt- N.E. corner of Sudan

Arriving in Hurgada, the provincial capital, I went to visit the Governor who was my official counterpart in the Provence. More chit-chat and tea, and I relayed my experiences in Aswan and in Cairo. He concurred, that even over by the Red Sea they were arming to expect possible incursions – by whom and why was not totally clear. Possibly from Libya, it was thought, aiming for the Aswan High Dam.

He provided me with a military escort and off we went further south where, during project work,  we had collected a variety of human and animal samples to assess health and disease vectors, and socio-economic data, and also developed simple health clinics for the bedouin populations in Bir Shalatein and in Berenice, to check out supplies, our resident doctor, [a very keen Egyptian graduate],and so forth. All seemed well with the project and no invasions seemed in the offing.

This is a beautiful and rugged area;a picture of a house made of driftwood, located on the outskirts of  the Shalatein camel market, can be seen in the header to this blog.  Many of the purebred racing camels of the Beja are brought here to be sold to Saudis who come over by boat.  These camels are considered by many to be the fasted and best one can find.  With my background in riding [horses], I did enjoy coursing over the flat desert mounted on one of these marvelous beasts.

For 100s of years  one of the largest camel markets in the region is at Shalatein.  Camels are brought up to the site from eastern and western Sudan and, as here, may be trucked into the Nile Valley or driven by camel caravan.  Source -  shalatein

For hundreds of years one of the largest camel markets in this region has been at Shalatein. Camels are brought up to the site from eastern and western Sudan and, as here, may be neatly loaded into desert trucks and taken into the Nile Valley, or driven by camel caravan.   Source – shalatein

The Ptolemaic port on the Red Sea located here, at Berenike,  has a fascinating history of  ocean travel to southern India, and to coastal sites further south along east Africa in purchasing and importing elephants for training in Egypt.  Source -

The Ptolemaic port on the Red Sea located at Berenike has a fascinating history of ocean travel to southern India for spices, and to coastal sites further south along east Africa in purchasing and importing elephants for training in Egypt. Source –

However, in one of our excursions south of Berenice [see above map], we came upon a military vehicle that had stopped, and whose high ranking  passengers were pouring over a large military map of the area.  I, and the driver and government rep. were familiar with the area, and we discussed where they were wanting to go.  We suggested that they could backtrack a bit, and head west through the upper reaches of  Wadi Allaqi, or a wadi north of Allaqi, in order that they could reach their goal of Aswan.  We all shook hands and headed in our respective tracks.  Only then, perhaps, realizing how peculiar this impromptu meeting in the Red Sea Hills had been.

A portion of the Wadi Allaqi.  Source - Nuweibi_overview www.gippslanditd

A portion of the Wadi Allaqi. Source – Nuweibi_overview http://www.gippslandltd

Returning finally to Hurghada, I chatted again with the Governor, discussing about our strange encounter with an Egyptian army  vehicle and occupants.  He informed me the country was now under martial law and that the Provincial capital of Asyut in the Nile Valley had been attacked by Gama’a Islamiyya and – if I am remembering correctly – that it took two days to reinstate authorities. So it was indeed good that I’d left Upper Egypt when word of the assassination became known.

I went back to Cairo and learned that the security-folk had returned to Washington. Curiously, I don’t remember any further events other that so much talk in Cairo. And, with Mubarak now having proclaimed martial law, everything seemed to go back to a kind of normalcy.

Many questions still remain. Were the Libyans involved, or others, in attacking Egypt from the South? If so, who and why?  It was widely thought, both in some diplomatic circles, as well as in the Egyptian Government, that Libyan forces had been sent around southern Egypt (in the Sudan) and were preparing to attack Egypt from that position.

A major difference between the Sadat assassination period and current/recent events in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa where the ‘Arab Spring’ has been taking place,  is the availability of communication. Internet, phones, as well as generally more savvy people. This makes for a totally different way of dealing with – as well as with trying to orchestrate – events.

Here are a couple of videos on the Sadat assassination that are quite interesting.  Although arabic videos, it is the visual content that is so interesting.

In the following video, the little boy is Sadat’s grandson.

People ran over, throwing chairs upon the dignitaries being shot, and the wounded, dead, and others can be seen aided by others.  Names of the attackers are given in Arabic with arrows.

 The Assassination of Anwar El Sadat

On 6 October 1981, the month after the crackdown, Sadat was assassinated during the annual victory parade in Cairo. A fatwā approving the assassination had been obtained from Omar Abdel-Rahman, a cleric later convicted in the U.S. for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Sadat was protected by four layers of security and the army parade should have been safe due to ammunition-seizure rules. However, the officers in charge of that procedure were on hajj to Mecca.

As air force Mirage jets flew overhead, distracting the crowd, a troop truck halted before the presidential reviewing stand, and a lieutenant strode forward. Sadat stood to receive his salute, whereupon the assassins rose from the truck, throwing grenades and firing assault rifle rounds. The attack lasted about two minutes. Photographer Bill Foley captured one of the last shots of a living Sadat. The photograph is titled “The Last Smile.”

A photo by Bill Foley entitled "The Last Smile" - taken of Sadat just before he was shot.  Source - last smile

A photo by Bill Foley entitled “The Last Smile” – taken of Sadat just before he was shot. Source – last smile

The lead assassin Khalid Islambouli shouted “Death to Pharaoh!” as he ran towards the stand and shot Sadat. After he fell to the floor people around Sadat threw chairs on his body to try to protect him from the bullets. Eleven others were killed, including the Cuban ambassador a Omani general and a Coptic Orthodox bishop, and 28 were wounded, including James Tully, the Irish Minister for Defence, and four U.S. military liaison officers. Sadat was then rushed to a hospital, but was declared dead within hours. This was the first time in Egyptian history that the head of state had been assassinated by an Egyptian citizen. Two of the attackers were killed and the others were arrested by military police on-site. Islambouli was later found guilty and was executed in April 1982.

In conjunction with the assassination, an insurrection was organized in Asyut in Upper Egypt. Rebels took control of the city for a few days and 68 policemen and soldiers were killed in the fighting. Government control was not restored until paratroopers from Cairo arrived. Most of the militants convicted of fighting received light sentences and served only three years in prison.

I am revising and will be posting a series of other blogs about our work in the Eastern Desert of Egypt and Sudan and related areas of the Beja tribes and their brethren.


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