by Paul Stoller
The Dogon people of Mali say that the Sigui, an important ritual, takes off on the “wings of the wind.” The ritual is performed once of year for seven years at 60-year intervals. For Dogon people, the “wings of the wind” is a symbolic reaffirmation of the life cycle, compelling them to ponder the meaning of life, death, and rebirth.
My friend El Hajji Seyni Amadu, a Songhay man from Niger, used to talk to me about the Dogon and the “wings of the wind” ritual. I met El Hajji in New York City 20 years ago. He sold West African antiquities at Le Magazin, a seven-story storage facility near Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. Conversations about the “wings of the wind” prompted him to talk about his life as a stranger in a strange land sickened with cancer.
During our many conversations, we discussed West African immigrants’ struggles as they work to make their way in “The Big Apple.” We often discussed the emotional toll of feeling fundamentally misunderstood. He talked about the climate of distrust that produced and reinforced a cultural gulf between African and non-African traders. This lack of trust makes it difficult for traders to negotiate through the maze of transnational economic networks that shape New York City’s informal economy. As both of us had been coping with serious illnesses, El Hajji and I often broached the subject of health and well-being, life, and death.
“How do you manage your illness, your treatments?” I would ask him. “How are your treatments going?”
“I am still using anasara (white) medicine as well as African medicine. Although I live in the anasara world, I also follow the path of our ancestors.”
Conversations with El Hajji Seyni became the foundation of my CAS-E research project on continuity and change of healing practices among West African immigrants in New York City. Many of El Hajji Seyni’s fellow traders have been away from their West African homes for many years. How has immigration shaped their ever-changing identities? How have they confronted issues of love and loss in a strange land? What provides them with comfort? How do they maintain their well-being? How do they deal with issues of health and illness which become increasingly important as they age?
African immigrants in New York City can contact organizations like The African Services Committee (ASC) to find anasara treatments for a variety of physical and mental health conditions. At their free walk-in clinics, there is screening for various conditions. ASC also makes available multilingual health information and outreach. For mental health services, there are in-person and telehealth options. These include mental health assessments, diagnosis, emotional support, psycho-educational, and problem-solving referrals for more detailed psychiatric treatment options. In “Little Senegal” on 116th Street in Harlem, there are a variety of walk-in clinics. Immigrant organizations also refer their Francophone compatriots to French-speaking physicians, some of whom have had clinical experience in West Africa.
When El Hajji Seyni detected blood in his stool, his compatriots gave him the name of a French-speaking physician on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. That physician sent him to a New York City hospital for tests and scans, the results of which confirmed a cancer diagnosis. He met with an oncologist who recommended an ongoing course of chemotherapy and potential surgery. El Hajji Seyni phoned home to Niger for advice and consulted with his New York City compatriots.
He then decided to try anasara medicine and scheduled chemotherapy sessions but said he did not want surgery. The chemotherapy treatments were hard on his body. He complained to me about fatigue, hair loss, mouth sores, and an inability to taste—and enjoy—food. As a result, his trading business suffered. Too ill to visit with his fellow traders, he isolated himself in his apartment. Follow-up tests and scans indicated that if he continued treatment, his condition would remain manageable for a time, but he would have to learn to live with debilitating side effects.
I did not hear from El Hajji Seyni for some time. On fieldwork visits to New York City, my friends told me they hadn’t seen him. Finally, during one trip on a beautiful October afternoon, El Hajji Seyni walked into the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market and sat down next to me.
He told me the three years of on-and-off anasara medicine had not worked. The treatments had reduced the size of the tumor, but the side effects had made his life intolerable.
“This is no way to live,” he told me. He then looked at me and touched my hand. “Paul,” he said, “I’m going home.”
We let the moment sink in and sat there in silence. Without saying a word, we knew we would not see one another again.
Two weeks later, he returned to Niger. In his home village, friends and family visited him every day. Local healers prepared his body and soul to prepare for his passage to the ancestors. Confined to his bed El Hajji Seyni told stories about his life in New York City.
Several months after his return to Niger, El Hajji Seyni took off on the “wings of wind” to join his ancestors—a dignified end for a man of distinction.
Questions of life and death become more salient as we age, especially if aging accompanies chronic illness. For immigrants like El Hajji Seyni, questions of how and where to die have added meaning. In a place like New York City, African immigrants have access to modern medicine. Close friends and family, however, often live far away in remote rural West African villages.
End-of-life rituals provide important comfort. They make us realize that life has a continuity even as we leave it. El Hajji Seyni appreciated the medical treatment he received in New York City, but for his final journey, he wanted to return home to fly on the wings of wind.
Paul Stoller is a Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University, USA. Stoller obtained his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin. He currently is a research fellow at CAS-E-
Abdullah, Zain 2010. Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem. New York: Oxford Academic
African Services Committee: africanservices.org
Sawadogo, Boukary 2022. Africans in Harlem: An Untold New York Story. New York: Fordham University Press.
Stoller, Paul 2002. Money Has Not Smell: the Africanization of New York City. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
*This blog post is adapted from a piece published in Psychology Today on March 29, 2023
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Image credits: © Paul Stoller