‘I have one last condition,’ said De Sampa on that third day of our long-drawn negotiations. His earlier ‘conditions’, including the handsome black goat, were nowhere in sight and I wondered whether he could still refund them if this last request was too much for me to pay.
‘What is that?’ I asked.
‘You must not reveal any of my secret spells or potions,’ he said.
De Sampa was a wiry, middle-aged man with a penchant for damask print shirts. He was bald and wore a neat goatee. There was not a speck of paint on him – nor did he have any of those eccentricities for which his profession was notorious. For a witchdoctor, he seemed particularly harmless. If there was anything odd about him, it was his unsettling stare, but I had been staring at him for three days and I was no longer unsettled. ‘What if I find out that it is all bullshit?’
‘It is not,’ he insisted. ‘My grandfather…’
‘Let’s just suppose that after the four weeks, I decide that it is? That there are no real potions. No magic mantras… that it’s all a mind game?’
He pulled out a tiny beaded amulet from his pocket and shook it in a cupped palm, like a ludo player contemplating a critical throw of the dice. ‘You can’t write about that either,’ he said eventually. ‘That’s my final condition.’
So what was the whole point of being a witchdoctor’s writer-in-residence, I wondered, if one couldn’t even show up his scams! Yet the smell of fried goat meat still hung heavily in the air. And on my fingers. I knew the provenance of the hospitable plate of meat I had just eaten. The ‘conditions’ I had already satisfied were non-refundable and this was no time to get finicky over the small print: I was talking to the only witchdoctor left in the whole of Waterside and if I wanted to write the expose of my dreams I had to deal on his terms.
So we shook hands on the deal.
Then he brought out his choka, which gleamed dully from dried cockerel blood, and insisted that I swear an oath on it as well. I wasn’t too keen on that one… but it was just a lump of old wood… and I couldn’t very well endanger my literary project over an empty oath on a broken branch, so I swore away. But De Samba got carried away: ten minutes later we were still at it.
‘May you be as impotent as a wet rag if you betray my secrets,’
‘May you grow bow-legs if you give my potions to my rivals,’
On and on he went, until I wished I had switched on my tape-recorder to capture the exciting poetry of his curses.
Yet, as I returned to Alma Guest House that evening I could not deny the tiny lump of fear in the pit of my stomach. (This is just the honest fact.) I don’t know if it was the poetry of the curses or his dirty talisman interacting with my real intentions – what was undeniable was the uneasiness in my stomach. Then I got into my room and I chewed an antacid, and the stomach settled. Probably the blasted goat meat.
Yet, I could not afford to let any superstition take root so early in the project, so I did the logical thing: I pulled out a notebook and started this secret diary. I was looking forward to the first day of my residency.