Ray Maxwell is a retired Foreign Service officer who now works in the Washington, D.C., Mayor’s Office of Public Records. They tell me this note may appear in the January/February 2018 Foreign Service Journal.
My journeys to Caliquisse to meet with the Homem Grande represent Foreign Service life at its best.
In Portuguese Homem Grande means “great man.” But in Guinea-Bissau, where I was posted, it means the big voodoo/spiritual/mystic guy, and Caliquisse is the capital of the spirit world.
Now I was not particularly a believer in this stuff, though I did read a book on Santeria as an undergraduate that resulted in a spring break trip to visit the above-ground crypt of Marie Laveau in pre-Katrina New Orleans.
In Guinea-Bissau, a warehouse theft that we couldn’t solve resulted in my boss’ decision to consult with the Homem Grande to find out who was ripping us off. A very religious guy, and very observant, my boss also had an obsession with “local culture.” So one Saturday, six of us piled into two vans and headed to Caliquisse to call on the local oracle.
After a huge midday feast at the home of a local Cape Verdean merchant, we picked up gifts for the mystic—rice, live chickens, a leitao (baby pig) and several bottles of cana (a Cape Verdean sugarcane liquor)—and started on a trek into the bush.
When the road ended, we continued driving until we reached a clearing. Then the guide took us by foot several hundred yards to a wooded area, where we found a large tree with a hollowed-out base—one of those ugly trees that grows the delicious cabaceira, a white tangy powder, in a large green pod. There, we awaited the arrival of the spirit man.
He finally arrived, greeted us and offered a sip of cana from what appeared to be a very questionable container. I very politely declined. Through a translator, we explained that we needed to know who was robbing our warehouse. (My boss believed our warehouse employees were guilty, but I maintained they were innocent and it was an “outside” job.)
The spirit man nodded, took another sip of cana and pulled a long, rusted knife from a sheath. “Oh shit, he’s gonna kill us!” I thought. But the knife was for the hen we brought, the galinha de terra, the reading of whose entrails was to provide the answers we sought.
With a quick snap of the wrist, he decapitated the bird. While holding its still-twitching body in his left hand, he cut open its underside with a smaller knife. Here, he began the close read.
Looking carefully at the chicken’s ovaries (I found that out later), he revealed to us that bandits were entering the warehouse through the roof, and that it was definitely an outside job. I took a deep breath of relief.
Then he asked us if we wanted to know anything else. My boss and the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations project director asked if they would have sons. Yes, the wise man replied, sons for both. But in exchange for this advance information, both would be required to bring their sons back to Caliquisse for a visit.
He looked my way, but I kept my mouth shut! (I had attended a lecture earlier on the practice of making deals with the spirit world. To break a promise is very bad ju-ju—better not to make the promise than to make and not keep it.)
The translator advised us that once we uncovered the plot and learned the details of the robberies, we would have to return to the Homem Grande with more rice, cana and chickens. Satisfied, we piled into the vehicles and went back to Bissau.
Was he right about the thefts? The weekend before my end-of-tour departure, I returned to Caliquisse and the Guinea-Bissau spirit world to pay my debt in full. The Homem Grande had been right, and our problem was solved.
Diplomacy is usually about interactions with host government officials, and we had plenty of those experiences in a country that had its first legislative elections and its first presidential election during our two-year watch.
But the opportunity to engage with the local culture, and perhaps even generate local folklore, is its own diplomacy.