Short Story Review: Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi
Government by Magic Spell is a fascinating short story written by Somali feminist writer Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi. This short story is not easy to find here in North America. If you have an edition of the Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories edited by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, published in 1992, then you might be in luck. This collection brings together 20 short stories written between 1980 to 1991. However, the story is well-known among Kenyan high school students as it is part of a compilation of short stories from North and East Africa which is mandatory reading for English Literature students. This complication also contains Herzi’s other well-known short story, Against the Pleasure Principle, which confronts the practice of female circumcision. I had hoped to find out more online about Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi, but unfortunately, like so many African authors of her generation, I cannot.
But, thanks to the BBC, more people outside of East Africa, will be familiar with this short story as it was chosen to be read as part of the BBC’s The Human Cradle Series, which featured readings of three contemporary short stories by writers from the Horn of Africa. The other short stories included Saba by Eritrean author Suleiman Addonia. According to the BBC site:
In Sulaiman Addonia’s new short story ‘Saba’, a former cinema employee decides to create a ‘cinema’ of his own inside a refugee camp. Read by Abukar Osman.
The first of three contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Produced by Emma Harding
About the author: Sulaiman S.M.Y. Addonia was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father. He spent his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan following the Om Hajar massacre in 1976, and in his early teens he lived and studied in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has lived in London since 1990. His first novel, The Consquences of Love (Vintage) was published in 2009.
The second story, The Invisible Map, by Ethiopian writer Maaza Megiste, is described on the site as follows:
In Maaza Mengiste’s new short story, ‘The Invisible Map’, a young Ethiopian woman, hoping for a better life in Europe, finds herself trapped in a Libyan prison. Read by Adjoa Andoh.
The second in our series of contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Produced by Emma Harding
About the author: Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’, has been translated into several languages and was a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. She teaches at NYU and currently lives in New York City.
It is important to keep in mind that the story was written some time between 1980 to 1991. Described as a “satirical parable of power and corruption”, the story exposes the machinations of Somali clan politics but also holds lessons for anyone concerned about justice and democracy.
The story begins with Halima at the age of 10, who we learn, has been possessed by a jinn, better known to Westerners as Genies. Halima had been ill for several months, but the local religious healer, or Waadad, soon discovers that the origins of her illness are supernatural. An infant jinn which she had accidentally stepped on one night in front of the bathroom has possessed her. Luckily for Halima, and soon her village, the jinn is benevolent and helpful. The people of the village soon believe that Halima’s jinn can give her the power to foretell the future and heal the sick. Halima is able to acquire a great deal of power and autonomy for a woman because of her family and clan being in awe of her jinn. Halima is able to refuse all the men who proposed marriage to her, including the Waadad. Halima’s jinn is perceived to be the reason for her clan’s worldly success and she is seen as a blessing to her family. For that reason, she is summoned from her village to the country’s capital, Mogadishu, where many of her fellow clan members have gained the most powerful positions in government. As Herzi describes:
It had all started with one of their men who had become very powerful in the government. He had called his relatives and found big government jobs for them. They, in turn, had called relatives of theirs until the government virtually had been taken over by Halima’s people. And that had meant quick riches for everyone concerned. Nor had they been very scrupulous about getting what they wanted. Anything that stood in their way had to be pushed aside or eliminated.
Halima’s fellow clan members want to use her powers in order to consolidate their political power, which they have established over a short 10 years, despite many of them being illiterate, although still taking up government positions. The capital’s water system is consolidated so that Halima can placate the jinn but also cast a spell which cures all of the capital’s residents of their curiosity, so they will no longer ask questions about the current state of their government and the actions of Halima’s clan.
We learn from the story about the belief in the power of jinn within traditional Somali Culture. The story discusses ritual sacrifices made in honour of the jinn, in order to keep them placated and for the entire clan to benefit from the jinn’s benevolence. Based on my own experience, I can vouch that belief in jinn and their ability to possess people is quite commonplace among contemporary Muslims, and still strong amongst members of the Somali diaspora. But it is interesting to conjecture how the role of jinns in traditional Muslim African cultures could be seen as a throwback to earlier pre-Islamic beliefs in ancestor spirits. In the story, we learn that the parents of Halima’s jinn even come to visit her in order to advise her on the proper care of their child. What I find truly compelling about the story is how Halima manipulates people’s fear of her jinn in order to gain power, both over her own life, which as a woman would have ordinarily been quite limited, and then political power within her clan.
Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi available online