The Malinke Myth of the Gee na
- Africa, Guinea
One day, my Guinean friend and I decided to go on a 48-km bike ride to his native village. I wanted to meet his family and visit a different part of the country. We left before dawn, with the Big Dipper directly above, in order to avoid the hot afternoon sun. "God's electricity" or, as the Malinke people call it, "Allah la current," meaning the light from the full moon, lit a tiny dirt path as we steered around the large potholes and the dust pits along the way.
As soon as we arrived at the circle of huts belonging to his family, a group of young neighbors crowded around me just to stare at the whiteness of my skin, the light blue in my eyes, the dark blond curls in my hair, and the jeans covering my legs. I introduced myself to my friend's parents in Malinke, since they understood neither English nor French. As I spoke in their language, mouths dropped open, eyes widened, bodies froze, and people gasped in disbelief. Never before had they heard a white person speak in their native tongue. In fact, many of the children had never even seen a white person at all.
As we walked around the village to meet the rest of my friend's relatives, the group of youngsters followed us, crying out: "Toubabu muso bada na! Moe bey, na yan! Na yan ba!" which means, "A white woman has come! Everyone come here! Come now!" So with each step, more and more children joined the group, and within 15 minutes there were about 40 children running, singing, chanting, and screaming in a fervor all around me. It felt like a big parade in which I was the main float. All of this commotion, simply because I didn't have the same color skin as they did. You see, white people rarely (if ever) come to visit their village, so they were happy and honored to have me there.
Many children approached me, ran their finger down my arm, and then looked back at their fingertip to see if it had turned white. I guess they thought that I had white paint all over my body that they could wipe off. When they couldn't remove the white color, they began to laugh and chant: "Toubabu! Toubabu!" "White person! White person!" Not everyone was thrilled to see me, though. My presence actually made several toddlers and babies cry hysterically. To them, I was Gee na, a devil. It makes sense that they believed I was a demon, because they have grown up with folk tales telling them about a tall, light-skinned creature, Gee na, who can put spells on them and make them sick.
Each month during the full moon, the children gather around their grandparents to hear tales, myths, and stories about their ancestors. Through this oral tradition, Malinke beliefs and customs are passed down from generation to generation. One such myth tells about the Gee na, a devilish creature with pale skin who comes out at night when there is no light. She is a towering figure whose skin is so white that it seems to glow in the dark. The Gee na is said to put curses on people that can kill them. She can attack anyone, but children are especially vulnerable. Therefore, children are advised by their grandparents not to walk in the woods or near the river at night, so to avoid an encounter with the Gee na.
To protect themselves from such evil spirits, everyone always wears special pieces of jewelry around their waists called grie-gries. A typical grie-grie is made of either beads or leather with shells sewed on, and it has been blessed by an old wise man who is believed to have mysterious, magical powers. When a person is wearing a grie-grie, he has more of a chance of fighting off the spell that a Gee na tries to put on him.
When the kids started crying uncontrollably and yelling: "Gee na bada na!" (or "A devil has come!") upon my arrival, I calmly said: "Gee na te n di. Toubabu le n di!" which means, "I'm not a devil. I'm just a white person!" But for those who had never seen a white person, there was no difference whatsoever between a white person and a devil. All they'd ever seen before were dark-skinned, brown-eyed individuals... and the only light-skinned creature they knew was the Gee na.
Most of the teary-eyed children stopped crying when I spoke to them in Malinke. I tried to teach them simple songs in English, performed a few card tricks, and made shadow puppets along the candlelit walls of their huts. They also had a bit more confidence that I wasn't a Gee na when they noticed that I, too, was wearing a grie-grie around my waist. After all, I didn't want the Gee na to put a spell on me as I was riding my bike home in the early morning. Who knows, perhaps I needn't wear a grie-grie because the Gee na may not really exist, or, if it does exist, maybe it's afraid of white people. But it can't hurt to be safe and protected, just in case! Besides, those grie-gries are kind of pretty.