I went to the Freetown High Court for the first time last week with my Awoko newspaper colleague. We sat down on the bench for the press before anyone had arrived and got to see the courtroom fill up. I snapped this picture while it was still empty – photography and even audio recordings are normally strictly prohibited inside the courtroom.
We were there to see the trial for a murder which had three suspects, among them Baimba Moi Foray, who for whatever reason goes by the moniker LA Chocolate. My colleague explained that he’s a famous “herbalist” in Freetown — someone who practices magic. Rumors say he drives an expensive car and rents an expensive house, and there’s no way he could be so rich without tapping into black magic — the money he makes from clients is just not enough for that kind of lifestyle.
My colleague could attest to him being rich — she said she’d once seen him at a beach restaurant, throwing handfuls of money in the air from a bag.
He and two others were standing trial for the murder of Sydney Buckle, aka DJ Cleff, a popular DJ, in May 2015. Buckle had last been seen at the birthday party of one of the suspects, Avril Oreh Renner. When his body was found, people assumed he’d died of Ebola. But the body was mutilated. Now it’s thought that Renner, Foray and his bodyguard Foday Kamara murdered Buckle in some kind of ritual to gain black magic power.
This was all pretty shocking to to me, but I was even more disturbed to learn that although ritual murders like this aren’t common, most Sierra Leoneans are rock solid in their belief in magic, both dark and light. When I asked my colleague about this before the trial, I was thinking, “People don’t actually believe this is real here, right?” and my questions to her got at this in a more subtle way. But she said everyone believes black magic here including her, and it is absolutely real and works. But she also said “it works if you believe in it.” This is an important distinction. I think that last statement makes sense, and explains why these beliefs might persist, but there’s clearly a contradiction there. I wonder if my colleague was ambivalent about whether she really believed — I didn’t press the point further.
Yesterday I was talking about this with another journalist from a different newspaper at a World Bank press conference (I’ll have another post on said conference), and he said he also believed in it. “I’ve seen it,” he said. He explained that dark herbalists have “witch guns” which they psychically shoot people with, which will supposedly kill them. Premature deaths are often blamed on this. Here’s an article I found that explains more about this.
Apparently, people would use these witch guns during the civil war. He was a bit skeptical because he remembered having an argument with someone about who would be the first to die in a one on one battle in a locked room — someone with a witch gun, or someone with an AK-47. He thought the AK would win out.
I asked him if both Muslims and Christians believed in and used magic, and he said only the Muslims mix it up like that. “Christians believe in Jesus Christ,” he said. I doubt this, especially because it’s just the thing a Christian would say that.
The trial was interesting to watch. It was delayed 20 minutes because a member of the jury was stuck in traffic. When he arrived and explained to the judge, he was laughing a bit, which the judge sternly admonished him for.
There were several members of the public present in the back, who Maryam said may have been family members of the accused or the victim, or just people interested.
The three suspects had three defense attorneys to defend them — as my colleague explained, people can hire as many as they want. Earlier, we had met with one of them. He was dressed in a perfectly crisped tuxedo-style suit, and had a smooth, businesslike and slightly cold manner.
The trial wasn’t incredibly eventful — the suspects decided they were not going to testify after all, and instead rely on statements they originally made to police. After these three suspects said this and were led out, a few other murder suspects were processed, some very young. It was hard to follow what legal proceedings were going on, and I don’t have a good understanding of legal proceedings anywhere, let along Sierra Leone. These other accused looked scared. I helped write a short write up of the trial and what happened here.
I also devoted one of the daily columns for Awoko to the case and my thoughts about it. The column ran in Awoko newspaper on Monday, July 18 (I’ve linked to near the bottom of this post), and in it I describe more of the scene in the courtroom.
I felt compelled to write about this case in my column because I found it very disturbing. The column goes a bit into what I’ve been thinking about since I saw this trial (it was hard to get out of my mind, and still is). But my exposure to this ugly case was nothing compared to my colleague. The reporter covering the courts beat has reported on this case ever since it started. And I can’t imagine what it was like for my other colleague, who said she had to take pictures of the corpse. These journalists are tougher than me when it comes to things like this.
I wanted to get at why I found this so disturbing in the column. Mainly I think it’s the pointlessness of it. I mean, all murder is, but somehow murders like the mass coerced suicide in Jonestown, or other weird cult murders, are especially disturbing to me, and I think the reason is they’re based on fantasy and delusion, and no one had to die. It’s just utterly senseless.
Black magic has a real power — but only because people who believe in it sometimes do terrible things based on their beliefs, and because people attribute bad events to black magic, and the placebo effect. I don’t expect the column I wrote to persuade anyone who really believes in black magic, but since the audience is Sierra Leoneans, most of whom believe, I thought I’d give it a try. For my argument to make sense, I explained why I think black magic isn’t real, and then went into how it can be defeated if everyone stops believing in it. Only then would it lose its power.
I know this is kind of naive — these beliefs exist and persist for many reasons. Belief in black magic isn’t going to go away overnight, if ever. And as I acknowledge in the column, I’m no anthropologist, let alone one who studies Sierra Leone, so I really have no authority to draw on when it comes to this subject. I just can’t see how it would do anything but good for Sierra Leone to move past these beliefs.
Anyway, if you’re curious, here’s the column I wrote:
On Tuesday, I sat in the Freetown High Court for less than an hour, then helped write a few paragraphs for the newspaper on what has to be the strangest and most disturbing story I’ve reported on so far in my still very short journalism career.
I was on a bench for the press at ground level, squeezed together with a few too many local journalists. The two men and one woman sitting high above me in the huge court room were accused of murdering a popular DJ at the woman’s birthday party in May 2015. When it was found, the corpse was assumed to belong to a victim of ebola. But it was mutilated, with toes, fingers and nose cut off. It’s now believed that Sydney Buckle, aka DJ Cleff, was killed in a ritual murder.
As my Awoko newspaper colleague explained, one of the alleged murderers is Baimba Moi Foray, aka LA Chocolate, a famous “herbalist” or “juju man” in Freetown said to have acquired his wealth through black magic. Rumors are that he rents an expensive house, drives an expensive car, and once threw out handfuls of money at a beach restaurant. He makes money from clients who want his magical expertise but people say there’s no way he could make as much as he does doing just this. The implication is that the money is somehow coming from the black magic he supposedly practices.
I knew I was going along with my colleague to report on a murder trial that day. But when we first sat down in the then-empty courtroom, and she filled me in on these details, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
You can read the rest of the piece here: Belief in black magic is the only thing that gives it power