Exploring “Stranger in The Village of The Sick”

“Time and experience have taught me that everyone, especially cancer patients, can benefit from the world of sorcery.” -Paul Stoller, Anthropologist

It is well understood that being diagnosed with cancer is a devastating prognosis. However, given the uncomfortable realities associated with the illness, the topic remains for most, something that is out of sight, out of mind and unworthy of dwelling upon for its ever most depressing implications. In the West, cancer is most simply viewed as an intruder, a nuisance, something that needs to be eliminated or destroyed. But what if there was another perspective? And what if ancient, esoteric, unscientifically validated methods or rituals could provide comfort and even effective treatment for those who have found themselves in the village of the sick?

Anthropologist Paul Stoller, explores these questions and more, through his own journey in being diagnosed with Cancer, in the book, “Stranger in The Village of The Sick.”

Stoller is a professional Anthropologist, who has performed extensive ethnographic research among the Songhay people in Niger and African immigrants in New York City. He was in his 50’s and at the height of his career, when following a routine checkup, was soon diagnosed with Non-Hobkins Lymphoma; a type of blood cancer. 

At first, the devastation of this diagnosis sank Stoller into despondency. But like anyone who confronts a life altering event, Stoller was forced to adapt, reflect and grow. He does this by turning to, of all things, his background in Songhay sorcery. He remembers and ponders the lessons, experiences and knowledge that was bestowed upon him during a series of anthropological expeditions in Africa.


Twenty years prior to his diagnosis, Stoller was on an expedition in Niger where he met renowned Songhay Sorcerer, Mounmouni Kada. Stoller, was attempting to learn the roles in which Sorcery and other esoteric practices that surely must have been rooted in non-sense, played among the Songhay people. In an interesting turn of events, Sorcerer Kada reported to have received signs that he was to initiate Stoller as an apprentice sorcerer. This was a very rare and unusual circumstance for Stoller, a westerner and white man, to be trained in the ways of Songhay sorcery. After consuming Kusu, a food that is believed to generate sorcerous powers, Stoller begins an incredibly mystifying, disorientating and even painful journey, into a world of witch doctors, curses and rival sorcerers. 

He learns spells, divinations and other rituals that aim to bring order and clarity to the sorcerer’s world. He learns most of his new found power from an even more renowned sorcerer, Adam Jenitongo. It is through this man, that Stoller finds his guru and even a father like figure. 

Unfortunately after word spreads of his new status, Stoller had to confront other Sorcerers who now saw him as a potential Rival. Through the course of this unorthodox apprenticeship, he experiences things that science and rationality would claim not to be possible, yet they still happen. One incident in particular involved him experiencing temporary, full blown paralyzation of his lower body after being “tested” by a witch in a small Songhay village. 

Dwelling upon the terror of this event and others, and amidst his devastating diagnosis, Stoller begins to reflect on his mentor’s, Jenitongo, lessons and the wider Songhay people’s world view. He remembers the power of ritual and aside his chemotherapy, begins a daily routine that includes a early morning recitation of the Genji Bow (a recitation meant to set order to the world and one’s mind) eating healthy food, waking early to make coffee and write, and a practice of more elaborate Songhay sorcerer rituals. All together, this routine helped Stoller feel more empowered and even safe.

“Confronting cancer is a frighteningly lonely proposition. How do you deal with your isolation? How do you face your fate? Songhay sorcerers have one suggestion; they say that you should diligently perform personal rituals.”

However the struggles of chemotherapy were just as hard for him as they were for anybody else. He grew weary of the treatment’s uncomfortable side effects, along with the prescribed pharmaceutical medication’s affects on his body and the months trudged by quite slowly. Though patience is the name of the game for those in the village of the sick, Stoller writes. But he acknowledges that in western society, patience is quite hard because we often expect everything to be done, completed or available to us immediately. We want groceries; now. We want money; now. We want the house to be built; now. The cold and flu; gone now. We perceive illness and other misfortunes as roadblocks meant to be crushed immediately and from a perspective of ‘how dare this get in my way.’ Stoller recalls that in Songhay culture and in other indigenous cultures across the world, they have a more accepting outlook on misfortune. 

He begins to look at his cancer from a perspective that many would have quite a difficulty in sharing. He asked, “What can this illness teach me?”

Stoller further writes;

“In Balinese and Songhay society, by contrast, people have a more humble take on illness. Having to live with inadequate medical care, they are compelled to respect the power of illness, which means that they attempt to incorporate it into their lives. If illness is incorporated into one’s life, people can use it to become stronger in body and wiser in spirit.”

To end, Stoller overcomes the disease’s hold on his life and goes into remission. While he knows there is no for sure chance that the cancer will never return, he credits both western medicine and his sorcerous rituals for returning him to the village of the healthy. 

His old mentor, Adam Jenitongo who passed long ago, often came and still comes to Stoller in dreams to remind him of his path.

“He reminds me to accept my limitations and remove resentment from my mind. He tells me to be patient in a world of impatience. He encourages me to be humble and refine my knowledge so that others might learn from it”

Sorcery is not something that often comes to mind to those considering treatment for a devastating illness. And that it should, is not the central theme of this book.

But perhaps there is wisdom and lessons that can be applied from sorcery and other esoteric philosophies, to help those take a new perspective on a life altering diagnosis. Maybe Stoller’s story is another tandem of evidence conveying the power of ritual, reflection and finding authentic meaning, amidst the suffering and confusion that many feel when they find themselves Strangers in The Village of The Sick.


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