Friday, March 2, 2018

Divination of Death by Edith Maxwell

Guest blogger Edith Maxwell, or as some of you know her, Maddie Day, talks about her experiences in Burkina Faso.  A short story based on the experience will appear in Malice Domestic Mystery Most Geographical in April.

Twenty years ago I spent a year in Burkina Faso. It’s the former Upper Volta, a landlocked former French colony in West Africa, and is one of the poorest countries in the world. My (now-ex) husband was on a sabbatical year from his post as a professor of linguistics and West African languages at Boston University, and I was on leave from my job as a software technical writer.

We uprooted our two sons from their elementary and middle schools in an almost entirely white suburb north of Boston and packed us all off for a year in Ouagadougou. And what a year it was! We had a western-style house in the capital, and the boys attended the International School. We’d also spent a year six years earlier in Mali, an even larger landlocked country to the north and west of Burkina. That year we’d enrolled the kids in French-language schools, and they still retained some fluency when we arrived in Ouaga. Their French resurfaced with daily lessons at school and they still speak it well.
I didn’t have a real job during the year in Burkina, so I wrote an entire book of memoir/essays. One described the evocative Muslim call to prayer and women’s customs. Another told of a Burkinabe’s generosity in bringing us a sheep before Ramadan. I wrote about getting my hair braided by the traditional hair stylists down the road. I dwelt on the lovely feel of their hands in my fine dark Celtic hair and how my pale scalp showed through after I went home with forty skinny braids that ended in clacking beads. Shopping in the open market, attending the opening of a maternal language school way out in the bush where they honored my husband, taking public transportation - many were the other topics I delved into.

We’d met an American graduate student living in a rural town to the west of the capital.

Susan Cooksey was studying diviners – fortune tellers – for her doctoral dissertation and invited me to come for a visit. With a sometimes cranky husband and nearly always obstreperous older son at home, I welcomed the respite. (Our younger son remained agreeable and open to all new experiences in Africa, but he was ten and is that kind of person. His brother was twelve-going-on-impossible that year and wasn’t a bit happy about being uprooted from the familiar during seventh grade.)

She took me with her to visit a man who was a diviner in a village called Gouinduguba, and a woman named Yabil in a village closer to Banfora. Susan translated what I couldn’t understand and talked about her research once we were back at her home. I even got my own fortune told and was assigned a task to do (not quite a sacrifice) to fix a certain problem. It was all fascinating and mysterious.

After I returned home, I wrote one of my essays about the week with Susan in Banfora. Last year when I saw the submissions call for short stories for the Malice Domestic Mystery Most Geographical anthology, I knew I had to unearth my diviners essay and make it into a piece of short crime fiction. “A Divination of Death” was accepted for the anthology, which will release in April from Wildside Press. I am, of course, honored and delighted.

Here’s the opening of “A Divination of Death:”
The round hut, dark and cool, held mysteries I would never know. We had come with only one to solve. It was a scant week since Issa Diallo—Mariama’s brother and my new love—had been killed on his motorcycle here in southwestern Burkina Faso. The police had ruled it an accident, but I wasn’t so sure. Mariama wasn’t either.

Readers: Which fiction have you read that was set in Africa, or have you been there yourself? Do you have experience with fortune tellers anywhere?

“A Divination of Death” in Mystery Most Geographical (Wildside Press 2018) is Agatha- and Macavity-nominated author Edith Maxwell’s first published fiction set in Africa. She writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, the Local Foods Mysteries, and award-winning short crime fiction. As Maddie Day she writes the popular Country Store Mysteries and the new Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. She is president of Sisters in Crime New England and lives north of Boston with her beau, two elderly cats, and an impressive array of garden statuary. She blogs at,, and Read about all her personalities and her work at


Joan Mularz said...

Edith, it sounds like you and your family had a wonderful and enlightening year in Burkina Faso. I have only traveled to Morocco on that continent a couple of times but I have virtually travelled to many parts of Africa through some excellent books. I would recommend "Monique and the Mango Rains" by Kris Holloway (2 yrs. w/a midwife in Mali), "Cairo Modern" by Naguib Mafouz, "A Bend in the River" by V.S. Naipaul (set in a newly independent East African nation), "The Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell, "Cry the Beloved Country" by Alan Paton (South Africa), "The Sheltering Sky" by Paul Bowles (Sahara), "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave (partly set in Nigeria), "Death in Zanzibar" by M.M. Kaye and any of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels set in Botswana.

Edith Maxwell said...

Thanks, Joan. I have read MONIQUE, and all the Ladies #1 Detective Agency books. McCall Smith does a great job with Botswana.

Elisabeth said...

Edith, what an interesting blog. McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Dective Agenccy are the only African setting mysteries I have read. He has written 3 or 4 children’s mysteries featuring young Precious. One of those is written in Scottish/Gaelic (?). I’m snow birding in FL and the books are at home in CT,so I can’t run to the next room and check. Thanks. Elisabeth

Edith Maxwell said...

Thanks so much, Elisabeth! I didn't know he'd written children's books.

carol weston said...

I have grown increasingly interested in Africa and the cultures there I hope to get the opportunity to read your story

Edith Maxwell said...

I hope you do, too, Carol! Thanks for stopping by.