Monsieur Pierre Bonan is currently looking for someone to take over his shop ‘Au bonheur des iles’ in Paris, so he can return to Guadeloupe where he was born, and si dye veut enjoy a peaceful retirement.
“Donc tu veux apprendre a faire du quimbois ?” (“So you want to learn how to do quimbois ?”) asks Monsieur Bonan not many minutes after I enter his shop for the first time this week in Paris. Mr Bonnan does not consider himself a quimboiseur or tjenbwasè , but rather stresses that he was born with a ‘don’, a gift, which I subsequently assure him I do not possess. The Creole tjenbwa comes from the time of slavery when slave ‘healers’ gave their patients mixtures and remedies to drink, saying, “Tiens! Bois ca!” (Here! Drink this!) They then became known as tienboiseurs, or quimboiseurs, and are these days often contentiously associated with various forms of sorcellerie and magic. For a more nuanced discussion of magico-religious practices in the Antilles, see Eugene Revert’s La Magie Antillaise 1951, considered an oldie but a goodie.
“Non pas exactement, mais tout ca m’intéresse”. (“No not exactly, but I’m interested in all that” I reply)
“Alors il faut apprendre comment faire!” (“You must learn how to do it then!”)
He opened the shop in 1986 and has since provided spiritual products, medicinal remedies and advice on healing and magico-ancestral practices to a diverse clientele, drawing on traditions from across the Caribbean region. He frequently makes the 8-9 hour journey to Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique to source the leaves, herbs and products he needs for his clients, but as he reaches retirement age he’s starting to tire of all the travel, not to mention the lifestyle in Paris.
On my second visit a couple of days later I sit with Monsieur Bonan chatting with my recorder running between clients (some regular, some new) who visit the boutique. Passers-by occasionally peer through the facade of the shop window, decorated with images of Vodou lwa, palm trees and signage for the goods and services on offer. Despite it being the period of ‘Careme’ (‘Lent’), during which as Mr Bonan explains there should be no ‘sorcellerie’ or other variant forms of magico-religious practice, the shop on this Monday afternoon is by no means deserted. This is after all Paris and anything goes. A steady flow of customers interrupt our conversation, with Monsieur Bonan relishing in pointing out to each one that “li pale kreyol” (“she speaks Creole”). Unsure whether this is said to impress or merely to forewarn anyone thinking of saying too much in my presence, I find myself trying to blend and avert my gaze as customers search for their personal wares.
If not a great talker, Monsieur Bonan is an excellent listener, and over the course of the afternoon he is attentive and responds without fuss, directing all those who visit, without ever needing to move from behind his commanding desk located by the entrance to the shop. A middle-aged Guadeloupean lady updates him on the ‘progress’ of her husband while in return he provides news peyi (‘from back home’). He switches to Haitian Creole to please an elderly Haitian regular, who quickly and efficiently plucks his desired perfumes from the rows of carefully organised and labelled vessels, just as I might select my coloured bottles of shampoo in ‘Boots’ decorated as they are with promises of a frizz-free future.
Later on mention of spirits such as ‘Dorlis’, prompts a Guyanese customer to recall his family-in-law, recounting to me the marital choices and errors of his sister back home. Only one customer seems genuinely uncomfortable with my presence: a young man who quickly looks round the shop, speaks nervously to Mr Bonnan in Creole keeping one eye on me and one on the door as he mutters that he’ll come back on Saturday. I later speculate as to the remedy he might be seeking to win the heart of his doudou. The behaviour of the young banlieusard is probably not dissimilar to that witnessed by staff in a ‘Boots’ chemists on a Monday afternoon. I cannot help however but lament the loss of the personal and tailored one-to-one exchange I see thriving in Monsieur Bonan’s dispensary. Whether it is just simply to stop and pick up the latest edition of the newspaper ‘France-Antilles’ and ask of nouvels peyi, it is clear that the shop is an important point of contact for many Antilleans living in Paris.