Little Birds That Carry Away Troubles

Family conflict? Financial stress? Heartache? Legal trouble? Health issues? Birds called pithis, sold on the streets of Senegal, are believed to carry away sins when set free.

By JANE HAHN on Publish Date October 5, 2016. Photo by Jane Hahn for The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

Forgiveness for sins often comes at a cost. But in Senegal, making your transgressions fly away can run you as little as 8 cents.

In Dakar and other cities, men stand on street corners with small cages crammed full of red-billed firefinches (known locally as pithis). The birds, which are common across sub-Saharan Africa and often live close to people, are thought to be carriers of human unhappiness. Tradition holds that you can get rid of sins and anxieties by buying a pithi and setting it free.

The price varies with the gravity of the sin you’re trying to wipe away — typically 8 to 17 cents, but sometimes more. Some purchasers are looking for relief from family problems or the stress of hunting for work, or are worried about getting a friend or relative out of legal trouble.

The idea is to whisper prayers to the bird and then let it fly away, taking your problem with it.

Some people consider the traditional practice non-Islamic, a complication in a country that is largely Muslim. But the pithi vendors don’t seem to worry about that, and some have even expanded their buy-and-release offerings to include other kinds of birds and some reptiles.

Abou Ndiaye inherited his bird-selling business from his uncle Diallo, and it’s doing so well that there’s no need to stand on street corners; the customers, including politicians, entertainers and bankers, come to his house to buy. “We have all kinds of birds that you can think of,” Mr. Ndiaye said.

His business plan includes some recycling: When people release the birds, many of them fly right back to his house.

Most often, people buy the birds for self-liberation, but some want to use them to send misfortune someone’s way instead. Mr. Ndiaye says he thinks that the birds that don’t return to him have probably been used for such a curse.

“Our goal is to sell birds to people; what they do with them is up to them,” Mr. Ndaiye said. “At the end of the day, most of the birds come back to us, and we resell them. For us, birds are just birds.”

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