Call Mama Doctor

Chapter 8. Poisoning and Witchcraft: Two Fates


By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

It was a hot dry day, but pleasant enough for the long, bumpy drive in the landrover. I was headed for the small outpost mission of Ngoheranga on the other side of the Ulanga River--a place where I had never been before. I had been asked to look over the medical supplies there and to see how the young dresser was managing the dispensary on his own.

As usual the mission was situated on a hill, and big mango trees gave shadow to the main building. Both the little church and the mission house were built of locally-made bricks which the diligent Capuchins had manufactured themselves from the red clay of the plains. Unfinished bricks in their forms were spread out in long rows beside the half-underground kiln and huge stacks of heavy logs were piled up, ready to be used for the firing. At night the glow from the fires shone through the openings and cast shadows of the men watching. Nicely built small brick houses along the road showed that some of the Africans had caught on to the idea of building brick houses rather than the traditional mud huts. The bricks stood up much better in the onslaught of the monsoon rains.

When I arrived it was towards evening and people were still waiting for treatment outside the dispensary. The young dresser greeted me with a shy smile but a quick glance inside the room told me that he did not fully understand what sterilization implies. He had sterilized his syringes and needles all right, but when the boiled water in the little pot cooled off, he had picked up the instruments with his fingers and placed the used needles together with the clean ones without boiling the water again. The dresser was a friendly man, however, and appeared eager to learn. While I tried to explain the essentials of sterilization in Swahili, the room darkened from the many curious people peeping in through the door and window. I waved at them to move away, as we needed the daylight, but I might just as well have tried to chase away flies. They only laughed at me as they packed the doorway and pressed as many heads as possible through the window. The air became sticky and it was unbearably hot in the little room.

Suddenly there was a commotion outside and the door and window cleared as people gathered in the yard. Somebody called for Mama Mganga and we went out to see what was going on. Amidst the crowd was the village chief, half carrying, half dragging a crying man. The man looked around with terror in his eyes. He vomited and screamed with pain, pulling up his knees and pressing his hands against his stomach as he yelled, “Uchavi--uchavi--my wife used uchavi against me. I am dying, I am poisoned.” While I was listening to his pounding heart, the chief told us that the man had become violently sick after eating some food prepared by his wife. The man seemed in agony and sweat was pearling on his forehead; the people around waited for me to do something. Nervously I looked for a suitable medicine. The only thing I could find was some tincture of opium. Thinking that the man was dying of fear more than anything else, I poured about twenty drops into a mug of water and bade him drink it. He was shaking so violently that we had to support his head and hold the cup to his lips. The effect of the opium was dramatic. His stomach pain vanished as if brushed away by a hand-stroke. The man looked at me in amazement, his body relaxed and his head sank to the ground. “The pain is gone,” he sighed with relief. After a while he dozed off and his friends lifted him up and carried him home.

After dinner when I mentioned the incident to the Father, he told me that the local people were extremely afraid of uchavi, witchcraft. They attribute any death, from illness or by accident, to witchcraft, black magic, bad spirits or poisoning. When a person becomes seriously ill, everybody must pay him a visit. The one who fails to do so will inevitably be suspected of having caused the illness by witchcraft or in some other way. Sometimes a witch hunt would start. The medicine man would prepare a potion for every adult person in the village to drink in public. The one who refused to drink or who vomited from it would be singled out as a wizard, and such a person might be chased away from the village. When the Father first came, he had felt somewhat threatened until he was assured that uchavi and poison never work against whites.

Later that evening the chief returned and asked the dresser and me to see the same man who was again in great pain. When we came to his hut, many people were assembled there expecting him to die. We could hear the unhappy man's cries long before we entered his home. He was crouching on his bed, holding on to a friend and waving his hand in front of his eyes whimpering: “I cannot see, I am blind, please give me that medicine or I'll die!” A few drops of opium produced the anticipated relief and when the man had calmed down, the chief asked him to tell what happened. Uneasy, the man muttered that he could only tell it to the chief alone. His wife, other relatives, the dresser and I, all made moves to leave. But the chief with an authoritarian gesture motioned us to stay and we sat down quietly. After a little while the man lifted his head and asked, “Are we alone now?” “Yes, you can talk now,” the chief answered. The sick man seemed indeed unable to see. Or was it a kind of game they played? The man leaned towards the chief and spoke in a low voice, but loud enough for everybody to hear. He confessed that he had been unfaithful to his wife. She had found out and become very angry, threatening him with uchavi if he did not stop seeing the other woman. But he had not heeded her warning. Today when he came back from the other woman, his wife had cooked a porridge and invited him to eat with her. He hesitated. “Why is the porridge so bitter?” he wanted to know after having tasted it. “Just eat, the porridge is as sweet as can be,” his wife retorted. When he still hesitated the woman laughed at him, calling him a coward. He saw no way of getting out of it and reluctantly ate the porridge. Immediately afterwards he felt knifing pains in his stomach. Convinced that he had been poisoned, he rushed out and screamed for help. That was when the chief brought him to the dispensary.

I was deeply interested in what was going on. I felt I was witness to a kind of village court. Everybody was listening with grave and intense faces. I looked at the wife. She sat motionless at the bedside, a strange smile on her face. Her mother who sat beside her was wringing her hands in despair. Both women knew very well that if the man died his young wife would be branded as a witch and chased out of the village or even killed. Due to the chief's wise precaution many witnesses had heard the husband's accusations and it would be difficult for her and her family to defend her. But she showed no sign of fear. Maybe she had not done anything wrong after all? If she had only wished to scare her husband, I thought, she had certainly succeeded.

Fortunately the man did not die. The next day his eyesight was restored and he felt no more pain. What final arrangement he made with his wife, I do not know, but he sent me a big, fat hen for having saved his life. A few days later he came to thank me personally. He pulled me aside and asked secretively if he could possibly have some more of that wonderful medicine to take home. The rascal! I think he just wanted to have the remedy at hand should he want to cheat on his wife again!

* * * * * *

Quick steps in the dark--how I dreaded them for I knew that somebody was in distress! We were sitting outside after a day's hard work. I liked this habit of the Capuchins, to rest in garden chairs after dinner, cooling off in the evening breeze, looking at the stars and leisurely talking about whatever came to mind. But then there were these steps. “Hodi,” someone announced his presence, waiting for an invitation to come closer. “Karibu, shida gani--Come here and tell us your trouble.” The messenger came from one of the Father's workers who had taken ill. He was in great pain; could Mama Mganga come to see him? With a sigh I gathered up my tired limbs and went over to the dispensary for my instruments and medicines. Then I followed the Father and the messenger along the narrow path leading down the hill. We were waving our kerosene lamps and whistling to scare away any kibokos, hippopotamuses, which might be around. One could always hear them grunt down at the river where they were grazing at night. Light would sometimes arouse their curiosity and these huge animals were rather dangerous. Easily frightened, they would run down to the river to hide in the water, crushing anybody in their way. I had seen a patient in the hospital who had been terribly mauled by a hippo, and I shuddered there in the dark, anxiously listening for the snores of those wild beasts.

Fortunately the man did not live far away. I knew who he was; a friendly person, always smiling. Obviously very fond of the Father, he made himself useful around the mission. He was a strong, middle-aged man, who had built himself a nice house of bricks with several windows. The wide yard was always swept clean and his wife had even planted some flowers around their compound. They were both glad when we entered. The man was indeed very sick and he lay prostrate on his bed, his head thrust backwards. He moaned with pain as he stretched out his hand to thank us for coming. His hand was hot and dry. The timid young wife with a sleepy little child on her hip told us that he had fallen ill by the river where he had been for a few days to buy fish. The market was a few hours march through the bush, and when returning home this morning he had complained about aches and pains all over his body. The whole day he had refused to eat. Now he suffered from unbearable headaches and had therefore sent for us. I was alarmed. This looked like beginning meningo-encephalitis. I had seen sporadic outbreaks of this contagious disease in other places and knew there was no reliable cure. The rate of recovery was not very high, but I hoped that this man had a better chance as he was unusually healthy and strong.

In the following days I went to his house twice a day to treat him with the available medicine. On one day he seemed to improve, but on the next his condition worsened again. With great sorrow we saw our friend wasting away. Relatives and friends began to arrive to show their concern. They sat in the yard waiting to see which turn the illness would take. Herpes blisters appeared around the sick man's mouth and nose, a sure sign of viral infection. Continuous pain in his back and head exhausted the poor man, and his hearing began to fail. But he preserved his dignity and I admired his endurance and courage. In the evenings he became delirious, a fact which highly alarmed people outside. It became an ordeal for me to cross the yard. The people would fall silent and I could feel their disappointment and anxiety as they followed me with their eyes. They gradually realized that I did not have control over the illness.

One day I noticed that the window-holes were plugged with old rags. Since the sick man in his feverish condition needed fresh air, I asked his wife to free the windows again. But she refused with visible embarrassment. On our way home the dresser explained that the people thought the sick man was possessed by evil spirits, probably sent by ancestors in retaliation for having built for himself such an untraditionally big house. African huts are small and have no windows because spirits try to sneak in through every hole in the walls. The huts have only one opening, since spirits never use the same entrance as living beings. By plugging the windows of the sick man's house, people hoped to keep the evil spirits outside. I felt quite upset about what I heard, suspecting that envy of his big house might also account for what they said and did. Once, as I bent over the sick man, he grabbed my arm and urgently whispered, “Please protect me from these people, don't let them carry me away.” I looked at his wife for an explanation, but she sat in stubborn silence as usual, tending her child as if she had not heard a word.

The small amount of medicines at the little dispensary was running low. I would have to get new supplies from the Danish mission hospital far away on the other side of the river. I decided to go myself in order to consult the physician there regarding my patient. The evening before I left a small group of old men came to see me. They stood in a row before me, politely asking my permission to move the sick man out of his house. I remembered his pleading and firmly said “No.” He who cried out in pain upon the slightest touch could not possibly tolerate being carried away from his bed. Haltingly the old men expressed their fear that the patient would not recover in that “big” house. Finally when they realized that I was not going to give in, the little delegation of worried men left with a sad expression on their faces.

Driven by my intense wish to help this friendly patient who trusted me, I traveled as fast as I could. Nevertheless it took me several days before I could return with the medicine. The physician in the hospital had essentially confirmed my treatment. I did not even bother to eat or rest before I hurried down the hill to the sick man's house with new supplies and new hopes. The yard was silent, the house empty. Nobody greeted me at the door. I looked forlornly around. Where was my patient? I must have looked pretty sad, because neighbors hiding in their huts finally sent a woman out to talk to me. We sat down under a tree and she slowly explained to me what had happened. The old men had used my absence to convince the patient's relatives that the only way he could recover was to take him back to the place where he had contracted the illness. Apparently he had quarrelled with the fishermen about the price of the fish down there by the river. Maybe they had used uchavi against him, or maybe bush-spirits had come to possess him on the way home. Only the local medicine man could find out and cure the patient. The relatives had made a stretcher and carried him away the night after I left.

Downcast, I walked up the hill. There was not much hope for him any more and I felt as if I had failed him somehow. It did not take long before it was known in the village that Mama Mganga was back again. Only a few hours later the same little troop of old men marched up to the mission and once more asked to see me. The sick man had not recovered and now they feared he would die without my help. At first I refused. I was angry and they well knew why. After the long journey to fetch medicine, I did not feel prepared to walk for hours through the night to where they had moved the patient against my advice. But the old men looked so dismal I could not turn them down. With tears in their eyes they said they had only done what they thought was right and what tradition taught them to do.

While the Father and I were stumbling along in the dark, I thought how painful it must have been for the sick man to be carried on this stony path. But that was not all. I thought of the ordeal that must have followed when he was brought to the medicine man for treatment. Although I had not met this particular medicine man, I had an idea of how indigenous healers worked. I could visualize how, without giving the sick man time to rest, the family would have built a huge fire and sent for the medicine man. They would have wrapped the patient up tightly in a blanket and placed him, like a parcel, close to the fire. There he would lie on the ground, uncomfortably, sweating and listening for hours to drumming, singing and dancing while the medicine man worked himself up into a trance. Exhausted as he was, the sick man would not have been allowed to sleep. Once the medicine man thought he had found out the sick-making agency, the actual treatment procedure would start, adding new suffering to the sick man's pain. In spite of his head and back aching, they would have sat him up and carried him around the fire. The medicine man would ask him many questions and massage and manipulate his stiff body. Since the illness manifested itself mainly in the head, the medicine man, assuming that the sick-making spirits could be reached through the natural openings, might have blown smoke from burning herbs into his nostrils, or dripped a potion into his ears. I had a certain respect for indigenous healers and their art, but in a case of meningitis, I could only foresee more suffering from this kind of treatment.

My thoughts were interrupted as we finally reached the little fishing village by the river where they had carried the sick man. There we found our friend. What a miserable sight! The once so dignified and clean man was lying on the wet mud floor of a little hut, wrapped in dirty rags. Whimpering faintly, he did not seem to recognize what was going on around him. He did wake up for a moment as I gave him an injection and he eagerly drank the water I poured between his swollen lips. As is often the case when a person has fever and for a reason I never could understand, the people had withheld water from him, and his body was severely dehydrated. There was not much I could do. His pulse was faint and he was obviously nearing his end. I stepped aside when I had finished with him and let the priest do his job. The women's wailing mingled with the sad prayers of the men. The light from the small oil lamps was flickering on distressed faces as the priest prepared for the extreme unction. When we left, our friend, relieved by my medicine and consoled by the priest, had fallen into a peaceful slumber. But already before we reached the Mission, a messenger caught up with us. The sick man had passed away.

Lonely kilio from a woman through the nights down there by the brick house. Was there anything more I could have done?


Copyright © 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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