Call Mama Doctor

Chapter 15. Simon the Wazimu


By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

About half an hour's drive into the mountains from Kwiro was the junior priest seminary Kasita, a boarding school with a curriculum much like that of an ordinary high school but more difficult as Latin and other subjects related to Christian theology were added so that the boys could transfer directly from there to the senior seminary near the capital. The seminary was situated away from the villages at the end of a lonely road winding through heavy forest. Its large white buildings stood alone on a mountain plateau, surrounded by lush gardens, fields and sports grounds, with the forest closing off the view again at the far end of the cultivated land. Fields and gardens were worked by the monks living there and the boys had to help them when not attending classes.

The teachers were priests and imposed strict discipline. Many boys, especially those who had enrolled for the sake of education rather than for the purpose of becoming priests, did not make it and dropped out after a few years. The contrast between the emotionally restricted atmosphere of the seminary and the lenient upbringing at home, where every female relative was a warm accepting mother to them, was more than they could tolerate. Most of them entered the seminary at the age of ten or eleven after four or five years of primary school and they felt lost and frightened in the big rooms and empty halls of the seminary; no touch of a mother's hand had put any warmth or familiarity into it. The boys slept in large dormitories and a narrow bed and small wooden box with a few personal belongings was the only private space they had. They had little contact with their distant families since most of the boys were too far away from home to receive regular visits or to return there during the holidays. Boys whose families could not afford the necessary school fees had to remain at the school during their holidays and earn their fees by working around the seminary.

Early every morning students attended Mass and on Sundays there were several church services; the days were filled with work in class, in the study rooms or out in the gardens. Monks and teachers watched them everywhere; there was little room for jokes and laughter and their only recreation was music and sports. The seminarists formed beautiful choirs, and on the sports field they became happy, outgoing soccer and basketball players. I used to stop at the sports field to watch them play when I went to the seminary for my monthly medical visit and I always marveled that I found so few toe injuries when I saw the boys running around without shoes and kicking the hard ball with their bare feet. What I mostly had to treat the boys for were sore throats, colds, minor injuries and stomach troubles. Many complained of poor vision because eye glasses were a symbol of wisdom to these boys, and those who finally got a pair were envied by the others. I had to be one step ahead of the cunning boys to be able to pick out those who were only pretending and those who really needed glasses. I learned to test one at a time and to use different kinds of tests, so that they would not know exactly what to expect. It became a sort of a game and quite likely they did outsmart me sometimes. I am sure they discussed it in their dormitories and had many a good laugh about it.

I felt sorry for these boys who so desperately lacked the warmth and security of their mothers. They had to cope with homesickness and with the resentment they were bound to feel, being young boys who had to live under so many rules and restrictions. When they awaited their turn in the waiting room they would quarrel, laugh and joke like other children, but as soon as a priest entered, they turned into subdued, respectful little pupils. I sensed the tension created in the boys by having to buckle down under authority, and I was thoroughly aware of how they enjoyed being cared for by me. Even the older and shyer adolescents would prolong their visits as long as they dared without risking teasing from the other boys.

I sometimes received very secret letters from boys in the seminary, written in awkward English:

Dear of mine! I am very glad to write this letter to you since you haven't written a letter to me. The purpose of writing this letter is to tell you that if I pass my examinations I shall tell you. I wonder what sort of a life you think I have in here without your presence. The very fact that I am doubtful whether you really care for me or not seems to me a sign that you are. ... I pray for you and for your family every day. You must not think me horrid for writing this letter to you. I am not thinking about myself nearly so much as about you. Dear mother, I am sure you will agree with me and it would be wiser for me to write letters to each other. I wish we could see each other every day. By doing this we would be doing right all around. Let me hear from you at once, great doctor and my mother at the same time. Please think of me all the time-- your most loving son Simon, a boy born of woman for difficulties.

That letter touched me more than many similar ones I received, as I knew very well who Simon was. Everybody in the seminary knew Simon. He was a lively child emanating warmth and charm wherever he went. When Simon entered a room there would soon be smiles and laughter. He chatted as unaffectedly with Father Superior as with the youngest boy.

He knew he was the teacher's favorite, but bright as he was, he knew how to make himself well liked by the boys too, cracking jokes and making witty remarks. His sparkling personality seemed to stimulate the other boys. I had often found him rather trying, however, with his amazing energy and endless chatter.

Simon must have been about fifteen years old, but he was small of stature and in spite of his captivating charm, seemed immature and childish in many ways. The tone of his letter contrasted sharply with the detached gaiety he usually displayed and I was concerned about it, so I asked about Simon when I visited Father Superior in his library one day after work. I learned that the boy was from a small village some three days journey away and that he had entered the seminary at the age of ten. When he was a small boy he used eagerly to attend Mass at the little mission close to his home. The local priest noticed that the boy appeared to be deeply stirred by the divine service and made him an acolyte. Simon quickly learned the required Latin words and was so serious about his functions in the church that the Father suggested to the parents they send him to the seminary. An intense family quarrel ensued. Simon's grandfather who was a famous medicine man did not want the boy to become a priest. He had already chosen this grandson to be his successor. But Simon was afraid of his grandfather's incantations and looked up to the priest as his ideal. He defied his grandfather's wish and one day he left the village and turned up at the seminary asking to be admitted. Reluctantly the parents consented and Simon quickly became the teacher's favorite. He was convinced that the boy was predestined for priesthood.

Soon after Father Superior had told me about the boy he voiced some concern regarding his behavior. Simon seemed to have great difficulties falling asleep at night and would keep the other boys awake with his restless activities, pranks and long tirades. He spent hours in the Chapel, praying with a fervor that even the pious monks found exaggerated. In the classroom he could no longer sit quietly but constantly disrupted instruction with laughing and crying spells. I was convinced that Simon suffered from severe anxiety. Striving to be a good student, he strained himself to the utmost. Maybe homesickness, the stress of discipline and study and the prospect of priesthood was too much for this immature boy. I feared that he would have a mental breakdown and suggested to the Fathers that it might be best to send the boy home for a while. They hesitated, knowing of the discord in the family and that the boy did not want to leave. I ordered some light sedative for Simon and advised the Father to ease the pressure on the boy.

About a week later Simon was brought to my clinic from the seminary. He had shown increasingly erratic behavior and when he finally began shouting incomprehensible sentences, the teachers realized that the boy had indeed become mentally ill. The travel from the seminary to the mission upset the poor boy to such a degree that he lost all his wits. A stream of senseless words flowed from his lips and he ran aimlessly around in the dispensary gesticulating, screaming and laughing and scaring the other patients who fled outside and gathered in a curious crowd. I tried to catch Simon to calm him down. Suddenly he stopped in front of me and cried out, “Am I mentally ill?” and then more quietly, “Please Madam, give me some medicine.” The nurse and I used the opportunity to give him a tranquilizing injection and when he became drowsy we led him to a small storehouse where we had a room for emergency patients. People followed us across the road, and soon a big crowd had formed. When Simon looked up and noticed the people, his agitation arose again and he yelled to them to go away, he wanted to be left alone. But they just stared at him in fascination and no words of persuasion made them disperse. As we were just about to enter the house, Simon jerked himself free with surprising strength. He threw himself to the ground, smeared his face with earth and mud and lapped up some dirty rainwater just like an animal. Then he prostrated himself and spoke with subdued, quivering voice, “Please, Mama Mganga, make me well again, will you?” His actions made the spectators freeze, horror on their faces. Nobody dared to move. I quickly raised the boy to his feet and we led him into the room. It took a while until Simon calmed down enough for us to put him to bed. Simon's older brother, who worked at the mission, came in and offered to look after him. Simon was glad to see him and gradually went to sleep with his brother sitting by his bedside. The people were still standing in groups outside when we finally left the two brothers. They looked at us in silence. A woman came up to me and whispered, “Be careful, Mama Mganga, that boy is turning into an animal.” I looked into her anxious face and did not know what to answer. I shook my head and hurried back to the dispensary.

The next day Simon awoke in the early morning even more agitated than before. Fragments of sentences and words in English, Latin and Swahili poured from his lips in a confused babble. He tried to shut up by pressing both hands against his mouth to close it, but to no avail. He knelt down beside the bed and tried to pray, then suddenly he threw the pillow across the room at his brother, ripped the blankets off the bed and flung things around with incredible speed. Unable to restrain himself he held his hands to us and begged us to bind them. He was relieved when we finally tied him securely to his bed. But even after I had given him the highest tranquilizer dose I dared to use, he threw his head from one side to the other and continued to talk until foam appeared at his mouth. His brother attended to him gently, trying in vain to make him eat. People continued to arrive and obstinately squatted outside the house waiting to see what would happen. Towards evening Simon was exhausted, his voice had faded into a whisper, his lips were dry and cracked and he finally accepted some water from his brother. When I visited them late at night I thought that the medicine was taking effect.

Early in the morning, Simon's brother, hollow-eyed and strained from a long wake, came to me trembling with fear. He did not dare to stay any longer, he would have to take Simon home. What had happened? “Please come and see for yourself.” I hurried over to the storehouse. Simon was crouching on his bed, arms and legs tucked under his body. He had a strange and tense expression on his face and his piercing eyes followed our slightest movements. When we slowly approached, he growled, indeed like an animal. People jostled at the door. We looked at each other. What could we do? Simon was getting increasingly agitated; it obviously bothered him to see people peering at him through the doorway. Suddenly he leaped to the floor on all fours letting out an incredible cry. It sounded like the roar of a lion. His voice was amazingly forceful. People dispersed with shrieks of terror. I seized the fragile boy and held him down, yelling at his brother to help me. We had to pin down his head, face to the floor, because he bared his teeth and tried to bite us. We succeeded in holding him until the nurse got him tied up again and then with great care we picked him up and put him to bed. He threw his head around, pounded the bed with fists and feet, growling and spitting, unable to recognize anybody around. Another injection brought an end to his terrible yells.

I tried to persuade the brother to let Simon stay. I was confident that in a few days the medicine would help to get the boy out of his manic state. But the brother looked anxiously at Simon and shook his head. We had both heard the lion's roar, he said. It was a spirit from the past who spoke through Simon. Someone in the family, maybe not even Simon himself, must have gravely offended an ancestral spirit. It was now a family affair that could not be solved far away from home. Simon would not get well before his grandfather, the medicine man, had seen him, consulted his healing spirits and corrected the offence against the ancestor so he could give Simon the right medicine. He, Simon's brother, could not take upon himself the responsibility of keeping Simon at the mission. Should the boy die, the family would never forgive him for not having brought Simon home in time. After much discussion, and as Simon was unable to express his wishes, I had to give in to the brother. With a heavy heart I prepared some medicine and food for the journey. The two boys had a long march ahead of them. How would Simon survive? The brother decided to use a shortcut through the mountains, so they might reach home in three days. As they stood there ready to leave I again asked the brother to consider letting Simon stay, but he declined, already impatient and anxious as he looked ahead to the difficult journey. Where would they sleep at night? Somewhere in the bush! Was he not afraid of the wild animals? The brother looked at me pensively. “The wild animals will not hurt us this time,” he said in a soft voice, and then abruptly turned away as if he wanted to avoid further questions. I looked at the two brothers as they marched off, the older brother in front, in one hand the bundle with their provisions, the other firmly holding the rope to which Simon was tied. The latter followed with his hands tied together, singing and chatting as he staggered along pulled by the rope. I saw them turn off the road, making for the forest and the mountain slope. I certainly did not feel too good letting them go, but the people who had stayed around all this time had supported the brother and urged me to give in.

A few days after their departure we heard through the “bush telegraph” that the boys had reached their home more dead than alive. Simon had fought his brother several times and had scared people away from the villages they passed. The old grandfather had at once begun his divinations to find the cause of Simon's madness. A few weeks later a messenger came to Father Superior at the seminary to tell him that Simon had recovered completely from his illness. He would not return to the seminary as he had decided against priesthood. He had now become an obedient disciple of his grandfather, the medicine man, and would follow in the footsteps of this famous healer who had cured his madness.

As time went by I often wondered what Simon's brother had meant by his remark that the wild animals would not hurt them. I came to understand this much later through another dramatic event not directly related to the two brothers. It started out with rumors of a lion who had become very dangerous to people. Lions are respected and people know how to keep out of their way. These animals are usually not a great menace to human beings, preferring deer and other animals as their prey. But occasionally a lonely lion, who is too decrepit to hunt the swift animals, will attack man. We could often hear the lions roar at night down on the Ulanga plains, but it was very rare that lions made the mountain slopes their hunting grounds. Mountains are the domain of the leopards. But now there was a lion who had waited at a lonely path and killed a woman returning from the water hole. Apparently the lion had not been frightened by people shouting and throwing stones to chase him away. His behavior had been strange, people told us when coming to the dispensary. There is nothing people fear as much as an animal behaving in an unusual manner. They immediately suspect it of having supernatural powers. On Sunday after Mass village elders asked the Fathers to hunt and kill this lion, as they themselves did not dare to touch a supernatural animal. The lion disappeared, however, and people began to relax until suddenly he struck again.

This time he jumped from the dark into a courtyard where a family was sitting around the fire. Before the stunned people could move, he seized an old woman and disappeared with her. The terrified relatives could hear her screams as she was dragged along, until the poor woman met her fate in the lion's claws. Now people became hysterical. They flocked to the mission for protection, begging the Fathers to do something. Finally some of the best hunters went out searching for the beast, but it slyly avoided them, withdrawing somewhere far into the impassable mountain region, waiting for the excitement to die down. From then on people ventured out only in groups, and accompanied by young men carrying all kinds of weapons: spears, bow and arrows, axes, old rifles. Fear spread to all villages and people called upon their diviners to perform rituals to protect them from the supernatural lion. A feeling of caution gripped us all and we avoided long excursions away from the security of the mission. When I had to visit sick people in a village, I made sure to be back before dark and to let the mission know where I went in case I would be late. Generally however, I did not give the lion much thought and was amused at the men with their knives and rifles who surrounded me wherever I visited and bravely assured me I had nothing to fear; they would protect me from the lion.

Then suddenly one day it was no fun any more! I was examining a patient in a hut when I suddenly heard a mighty roar outside. For some reason this time the lion did not charge right away and people had time to run away. Fortunately I was already indoors for I could hardly have reacted as quickly as the villagers did. They literally dived headlong into the hut and in a moment the room was full of panting people. Breathless and with pounding hearts we heard the lion roar in disappointment and then sniff around the huts as he went along. In the tense quietness that followed we suddenly heard a voice. It was unmistakably the voice of a man singing as he came closer. He was obviously unaware of the lion waiting for prey somewhere behind a hut. Maybe the man was a villager returning home, I thought. I looked at the people around; their faces were ash grey and their eyes were bulging with fear. Nobody moved, nobody said a word. The singing became louder--the man was coming closer. I made a move. Someone had to warn him. An old man grasped my arm. “Stay, Mama Mganga,” he whispered, “the lion will not harm that one.” It struck me that I had heard something like that before. I listened intently. The song sounded very silly. The man seemed to babble nonsensical words and we could hear him laughing and talking to himself in between his singing. He was unmistakably insane! I could hardly restrain myself from rushing outside to warn him, but the old man, sensing my intention, held me firmly and shook his head. I felt sick to my stomach. Unable to make a decision I expected to hear the dreadful thump and a cry as the lion jumped at the man. But it did not happen. For a long while we heard the madman's voice and his shuffling feet. He called for someone, probably astonished to find nobody around. Finally his voice faded away somewhere at the other end of the village. The lion had indeed let him pass without doing him any harm.

Night was falling and made us even more frightened. For a long, long time everybody remained quiet and waited, but at long last somebody moved, at first very carefully. As nothing happened, people became a bit braver, and finally a fire was lit and spread light and warmth around. We all relaxed. Amazing how reassuring the flames of a living fire can be! The lion did not appear as terrifying any more. People regained their courage; the lion would not attack a house which smelled of smoke, they told each other. Women put their kettles on the fire and since I had to stay until the men from the mission came for me, they invited me to share their meal. When everyone had eaten and the fire was bright and warm I turned to the old man and asked him how he had known that the lion would not harm the singing man. Silence fell, everybody looked at the old man and he thought about the question for a while. When he began to talk, he spoke slowly as if he had to think over carefully each word he was going to say. I listened attentively, knowing that these people found it extremely unpleasant to explain something and then to find out that it was not understood. It often seemed to me as if they thought of words as living beings which should not be wasted. If words are used carelessly and not heard, they drop to the floor and are lost. That should not happen, especially with important words.

“We have a word for our ancestral spirit, mzimu,” the old man slowly began. “Now wazimu means being possessed by a spirit. But wazimu is also the word for a mad man. Do you see? To us, a person who acts insane is possessed by a forceful spirit. Mostly this spirit belongs to one of our ancestors who is angry because of some insult we have caused him. Our diviner has to find out what we did wrong. Sometimes he cannot find the cause, and then the person will not be cured. We also know that an ancestral spirit can go into an animal. This lion which has supernatural power might well be possessed by an ancestral spirit seeking revenge. When meeting each other, the insane and the lion recognize and respect each other. Being of the same nature they have a special communication. Sometimes a mad man can change into an animal. We fear and respect both of them, but we do not want them around. They are a menace to all of us. How do we know it was not the lion who went around singing and laughing out there? We feel helpless against both. We want to get rid of them, to kill them, but we do not know whether it would help. The spirit might just punish us some other way.” The old man fell silent. There was an anxious, tense atmosphere in the room. People drew closer together around the fire. These were dangerous things to talk about, things one should not mention to strangers. I felt that the people had shown a good deal of confidence in me by letting the old man talk like this. I broke the silence by telling them about Simon and what had happened to him. When I mentioned how the brother of Simon had assured me that no wild animal would hurt them even when they had to sleep unprotected in the forest, they all nodded, and I thanked the old man for having explained things to me.

The quietness which now followed was friendly. I think we all felt that we trusted each other and shared in something important. “Respect for the ancestors and knowledge of tradition and of what is right and what is wrong is necessary to be able to live a life tolerably free of fear.” The old man seemed to speak more to his own people than to me. “The ancestor's spirit can take revenge upon anyone in the family. This is to remind us that we must share responsibility for each other's actions and that we have to keep together if we want to survive. We have to always remember what is right and what we have inherited from our ancestors. If our young people try to break away and are unwilling to obey our elders, they have to pay the price, even if that is to become insane.” We were so absorbed in listening to what the old man said, that we did not hear the noise outside and were startled when the men from the mission appeared in the doorway. With rifles and torches they had come to accompany me home. I think we all regretted the interruption. The terrifying experience we had been through together, the meal we had shared around the fire and the secret things we had discussed made us feel very close to each other. Everybody followed me on the way and shook my hand when we parted at the end of the village.

The hunters renewed their efforts, and a few days later they came upon the lion and killed him with a few shots. To make sure the people believed the lion was killed, he was laid out in the yard of the police station, the body spread out and the mighty head resting on a stone. He was a formidable animal. People filed past him and stood around in small groups admiring the dead lion and whispering respectfully to each other. They seemed to regret that the majestic animal had been killed, and they paid homage both to the animal and to the spirit they thought had dwelt in it.


Copyright © 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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