In the Monday Standard yesterday, in the ‘crazy Monday’ section was a large centre page spread on a successful Mombasa witch doctor (or ‘herbal’ doctor) called Kalama. This popular medicine man uses chickens as his main aid to healing the sick, sometimes burying them alive for up to seven days, communing with the fowl and taking advice on what treatments to prescribe. Apparently many high ranking politicians, armed forces officers and business people visit him seeking help to gain promotions at work or resolve domestic issues. The witch doctor has recorded all of his client’s names in exercise books and keeps their contents confidential by allowing his chickens to wander around on top of the books clucking, squawking and pecking at intruders. The newspaper claimed that the rich and powerful ‘clients’ will book into swanky coastal hotels where they will leave their families, then go and visit this mystic man for days on end. Sometimes the witch doctor will prescribe burying his clients alive for three days in order to complete ‘treatment’, although there is an option to substitute a chicken in your place if you are really unhappy about the ‘burying alive’ thing.
On the outside, many would like to distance themselves from witch doctors and medicine men, but in reality, when conventional medicine fails or if a problem concerns marital disputes, career hopes, financial concerns or family fallouts, this alternative treatment is often considered a solution. It’s a kind of pro-active form of therapy.
In Dar es Salaam there’s an ancient baobab tree overlooking the sea, which is always festooned with ribbons, talismans and little hand written notes. Apparently it is a very sacred site and favoured by witch doctors. One day we found a little bottle washed up on the beach and stupidly opened it finding a note and a little piece of fabric soaked in blood.
Our first house help in Tanzania was a fun, sunny girl my age with a good sense of humour. We got on well, but things started to go wrong for her when her father died. She inherited a piece of land and other family members were jealous. Soon she got sick and we sent her off to hospital for tests and committed to paying all her medical costs in full. It sounded like it might be a stomach ulcer and she got some treatment for the problem but I’m not sure she stuck to the course of treatment. This was because she did not believe in this western medicine and truly thought that her jealous family had cast a bad spell onto her. Each time she had any money or went off on leave, she would disappear for many days and visit a ‘herbal’ doctor, who made cuts in her chest and inserted leaves and goodness knows what else. It was so tragic and frustrating. She lost weight and became sad, then she stopped coming to work choosing instead to rejoin her husband as wife no. 2 in Tanga. I’m ashamed to say I don’t know what happened to her after that.
Similarly there was a bizarre scene at the office. Initially everyone rejoiced as the tea lady finally fell pregnant. She had wanted a child for years. One day, when she was heavily pregnant, a lady arrived screaming at the office with a ‘medicine man’ in tow. They were apparently casting a spell on the tea lady and there was a huge scene. The local police were called to try and resolve the dispute, sending everyone home and it transpired that the tea lady had been having an affair with the other woman’s husband (who also, conveniently, worked in the same office – he was looking on, sheepish). Anyway, the baby was born but tragically died at six weeks. Within six months the tea lady was also dead – which makes you stop and wonder whether there actually is a little more to this ‘alternative medicine’ in Africa.