New Internationalist

Heart And Soul

Issue 268

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New life for old: Coca Maloni

I was keen to see one particular yaaba, or wise old woman, because I remembered a story Mariama had told me 10 years before - how her third child, Aseta, had fallen into a raging fever that threatened to carry her away and she had taken her to see a yaaba called Coca Maloni. She said a great bird of evil omen had passed over Aseta and that the wickedness had to be let out. She made a small but deep cut beneath the right eye with a razor blade, just on the cheekbone. And within a week Aseta was playing again - though she still bears the scar today.

Coincidence? Probably. But it helped give Coca a rare power in my imagination even before I met her - no-one who is familiar with Africa would dismiss its traditional medicine out of hand. I conjured her up as a powerful conservative force in the village, a symbol of the old ways. Instead she turns out to be the most memorable of all the people I interview in the village precisely because she has been so prepared to change.

She is very old now - extraordinarily old in a country with an average life expectancy of 48. As she shambles painfully towards the concession from her once-weekly excursion beyond its confines, she cuts an extraordinary figure, bent almost literally double over her stick. Like many of the older people in the village she can't be sure of her exact age since she has never had a birth record. But the depth and ubiquity of the wrinkles all over her fascinating face bear out her sense that she is about 90 years old. She moved to Sabtenga to marry about 70 years ago but has been a widow for 40 years. Terrifyingly, of her nine babies only one survived - though that son did his best to make up for it by taking eight wives himself.

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I ask her first one of my standard questions to the older people of the village - does she feel life is better now than in the old days? Given that the old days for Coca were those of the French colonizers, this is no contest. It is a magnificent tribute to the virtues of French colonialism that what everyone recalls of it is the system of forced labour which they imposed on the country, dragooning the able-bodied men into effective slave labour.

'But the other big improvement,' she says, ' is the clothes.' This is not the first time I have encountered this slightly strange answer - I spoke to an old man who thought that the main value of modern living was the superior quality and durability of modern trouser or pants material. But Coca is casting her mind much farther back to when, in her childhood, the people of the area wore nothing at all but a square of cloth around the genitals. I ask why she thinks it is so much better for people to wear clothes. Is it because they protect you from the sun? Or is it for reasons of modesty? 'No, it's not for that,' she answered. 'It's just that it's so much warmer. In my childhood we had to keep a fire going in the house all the time.'

In the latter part of her life Coca has, like other old women in the village, been a resource for both midwifery and medicine. The way she talks about it the yaabas form a kind of community of their own - Coca delivered babies but seemed to share the role almost interchangeably with other women. She would guess that she delivered nine out of every ten babies safely. In normal circumstances there was no religious or magical element to a delivery - only if the mother was having problems would she resort to seeking God's help by sacrificing a chicken.

The readiness to embrace the change in attitude to excision is even more evident in Coca's religious life: just last year she converted to Catholicism. Only a missionary would see this as a positive step in and of itself. But the readiness to give up a lifetime of animist practice and belief seems extraordinary - it's hard to imagine someone in the West changing their ideas so completely in the twilight of their life.

'Now I know God,' she says, 'before I didn't.' Does it make her feel different? 'Yes - it's given me new strength - I would never have had the strength to walk all the way to church before.' Now she is Catholic, does she regard her past sacrifices and actions as errors or even as sins? 'I've washed my hands of all that now.' But why convert to Christianity so late in life? 'I was the only one left in my concession. Everyone else in my family had become either Christian or Muslim. And I wanted someone to pray for me when I died.'

This very human answer rings true, as do her magnificently practical reasons for choosing Christianity over Islam. 'If I'd become a Muslim I would have had to get down on my knees five times a day. Look at my body - you can see why that would have been difficult. Whereas as a Christian I just have to make it to the church once a week.

'Besides, if I were Muslim I'd have to give up my dolo (sorghum wine) - and I couldn't do that. By the way, you couldn't buy me a calabash of dolo in return for all this chat, could you?'

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