issue 237 - November 1992
HUGO MERCKX / CAMERA PRESS
Traditional African magic is just ignorant superstition, thought Debbie Taylor
when she first lived there. Now she takes a different view.
I can remember the children so clearly. Dusty black skin; tight curls; tiny noses crusted with yellow snot; coughing and crying, all smelling of puppies and woodsmoke. I had to pry them away from their mothers to weigh them. It was a way of quantifying the effect of the drought: counting the number of under-fives who weighed 40 per cent less than normal. But that's another story. Or, rather, that was the only story I was interested in at the time. They were poor, hungry, sickly babies and I was part of a process that was supposed to save their lives.
I noticed the beads because a nurse at the clinic was trying to make the mothers take them off their children. The babies were so thin: light and fragile, like birds. I suppose she thought the weight of the beads would distort my important calculations.
The mothers all began unknotting thin leather thongs and twisted cotton thread from around the wrists, necks ankles and waists of their offspring. No-one argued or complained. I suppose they thought they wouldn't get any cornmeal or milk-powder if they made a fuss. But they were unhappy about it, I could see, though I was too busy then - with important things - to ask why.
I'd noticed the beads many times: every rural person in that part of Africa seemed to wear a necklace or bracelet of some kind. You could buy them in tourist shops in all the cities. They were 'local crafts': baskets and clay pots; batiks and printed cotton; drums and thumb-pianos. Bangles and beads. Pretty things: they looked nice in our houses or on our pale bodies.
I was living in a traditional village in Botswana, in two thatched mud huts decorated with the geometric coloured clay designs of the local tribe. Expatriate friends from the city used to drive out to visit me at weekends, admiring my picturesque home, wondering how I managed without electricity and running water. They would sit beneath the huge syringa tree with me, staring out at the sun-bleached landscape, drinking tepid sweet red wine from South Africa.
I remember sitting there one evening, after they'd gone, and Femina arriving with a bucket of water to help me wash up. She put her arms round the trunk of the syringa and patted it affectionately.
'This is a famous big tree,' she said. 'The old ones can see it from far in the bush when they want to fly home.' 'The old ones?' 'The grandmothers and grandfathers who have passed away. They like this tree. You know, there are very many old people buried under these houses. Long ago people made the graves in the floors so their ancestors would always be with them.'
'You mean there are dead people under my bed?' And I rolled my eyes comically, incredulous, to make her laugh. Then I simply put it out of my mind. The next week I was woken by a commotion in the middle of the night. Femina was running naked through the village with strange teeth-marks on her neck and cheek. She wouldn't tell me what had happened to her.
JOHN MOSS / CAMERA PRESS
I was like a sleepwalker when I lived in Africa. The evidence was there - they were there - all around for me to see. But I was always looking at something else.
And it went on for years, this sleep-walking, this being only half there. I changed my partner; I changed my career, from scientist to journalist. I travelled across the continent of Africa, writing articles and researching films.
I didn't know I was sleepwalking, of course. The sleepwalker never does. I thought I was becoming an expert on African life. And I was, in a way: in those aspects of life I was looking at. I had been trained, you see, from an early age, only to look at certain things: objective facts, material objects, logical possibilities. I was a child of the Enlightenment. Thanks to Diderot and Hume and the other eighteenth-century philosophers - who outlawed credence in the incredible and enthroned reason as our dry interrogator - thanks to those great men, I was enlightened.
Actually we are all enlightened in the West. It's unavoidable. Enlightenment is a sine qua non of what we think of as civilization. Without it, we would 'still' be 'primitive', by which I mean superstitious, illogical, in the dark.
It wasn't until six years later that I discovered why the women had been so reluctant to strip the children of their beads. In another change of career - this time from joumalist to novelist - I had gone back to research a book about a traditional healer. I wanted to find a woman whose confidence in her centuries-old skills was being challenged by the modern midwifery training she was receiving at the clinic. I was interested in the clash between those two worlds: her world of crumbling leaves and wizened roots, of spirits and curses and communion with the ancestors - and my world of telephones, timetables and transfusions.
I found the woman I was looking for. Her name was Mai Mutasa. But she wasn't at all as I had expected. I suppose I had envisaged someone picturesque, like an object in a craft shop; someone round and kindly and charismatic. Instead she was skinny and cantankerous; evasive, eccentric.
When we first met she was wearing a string of red beads around her neck and a scarf round her head, patterned with red, white and black. I remember saying something complimentary about the beads through my interpreter: smiling, trying to be friendly. I remember she nodded regally, explaining that both the beads and scarf had been given to her after a bira or seance during which she was possessed by the spirit of a dead aunt. The beads signified she was a spirit medium; they were the reason she was such a respected healer. Every time she was called on to help a sick child or a mother in labour, the spirit of her aunt would come and occupy her body, would guide her hands.
She had a grandchild living with her, a long-legged wee fawn of a girl named Margaret. I asked about the necklace she wore too: a tiny grubby cotton package on a much-mended string of coloured beads. This was a chifumuro, said Mai Mutasa, pulling the little girl onto her knee; a charm to protect against mamepho, or bad air. Bad air was particularly dangerous to young children and pregnant women. They should wear a chifumuro at all times, especially when travelling among strangers. I remember looking at the beads, rough-ly knotted under their ragged clothes, and experiencing a kind of double-take: seeing them once, then seeing them again, somehow transformed by my knowledge of their meaning. I felt confused and disoriented suddenly, like Alice stepping through the looking glass. Everything looked familiar but I couldn't be sure that I understood what I was seeing any more. In my notes I wrote: 'not believing doesn't mean it isn't true'. And then: 'not believing is as much an act of faith as believing'.
The beads were just the beginning. Once I was willing to look, I was overwhelmed by what I suppose I should now call the paranormal.
There was the young woman I met who woke one morning to find a cross had been cut into her pubic hair. There was the tobacco picker with black-and-white beads round her wrist, who pranced sideways on her hands and feet, barking, possessed by the spirit of a hyena. And the old nganga (healer) possessed by his father's spirit, who had survived five deadly snake-bites and who cured epilepsy with herbs and the shadow of a tall gourd. He told me his remedy was being investigated by the World Health Organization. Then there was the scar on my interpreter's belly, where an Apostolic healer had reached in with his bare hands and extracted a ball of beaks, claws and feathers put there as a curse by a jealous neighbour. And the school that had to be closed because pint-sized poltergeists known as svikero were running riot inside and had reduced the piano to matchwood.
JOHN MOSS / CAMERA PRESS
Then there were the things that I actually experienced myself: less dramatic, but obviously more dramatic to me. My car's headlights going out in the middle of the wilderness as I drove between two haunted rocks; seeing water fail to fall from an inverted gourd; finding a dead chicken in a closed hut, with its feet inexplicably removed; my menstrual periods stopping as though I was pregnant for the nine months it took to write the novel. And on and on: more extraordinary people, more extraordinary happenings, than I could ever describe in these few pages.
To begin with it was like watching a horror movie. I was looking, but I was still searching for logical explanations, still enlightened, still outside what I was seeing. I had discovered the value of the beads to the people I was living with, but they hadn't yet become valuable to me.
The change came gradually, like wading into a pool. The first footsteps had been cold, shocking. Then I was paddling happily in the shallows, enjoying the thrills, the sunshine. Then suddenly I found that the water was up round my shoulders and tugging at my feet. Looking back over my shoulder, the dry land of enlightenment seemed a long way away. Then I realized it wasn't a pool I was wading in, but a sea; the dry land I had left was just a tiny island surrounded by a sea of other meanings, other normalities. I had assumed that the land was all-encompassing.
I stood there, frightened, looking in both directions. I could wade back to safety, to civilization. Or I could try and swim.
A month later, in a wine bar in the East End of London, my handbag was stolen. It was hanging over the back of my chair with my wallet and my filofax inside it, plus my car keys and credit cards. I remember the thud of panic as I crouched to look under the table, through the forest of well-clad legs. I ran to look in the toilets; I asked all the waiters. But it was gone.
I could replace everything of course: telephone the bank, my insurers, various credit-card companies; get a mechanic to change the lock on my car. But the panic stayed with me through all this sensible practical activity because buried deep in the corner of the wallet was a little wizened piece of root - my chifumuro.
Mai Mutasa had given it to me. Usually people stitch it into a little piece of cloth and hang it around their necks. I hadn't had time to do that with mine and now it had gone.
A former NI co-editor, Debbie Taylor is the author of the novel The Children Who Sleep By The River. She is currently working on a novel about her experience of magic in Africa.
The spirits of the sky
It was when I was a small child that I first saw the shabïribë shamanic spirits. I had never seen them before and I was very frightened. I couldn't get to sleep. My stepfather, who is a great shaman, had given me some (hallucinogenic) yakoana powder at the end of a reahu death festival - that's why the spirits came. They came from far away like a blinding light in my sleep. There were many of them and they made a clamour like a group of Yanomami shouting in chorus on the way to a festival - it was frightening and I wanted to flee. But my stepfather said 'Don't be afraid! These are shamanic spirits that you're seeing. When you grow up, if you really want to take yakoana I'll initiate you and you will become a shaman.'
As I grew up I continued to see spirits in my sleep all the time. I never slept without seeing them. People asked me 'What's happening? Are you becoming a shaman?' But it was only. when I'd become an adult that I asked to be initiated as a shaman.
It's here among the 'people of the mountain of wind' (his wife's people) that I was initiated. My father-in-law initiated me - he prepared the powder and blew it up my nose several times so that I completely lost consciousness, I was really dead! (he laughs.) I'd never taken so much before and didn't know the full power of yakoana. I was squatting and suddenly I tumbled on to my back, quite stiff: 'Kurai! - and I began to whine 'ee ee ee'. I took so much yakoana that my spectre was outside my body for a very long time.
My father-in-law had prepared me, he'd said: 'Your thoughts must be calm. Don't eat or drink. Just answer the shabïribë spirits truly or they will kill you.' At the start I only heard a very weak sound. But l answered it, singing as they did, and I heard they were satisfied. The path of the spirits became very visible - it came from far, far away, beyond the waters, beyond even your country. But it was very brilliant.
The shabïribë decorate their hair with white down and wear black bands made of monkey tails. Their collective houses are very tall, like hills in the sky. They wear feather armbands. They brandish their machetes, which are magnificent - and it's with these that they strike the initiates. They bring with them huge mirrors which they put on the ground and dance on very slowly, back and forth. Then suddenly they lift their machetes and hit you in the back: 'thaiii!' You tumble down on to the ground and stay there as if dead while they carry on dancing. They cut off your head and take away your tongue to give it their way of singing. Then they put back your head upside down on your body.
I wanted to be initiated as a shaman in my turn so as to continue when these elders die, so as not to stay alone without knowing anything about the shabïribë. If you eat too much or copulate with women too much you won't ever become a shaman. Your thought stays blocked, you don't see the spirits. That's why I asked the elders to initiate me - I wanted my thought to be able to grow in all directions.
So that's how I was initiated, At the start when I didn't know anything I thought about my father-in-law 'perhaps he's lying and tricking us'. Now I've also seen these things I can't think the elders lie. I tell myself 'Yes, it's true! The elders really were great shamans'. And I still have much to learn. I am impatient to continue. When I finish having to go into the whites' lands all the time I will ask my father-in-law to make me inhale his powder again. I want to ask a lot more of his shamanic spirits.
Davi Kopenawa Yanomami was talking to French anthropologist Bruce Albert.