He was not one to see a medicineman. Because it felt archaic and degenerative and as pointless as trying to inflate a balloon with a fart. He was a modern man, progressive both in idealism and spirituality. A man centred in a world governed by rationality, not impulse or mythology or romance. He had a degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics, for the love of mike, which you don’t get by not believing in the infallible power of science. [Never mind he was working in a completely different field as an agro analyst] He spent a brief period of his life studying abroad, picking up a smattering of their ways and ideas without diluting his Africanness. He was raised by his mother; a banker, so very middle-class. He didn’t believe in the dark world of voodoo and sticking pins in dolls and all that mumbo jumbo. He didn’t believe that a man who never wears any form of underwear – his bits dangling like guavas – would throw a bunch of cowrie shells on the ground and glimpse, in that formation, the big picture. You didn’t explain life by gazing at a constellation. He had great faith in modern medicine and in modern science. Everything could be explained by science. “Everything.” Tom* told me recently, poking his forefinger on the table in emphasis. “But my wife didn’t believe that. She got desperate. She sought the services of a medicineman, a mganga.” It’s the way he says the last word. With incredulity and disdain.
I guess it only felt natural to tell him about the day I made a mganga laugh.
I already told you guys the story here but I will repeat it for the visitors who just came in. I went to work in rural Lamu in 2019 where Isuzu was distributing thousands of lap desks and hundreds of footballs to very impoverished schools. A lot of driving around to remote schools, donating desks, photo ops, brief speeches, and interviews. As we drove through a remote village in Witu, I saw a sign hanging from a figtree advertising the services of a mganga. On a whim, curiosity, boredom or just a juvenile sense of adventure, I took the number and called this mganga guy and made up some cock and bull about me being a businessman – I had a water bowser and did printing – and how suddenly my business was floundering. I told him I didn’t understand this sudden tide, why the business was suddenly on its knees. The mganga spoke like an evangelist, like he was preaching or he was reading from a book. Of course he wanted money. Anyway, to the part where I made him laugh, the part I’m very proud of. He said, “ukituma pesa kidogo, nita choma majani zangu nijue shida iko wapi.” I asked him, “Majani ya chai ama?” He cackled.
“Not many people can say with any authority that they have ever made a medicine-man laugh,” I told Tom.
“ Unless you don’t know if they are a medicine man in the first place.” He said.
“Yes, because there are many people I know who may be low-key medicinemen.”
He chuckled. “Nothing surprises me anymore.”
But his wife insisted on going to see the medicine man.
His marriage was arranged. When he turned 42, his mother sent a delegation to see him. The watchman called him from the gate and said “uko na wageni, Tom.” It was a Sunday, he was still in bed at 11am, reading a book – The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs – a whole day of vegetating spread before him. He wasn’t expecting anyone. He wore his shorts and went to the gate and found, beaming, his uncle and two aunts. One of his aunts lived in Nairobi but his uncle and his other aunt had long moved to shags. They had half a sack of rice in the car, warus, carrots and some vegetables.
After he had made them tea and gotten over the small talk, his aunt cleared her throat and said that they were worried about his life. Worried that he was not growing any younger. He needed a wife, children, a family. His uncle nodded pensively, staring intently at a spot on the carpet. His other aunt stared at a boudoir painting on the wall with increasing horror. “There are women from good families who we would like to introduce you to.” They told him. He tried not to sigh or show impatience at this forward party. He could see his mom’s far reaching and devious hand in it. They’d had a million conversations regarding this that always ended with the words, ‘mum, let it go. It will happen when it happens.’ To end the conversation, so that he could go back to his book, he said he’d meet the girls.
Jane* was the first one he met and also the last one. He fell for her immediately. She had long hair. He liked long hair on his women. She was very smart, keen and observant. She also didn’t pee loudly in the loo. She was in the last half of her thirties and was also looking for someone serious to settle down with. He was someone who could get serious. And he did. They were married a year later and had a baby the following year. Things were going swimmingly well until their son started having convulsions. Tom jnr would stretch a limb and fold and twist his hands and stretch and shake. It would last for a few seconds only then the wave would pass. It would happen unannounced; in class, in the car, while watching tv, at the dinner table, in the back of the car. It was frightening. And worrying.
They saw a doctor then they saw doctors. Some said he was epileptic, others said it was early-onset Parkinsons, others shot in the bleak darkness of medicine, mostly contradicting each other’s diagnosis. Drugs were prescribed. The seizures continued. More doctors came, more diagnoses and hopeful treatments.
They saw specialists; paediatric neurologists. They saw them in their private offices with big eared plants and small-eared receptionists. Offices that had toys and smelled of coffee. Colourful waiting rooms with a section cordoned off with playthings. Big windows. Offices with wind chimes. There they learnt about nerve cells, neurons and electric impulses and spasms. They were given prescriptions of colourful supplements some which they dissolved in water and looked and smelled like Fanta. But Tom Jnr never got better.
They tried a deep brain stimulation [DBS] system. And it stopped for a month or so until one day it returned with such vigour, his teeth rattled in his sleep. His mom cradled him in her arms and rocked him to sleep while weeping soundlessly. They were constantly seeing specialists. They discovered alternative medicine. “We tried acupuncture, herbal remedies, ketogenic diets, biofeedback, and even music.”
“What kind, rhumba?”
He laughs. “Have you ever heard of the Mozart effect?”
“An alternative medicine expert told us that listening to Mozart or some composers resonates with the brain to reduce seizures.”
“Were they white?”
“Funny. No, this alternative medicine doctor.”
“Yeah. She was a hippie, lived with like a thousand cats. She drank her herbal teas from a wooden mug and all. Her house had all these plants that she used to cook, smoke, or drink. I never saw her with shoes on. Always had a flower in her hair and she spoke so softly, we always had to lean in to hear her. It was quite the experience.”
“Did she eventually treat your son?”
One day his wife came and told him, “there is a lady in Machakos who can treat this boy.” The lady was a medicine woman, probably one of the very few surviving old ones, blind in one eye, the other cataracted and with skin like the hide of an elephant. “I wasn’t for the idea from the word go.” Tom says. “It sounded like a mganga to me. It sounded like someone who would tell us a relative had bewitched our son.” He said, no, they were not going to go to any medicine woman in Machakos. Or Maua. They weren’t about to expose their son to the dark arts. They fought about it for so long.. “Sometimes a fight starts about thing A but then it spills into other things and soon it becomes about thing B.” It’s like a wildfire that starts burning this small patch of grass but if you don’t contain it here, if you don’t beat it to its death with branches and coats, it starts burning your house and now you have a bigger problem in your hands.
Her argument was very simple: they had to leave no stone unturned. They had to do everything they could do for little Tom. This was their only child. And besides, she added, “why would you allow a white hippie woman who smokes weed and talks to her plants to touch our child with her quirky medicine yet you draw the line at a medicinewoman in Machakos? Is the white woman not a medicine woman, a mganga herself? Is it because she is white you don’t find her to be a mganga?”
“Good point” I say. “How did you counter that? Or you just left for the carwash?”
“There is no simpler way to counter that other than to say that the medicinewoman in Machakos is prone to evoking spirits in healing while this white woman was using alternative medicine with tools that we could see; plants, physical exertion…earth healing itself.”
For three months they debated and fought over this. Finally, his mom was called to intervene and to his shock and – wait for it – mortifying consternation [I know, dramatic] his mom said perhaps they should try the woman as long as she wasn’t a mganga because she was a good Christian woman who also believed in traditional healing powers.
And so on the Saturday they were to see the medicine woman, he was stirred awake at 3am by mumbling in their bedroom. He lifted his head to see her form kneeling by the dresser, praying. Through the pale filtered moonlight coming through the curtains he could see her head bowed and her hands clasped together. He couldn’t hear her words but he could hear “Jesus” a lot. “It struck me as odd,” he tells me, “that there was someone who was getting ready to send her son to a mganga while also asking God to support her as she went against Him. The paradox was telling.”
After breakfast they left for Machakos with their son at the back of the car. They drove in silence. The day was hot outside but the AC was on, but its chilliness was no match for the frost that emitted between them. She had 10,000 in cash for the medicine woman in her sling bag. [“I refused to pay for our destruction”] When they got to a centre called Mutituni [Msituni?] She called a number and a boy gave them directions to a simple boma without a gate. A small hut and an empty chicken coop were the only structures in the compound. He wondered how good this woman was in her trade when her existence showed such a level of abject poverty. He brought the car under a scraggly tree and switched off the engine. He looked at her and sighed. “Are you sure about this? Because we can reverse out of here and go back home.” She said they were already there and they would do what they had to do. As he got out of the car he realised that his hands were shaking slightly.
He woke up his son who had dozed off. He looked around like he had just woken up in jail. “Where are we?” He asked, rubbing his eyes. The old woman was standing at the doorway. She was smaller than he imagined, thin with very pronounced cheekbones that shone in the bright daylight. They looked like cheekbones that were polished every morning with a dry cloth. She was wearing some sort of garb that looked like one of those clothes in the old testament when God was constantly angry, vindictive and no good sport. It was draped around her left shoulder, exposing a very twig-like shoulder bone on the other side. Something that would snap if she sneezed hard enough. Her eyes were normal eyes, he was disappointed to note. In fact, generally her mien was that of any old woman. She even smiled as they neared the door and took a step towards them.
She leaned down and extended a bony hand webbed with a network of veins toward their son. “I was sure he was going to step behind his mother and hide but then something very weird happened, my son walked up and placed his hand in this old woman’s hand. Like they were familiar.”
“Were you scared?”
“I was, a little. You had to be. It even surprised my wife. I mean, my son doesn’t take to strangers easily but he was so comfortable with her.”
“What’s the first thing she asked your son?”
“She said something like ‘unapenda kuku?’ Of course my son doesn’t speak Swahili, he was only 7 at the time. So he just turned to his mother and smiled.” The old woman pointed at a hen tethered next to her house and Tom jnr let go of her hand and went to inspect the chicken. “By the way, we ended up taking that chicken home, a gift from her.”
His wife introduced herself and then introduced him. She turned to look at him. “She didn’t have the eyes you’d imagine her to have, those evil eyes you see in Nigerian movies. She just had normal eyes.” They were led into the hut. It was very cool inside, like there was an invisible AC system. There were no skulls, no cowrie shells, no hyena hides or crocodile teeth, no politicians. There was no air of evil, of the underworld. “It looked like an old woman’s house.”
They both sat in the two seats that awaited them. She offered them tea, which they politely declined before she settled on the floor with her back leaning against the wall. Tom Jnr came into the house and started inspecting everything before his mother pulled him to her. She asked about him; when the problem started, how long it had gone on, what he eats, who takes care of him, where he was born, how often he falls sick, when he spoke his first words, when he grew his first milk teeth. She wasn’t taking any notes. At some point Tom Jnr went and sat next to her and started playing with a piece of smooth river-like stone he had picked outside. The old woman asked him in swahili if she could see the stone and he obediently handed it to her. She turned it in her palms and then smelled it before handing it back to him with a smile. “That was probably the oddest thing I watched her do.” He says.
She then inspected their son. She stuck her hands in his ears [ made him giggle] and inspected his hair and head by running her hands through his head, as if looking for cracks. She told them she wanted to inspect his mouth. The mother said, “baba, open your mouth wide like a crocodile, cucu wants to see how good your teeth are?” Tom Jnr opened his mouth like a small crocodile and she held his chin and peered inside intently. She then looked at his palms, touching and tugging at each finger. She removed his shoes and inspected the sole of his feet. She massaged the base of his neck with her old fingers. She then called out a name and a boy showed up wearing old shorts and an old shirt. She told him something in KiKamba and the boy left and came back with a metallic basin with water. She went into the inside chamber and came back with some plastic containers which contained powders which she mixed in the water. Using a small brown piece of cloth she dabbed Tom jnr’s head with the water, removed his shirt and wiped his torso down. She stood, left and came back with hot water in a plastic cup. She retrieved some dried leaves from a fold in her leso and sprinkled them in the water before setting it aside to cool. She went back into the chamber and returned with some jelly in a Vaseline container. She massaged the side of Tom jnr’s temple with it. He closed his eyes while she did this.
“It was as if my son had been drugged. He was very calm and obedient. Not resisting.” He says. “She did all these without looking at us, without telling us what it meant, without seeking our approval. It felt like she was alone in the room with the boy. There are moments when she would hum a song while doing this. Other times her lips moved without a sound coming out.”
It took an hour.
She packed some powder for them and handed it to the mom. “Boil this in water every night and give it to him to drink, you can add sugar. Don’t bathe him today.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Jane asked her.
In translation, she said he was born with a “crooked vein” in his head. [Isn’t mshipa a vein?] Yeah, the boy was born with a bent vein in his head. But the drink would sort it out. And a jelly in a polythene paper to massage his temple twice a day. They were also told not to bang things in the house until he recovered. No banging of doors. Or other things. And to avoid exposing the child to anybody else but the domestic manager and ourselves for the next two weeks.
“What happens when these medicines are finished, how do we get more?” Jane asked her.
“When the medicine finishes your son will be healed.” The old woman said. She handed her the money but she told Jane to place it on the floor.
They went back home and followed instructions. “To be honest, it didn’t go as badly as I thought it would. I was relieved that she wasn’t evil, bent over and with a sharp nose.”
The medicine worked. The spasms stopped. The seizures ended.
“I don’t know what happened to be honest. It’s been three years and he is fine.” He says. “It disturbs me.”
“Her ways. This lady’s ways. How she managed to heal him with leaves and jelly. It’s inexplicable. It goes against everything I thought I knew. It also changes what I think of voodoo and miti shamba. You get?”
The wife became an ambassador for the old woman, like an influencer of sorts. She told everybody who would listen about her powers and she referred them to her. Some got healed, others didn’t. When the old woman died a few years later she attended the funeral. He didn’t.
“So, can you explain how she healed your son, scientifically?” I asked him.
“I can’t. Also, sometimes the body heals itself.”
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