Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stories and skepticism

I know this may come as a big surprise, but I’m a talker. I strike up conversations with strangers, dogs, children, myself. About anything. Any time. Anywhere. And apparently I’m no less garrulous in Kiswahili, as my teachers Upendo and Steward found out this week. Since my class is one-on-one and tailored to what I want to do and what I want to learn, we spent the whole week practicing conversation before moving on to more advanced-level grammar, which I think was actually really helpful language-wise. It also gave me a great insight into some of the “history” of Iringa and an introduction to the local folk lore.

Folk tales and superstitions are a part of every culture. In American culture, it’s largely luck-related—broken mirrors, walking under ladders, black cats—and most people don’t take it too seriously. Tales of watermelon vines growing in kids’ bellies and the existence of the tooth fairy are something we out-grow by the time we celebrate our first double-digit birthday. In many countries in Africa, though, folk tales once developed as cautionary tales for children or as explanations for the unknown are still very much alive in the modern culture. In Swaziland I heard stories of a man-sized python in the Lubombo region that changed colors and swallowed up cars, held my host sister’s son while she used the toilet so as to not jeopardize his future chances of finding love, and was repeatedly warned against the dangers of star-gazing, which is the leading cause of incontinence.

Here’s one of the local legends of Iringa, as told to me by Upendo and adapted from Kiswahili by yours truly:

About 10 years ago, in a small village outside of Iringa, there lived a man who dreamed of owning a big general store. He desperately wanted to be able to buy his wife new dresses and wanted to send his son to university, but he’d been unlucky in business and, one day, went to an mganga (a traditional spiritual healer or so-called “witch doctor”) as a last resort. The mganga performed some rituals and explained to the man that to be successful in business, he would have to be willing to make some sacrifices, including some which may hurt his family. The man agreed, and the mganga took a few hundred shillings as payment and promised him that his life would soon turn around.

The next week, his healthy teenaged son died in his sleep. Desperately, the man and his wife took the boy to the hospital, hoping the doctors could do something, but to no avail: the boy was dead. Remembering what the mganga had said about needing to make sacrifices for money, the man was angry with himself for killing his son in the name of greed. The day he and his wife buried their son, the man confessed his role in the boy’s death to his wife, who promptly left him. The man fell into a state of despair. He let his hair grow long and spent his nights crying outside the hospital, praying that God would undo what he’d done in the pursuit of money.

After many months, the man went back to the mganga and asked him to bring his son back. The mganga gave him a piece of bark from a secret tree and told the man to keep it in his pocket, wrapped inside his money, but to never let it touch the ground and never let anyone else see it. The man followed these instructions to the letter for many years until, one day, he went to pay his bus fare and dropped all his money and the piece of bark onto the ground. He immediately yelled for everyone on the bus to close their eyes but his strange request begot more questions than compliance, and everyone began arguing over WHY they had to close their eyes. They were worried the man was trying to rob them.

But while they were busy arguing, the piece of bark lying on the ground started to grow into a person. It was a man, about 6 feet tall, with long-neglected hair, an unshaven face, and fingernails so long they were curling. He was completely naked and filthy.

When the people on the bus finally stopped arguing long enough to notice the man, they all ran with fright off the bus at the next stop. All except the man, who stayed on the bus staring into the eyes of his son, brought back to life.

Unable to believe his eyes, the man asked the bus driver to take them to the hospital immediately. There he had doctors and nurses look over the boy to see if he was really real. They cut his fingernails and hair, shaved his beard, washed him up, took his vital signs, and declared him both alive and human. He could breathe, he could walk, his pupils dilated properly in response to light, but he was mute and timid to the point of absurdity.

Then, every Thursday since, the man and his son have stood outside the Iringa Government Hospital to talk about the miracle. For 100/= Tanzanian Shillings you can see the son, who is very much human, and for 100/= more you can even shake his hand!

(When I asked Upendo if I could go and see the man and talk to him about his son as part of a language field trip, she said that several weeks ago the two of them went to Dar es Salaam to visit special speech doctors and figure out why he couldn’t speak, but that SHE saw him last year and can vouch for the authenticity of the story. My other teacher, Steward, confirmed the story and said that when the man and his son return from Dar we can go see them.)

Upendo and Steward went on to tell me that I shouldn’t use the bathroom at night because ghosts (who are the angels of hell) haunt bathrooms at night and will stare at me while I pee, and that that TANESCO (the Tanzanian government-owned electricity company) can’t run power lines through cemeteries because the spirits of the dead disrupt the power supply. I learned that a Chinese-run construction company that’s currently building infrastructure in the area works on roads during the day but on bridges at night because bridge building requires the help of wizards who are allergic to sunlight. They also warned me that if ever I smell the familiar cinnamon-cardamom smell of pilau rice immediately after a loud THUMP on the roof of my house, I should immediately stop talking so that the evil spirits (who dropped the pilau, I guess?) won’t find me.

While I’m steadfastly skeptical about all things even remotely supernatural, I find superstitions and tales like these very interesting from a purely anthropological perspective. For most of these stories, I can imagine a situation in which they were told to teach a lesson (like how it’s bad to blindly pursue money) or to explain something inexplicable (like why the Chinese people work at night). One of the most fascinating things about these kinds of stories, I think, is how they combine traditional aspects of culture (like the mganga) with more modern concepts like hospitals, buses, and electric companies, to make them more relevant and believable, and how they evolve to include specific details like the names of communities and hospitals. They also combine Christian beliefs (like the man praying to God for help and the very existence of cemeteries where people are given Christian burials) and traditional spiritual beliefs indigenous to the culture, which is very much how Christianity works in Africa. (Both Upendo and Steward are devout Born Again Christians, yet they wholeheartedly believe these stories. When I ask how they reconcile the inconsistencies between the two paradigms, they laugh and say I can’t possibly understand because I’m an Mzungu.)

Upendo also told me about a mysterious but very serious illness that afflicts high school-aged girls in Tanzania. Usually at school, the girl falls to the ground and appears to be having a seizure. Her eyes roll back in her head and she begins to speak in an unknown gibberish language, apparently channeling the words of her ancestors or other important people from the world of the dead. Then, after a few minutes, she snaps out of it and has a new sense of spiritual devotion but no memory of the incident itself. The lucky girl then becomes more respected among her peers because of her special connection to another world.

While I’m personally very skeptical (couldn’t girls just be faking seizures to be more popular?), I find striking similarities between this “illness” and a similar condition I’ve heard plagues high school girls in Swaziland. I’ve also read in for a medical anthropology course about similar phenomena in Southeast Asia and some parts of Central America (including the disease “amok” from which the phrase “running amok” is derived). Is it more probable that each culture has developed a strikingly similar lie, or is it possible that it’s true? Does not believing in a such an illness, as Americans, make us immune to it and make believers susceptible to it?

Who am I to judge what is true? I still won’t walk under a ladder.

The best $4 I ever spent! Last weekend, after a night of particularly un-ignorable buzzing in my ear, I overcame my claustrophobic hatred of mosquito nets and got one. It was subsidized by USAID and PSI as part of the “Roll Back Malaria” project funded under PEPFAR (apparently), which is amazing. Since the short rains have KIND of started this past week, the population of mosquitoes in my house has reached epic proportions. One night this week, I woke up in the middle of the night and counted over 40 mosquitoes clinging to the outside of my net just on the section by my head. Without this net (and the malaria prophylaxis I’m taking) it’s a good statistical possibility that I would have malaria by now. Also, it doubles as a very convenient storage/display place for earrings. Thanks PEPFAR!
The Iringa Municipal Market. I spend a lot of time here talking to people in Kiswahili and buying once “exotic” fruits like mangoes and papayas for really, really cheap. The other day I refused to buy a mango for the equivalent of $0.12 because I thought it was too expensive, never mind the fact that in the US I’d pay like $7 for a mango at Whole Foods. This billboard says “Reduce the use of trees for charcoal by properly using your charcoal-burning stove” and has pictures illustrating the importance of little doors and whatnot to protect the flame. Most people here, including my host family, use charcoal stoves to cook. The gas stove that I have is so uncommon that I had to buy it from an Indian restaurant. Those big baskets in the lower left of the photo are the big baskets that all the fruit and veg sellers use to transport their produce. One or two of these big baskets is strapped to the back of a bicycle or Vespa, to the top of a dala-dala (mini-bus), or to a big hand-cart you can hire to transport stuff through the town, kind of like the flat-bed things at Sam’s Club but made of wood.
A vehicle for some political candidate from Chadema party (the largest opposition to the incumbent CCM in the Iringa region). These drive through the town blasting music (its trailer is full of speakers) and singing the praises of the candidate by loud-speaker, kind of like a parade except all the time. There are cars for every candidate, every party, and sometimes non-political things. Like the local church, which advertises the times and topics of its Sunday sermon this way while blaring really loud Tanzanian Gospel music.
The local river, which I cross a minimum of twice daily, is full of trash and dragonflies. (That little orangeish-red guy is a dragonfly.) I would say with 98% certainty that someday I will slip and fall into the river on my way to school. I’ve had some close calls already.

It’s a miracle anything grows here! The “soil” is straight-up sand in most places, and the only consistent water supply comes from the river, which makes terraced gardens like this one on the bank of the river necessary.

Saturday, I bought some nyama ya ng’ombe (beef) from the local butcher nearest my house. It was cheap ($0.60 per pound), but I’m pretty sure it had been hanging in the back of his little shop for many, many days. Those black parts are little bits of kidney that the butcher threw in for free, which I gave to a dog, and the newspaper it’s sitting in is what it came in. In the future, if a butcher shop is so full of flies that I’m afraid to speak for fear of inhaling them, I’ll refrain from buying that butcher’s meat. I cooked up these mysterious bits with a garlic, red onion, and peas, and then made a sauce for the meat with honey and broth. It was delicious, but I’m still waiting for the digestive consequences of this endeavor.

1 comment:

Erin said...

What? You talk a lot? I've never noticed that. I guess that's why you're good at languages, you want to talk to everyone everywhere.