WHAT IS THE ANGLE on your life, Mr. Buredi?

We met three times and spoke only once.  You were number forty-two on my list, but the fourth healer I talked to.  Your gaze, the one good eye, riveting and clear, burns through the photo at my side.  It holds more heat than the two eyes of your son—who inherited this fire, but not its intensity.  Rasputin had that look, and they called it a portal—a telltale ribbon to link the spirit world with that of humans.  You could tell those marked by the eyes, and their power over others.

But I do not know the story of your eyes.  How the left one came to milk over and wander to the side.  Did the accident happen when you were young, like your son, learning healing from your own father?  You do not practice healing of the eyes.  When I asked you this question—when John asked you this question—you told us iyai, no, quickly enough.  We asked because healers have been burning out the corneas of their patients for years.  Optometrists in the city wanted to know why.  You have been one to experiment with treatments on yourself—an alchemist of sorts—was your eye an experiment gone wrong?

I do not have what journalists would call an angle on your story; only the briefest of tangents.  The day we spent interviewing you—my surprise at what we found.  It stayed with me through other healers I met—fantastic stories there, but none who worked like you.  No, this story is not in your gaze, but in the embers it betrays.  The fire you brought to your work.

The mirror it lighted in mine.

≈      ≈      ≈

For the second day in a row, we are in John’s familiar territory.  Half a mile from the Mozambican border, tucked in the shadow of Mt. Mulanje along a dirt path shared by cars and cattle, we are interviewing the healers we met first through a town assembly in Chiringa, two months ago, then through Dr. Thamanda, last week.  John did not grow up in this region, but he knows the people.  This is his territory because he taught at Nakhwikwi Primary School two years ago, in 1996.

Yesterday we met Snala Mberenga, a strong woman who claims to have been healing the ailments of women and children for forty-eight years, though she herself does not look over fifty.  Our three hours of mistrustful second-glances, evasive answers and questions turned back on the interviewer have convinced me that trust is no default state for a stranger asking about healing.  Her skepticism is wise and canny given the history of white exploitation in Malawi—this much I know—but it haunts me still.  Today we will visit Naison Buredi, and I hope for a less strained exchange.  But first we’ve stopped at the school for John to catch up with old friends.

I’m not sure whether the Land Rover pulling into the yard stops the classes, or if they are just finishing.  Whatever the cause, students flood the yard while John walks in to meet the Principal.

A group of girls gathers around a hopscotch court tracked with a stick in dirt.  No chalk, no cement, but the game is otherwise familiar to me.  I do not know the nuances of the languages enough to tell if the rhyme they are chanting is in Chichewa or Chilomwe.  As I move closer to listen, I note some voices falling off and others gaining volume.  After five rounds of the game, I realize that this same effect is echoed in their jumping.  My gaze turns some of the children to nervous shufflers, brings out the skipping performance in others.  I walk back to the car, knowing I would be one of the shufflers.

Minutes later, John emerges with a well-dressed, pot-bellied man who introduces himself as Mr. Mphiri, the principle, and invites me in to the school.  We walk past rows of wooden benches, long tables, and a small, easel-bound chalkboard in an otherwise bare room.  Mr. Mphiri explains that the four classrooms are used in shifts for eight classes.  Weather permitting, lessons can also be taught outside, but there are only three teachers and the principal, so they always teach in shifts.  His office lies to the side of a breezeway, between two of the classrooms.  Inside, there are piles of books that look, by their worn burgundy and navy bindings embossed with faded black letters, to be decades old.  Mr. Mphiri says he would offer us a seat, but there are no chairs, so we all stand.

“I invited you in,” he says “to show you our school.  As you can see, we have little to work with.  Chalk and our teacher salaries are the only expenses we can afford, and sometimes even these must suffer.”

John has already told me about the frequent difficulties collecting his month’s pay; I can’t help but imagine that the three major devaluations since he worked here have made the situation worse.

“These books are all we have; I keep them here because the office is the only room that still has locks—thieves have stolen the others.  But the books are old; some are not fit for teaching.”

He hands me a faded blue copy of Modern English for the British Colonies and I realize I may have underestimated the age of some of the books.

“We are hoping you can assist us.”

I am immediately put on guard.  After six months I am still not used to my position of relative wealth and power.  Twenty-four years of relative poverty do not wash easily away.  Relative is a word I’m still coming to terms with and so are the daily, often hourly, requests for money and assistance.  My impulse is to refuse and there is no shortage of rationalizations for this.  I don’t know where the money would go.  As much as I have seen poverty here I have seen well-intentioned donations go almost without exception into the wrong hands for the wrong purposes.  Self-sufficiency will never emerge from a culture based on begging.  My limited resources are for a particular project . . .

I grasp on the last one, and am in the midst of explaining that I’m not really in a position to fund the school—that my funding is meant specifically for research about healing—when a young man walks in and gives John a hug.  He nods to the principal and then turns to me.

“Hello, I’m Besten.  I teach here but I would like a scholarship to the United States.  I would like to attend university there, perhaps in Arkansas or Michigan or Seattle.”  He takes a breath before beginning again, “I studied at Trinity Teacher’s College and received high marks, but I have no sponsor.  Can you connect me with a sponsor or assist me with my education?”

Mr. Mphiri looks somewhat ruffled by this intrusion.  “You will think we are all beggars here in Malawi, Mr. Josh.  That all we can do is ask.  But this is what we must do for now.  We have no other option.”

He is right, of course, on both counts.  There are no other options and I am thinking about the begging.  At the moment, I’m thinking about the list of people who want me to find them scholarships, schools, pen pals, sponsors or clothes.  Each name I add to my address book weighs on me—makes me realize the impossibility of helping in the face of such great odds.  I have not learned to pick my battles.

I begin again with what I was telling Mr. Mphiri, saying that I’m not personally in a position to help, but that I will take their names and see what I can do.  Besten’s name will be twenty-first in that section of my book which I’ve given the invisible title “hopeless causes”; Mr. Mphiri’s, twenty-second.  As we leave, I’m struck by the disparity between the hopes these men place in me and the hope I hold for them.  “You should write to the college for books,” I say to Mr. Mphiri, “they get donations all the time.”

We head back to the car and I complain to John.  “Why does everyone keep asking me for help?  I’m not rich; I can’t even get my car to run.  I don’t have any way to get people into schools.”  I am looking for a burst of recognition in his face; I am asking for sympathy.  But John does not look at me, and I realize he probably holds the same hopes as his friend.

We drive to Mr. Buredi’s house in silence.

≈      ≈      ≈

The house is small.  The garden is small. These things are not unusual and neither is the close proximity of the neighboring houses: Mrs. Mberenga, yesterday, and Dr. Thamanda, the week before, were nestled in similar fashion.  A healer, after all, needs to be accessible.  What is unusual here is the nearly suburban appearance of the place: the crispness of the border between one property and the next, the regularity of spacing between houses, the fact that all of them sit lined up about ten meters from the straight road and have the same short plank to cross the ditch lining that road.  This village, like those on the outskirts of larger towns, has been planned on a grid.

But there is no large town nearby, no economy to speak of, no sign to indicate why this spot was chosen for a housing development.  Perhaps a member of parliament was born here, had family to favor when the budget came round to community projects.  The bricks are sun-baked, not kiln dried, and while they may insulate well, they also mark the status of this community in no uncertain terms: poor.  Likewise the thatch roofs.  In the hierarchy of building materials, the traditional, what some call the quaint, serves as a marker for poverty.  Corrugated aluminum would show wealth out here; baked tile would indicate splendor.

A large transport truck burns by and I worry for a moment that it will clip the Land Rover, pulled off nearly into the ditch along the road, but still jutting dangerously out.  I did not expect to see traffic here.  The route we followed was little more than a footpath through eight-foot-tall grasses until we hit Likangala, when it suddenly turned to a graded road.  There were even remnants of gravel that had once been poured.  But the truck comes from the other direction, from the border with Mozambique, which lies less than a kilometer to the east of Mr. Buredi’s house.  I make a note to ask John where it’s headed—there might be a faster way back to Phalombe tonight.

We are seated on a stump just west of the house, the massive humps of Mt. Mulanje looming at our backs.  The plants of the five-by-ten meter plot that makes up the healer’s garden surround us with green and the scent of sawdust fills the air.  I notice the sound of a handsaw coming from the house next door.  Having done with our mutual greetings, I am now listening to Mr. Buredi explain, via John’s translation, that his father trained him not only to use plants as he before had been taught, but how to experiment with them—to come up with new remedies.  He sits next to his son, Levison, who is now learning these same skills and is one of a shrinking minority of young people interested in the healing traditions of their parents.

While many healers concentrate on two or three illnesses for which they are well-known; when John asks Mr. Buredi about his specialties, the list that rolls from his tongue runs on like a Catholic litany.  Mutu waukulu, zirengo, hamala, kudyesedwa, misala, nkhunyu, chisonono, chinkdoko, mabomu, nansula.  While he recites the names his good right eye looks up and to the right, as if they are stored in the air above our heads.  And, indeed, as in the call and response, after pulling each name from the sky, he turns to us and qualifies it by specifying details about his treatments.  Mutu waukulu, the big headache, can be treated at the physical level, but it can also be caused by the spirits.  Mr. Buredi chooses his remedies after a careful consultation.  Zirengo, sorcery induced madness, comes in more than eight forms, and he has plants for each of them.  Hamala, witchcraft bullets, are often sent by a jealous friend; he can find the friend before the bullets work their way to the heart.  Kudyesedwa, poisoning, is a challenge for many healers, but he can often tell just by looking at the patient what is needed.  Misala, lunacy, can be a long-term problem, but he has had more success than any of the six other healers serving this area of about 500 people.  Nkhunyu, epilepsy, can often be a sign that someone is meant to heal.  He can help them and also test them to see if they might have the skills for healing others.  Chisonono, chindoko, mabomu, nansula—gonorrhea, syphilis, genital lumps, and barrenness—these are all common and simple, but he gets more cases of them than anything else, so he would have to say they are his specialty too.

“It’s a good thing the son started learning early,” I mutter to the air.

Mr. Buredi explains that the two of them travel together to Mozambique to collect most of their plants.  Four to eight times a month they walk for three hours to a mountain across the border, where they fill their bags with selections of roots, bark, leaves, fruits or whole plants.  He stands and beckons for us to follow to the front of the house.  Pointing to the north and west, across the road, he tells us, “Uko, mankhwala wolimba”—there the medicine is strong.  Though his good eye implores me and his finger points taught as an arrow, a faint haze from cooking fires blurs the sky and I cannot see what he’s indicating.  John, recalling his years teaching at the nearby school, says he knows the mountain, has seen it on clearer days.

Buredi sends his son into the house to find one of his collection bags for us and continues to explain that these trips are relatively new.  He’s always known about the collecting site in Mozambique—it was a special place for his father, the plants there were plentiful and powerful—but he has been healing on his own for fifteen years, since his father died, and it has only been in the last six or so that the trips have become necessary.  He can no longer find the plants he needs in Malawi.

“The people keep coming to this region,” he tells us, “and the land does not grow.  So they plant where they can, they take fuel from the forest, and soon the woods are gone.”

As I scan the horizon rippling in midday heat I can make out only a few tree silhouettes near clumps of houses in any direction, save one stand to the south.  I ask about it.

“A graveyard” he says.  “Maybe it will go too.”

The trees among graves are said to be home to the spirits; they are protected by tradition.  Mr. Buredi tells us he could find many of his plants there, but he won’t collect in that place.  He’d rather walk the miles to Mozambique.  His neighbor down the road, Grena Pwheremwe, is also a healer and tells a similar story, though she now makes her treks in the opposite direction, up to the forest reserves of Mulanje Mountain.

Levison emerges from the low door of the house dragging two large burlap bags.  Both bear the logo of Malawi’s agricultural cooperative, ADMARC (Agriculture Department of Malawi A Reserve Cooperative)—an open ear of corn surrounded by a circle.  50kg nitrogen/phosphorous, 50kg hybrid maize.  The maize bag is filed with heavy roots and may well weigh fifty kilograms; the other is filled with leaves and small whole plants.  From the laughter after one of John’s questions I gather that Levison has the privilege of carrying the roots when they collect.

Mr. Buredi tells us he works with about seventy-five plants and, from the size of this collection, I can well imagine that many of them are right here.  I am tempted to start asking about everything before us, but we need to collect whole plants for our specimens, so I inquire if there are any live plants nearby that he could show us.  He motions to my shoulder, then to John’s wrist, then to a spot between the two of us.

The garden, then, is not only for food.  He has cultivated the species he can here at home, to cut down on the long treks across the border.  We have been hoping to find a healer who does this, someone who can tell us which plants are easy to grow and which are more difficult.  The National Herbarium currently has a study trying to find this same information.  But few healers have started planting.  It may be counter-intuitive to much of the healing tradition, which tends to favor asking spiritual guidance before finding the plants for a cure.  That Mr. Buredi is more empiricist than subject of the spirits seems evident in his choice of herbage.

This becomes even more apparent as he explains some of the plants he’s using.  The creeping vine behind my shoulder is called mlozi, and it is used for a malady known as nyamakzi that affects the joints and may cause the arms or legs to swell.  While this remedy is well-tried, and indeed echoed in botanical literature, Mr. Buredi is currently experimenting with mlozi and another plant, namanena, as a possible cure for tuberculosis.  He came up with the idea by tasting the roots of the plants together—the resultant sour mixture felt “right” on his tongue, and he is currently working with two patients who seem to be improving.

The tree on which this vine is climbing is called mzizira and he believes that it may be a cure for msempho—a disease that affects the genitals of husbands who have been unfaithful.  Though he hasn’t found a patient to try the remedy on yet, he thinks it will work because “the plant and disease match.”  This seems perfectly clear to him, though John’s translation leaves me with only a vague notion of how he might know such a thing.  He tells us mzizira can also be used for syphilis and gonorrhea.  John asks how to know if the cure is working and, by the motioning of both father and son’s hands, I gather that mzizira is a diuretic.

Mr. Buredi walks over to the corner of the garden and plucks from the base a waist-high herb with wavy red leaves.  Showing us the thick white tuber that he’s just unearthed, he explains that this is crushed, dried, and sieved to make a sort of flour.  The flour is mixed with boiling water and added to a child’s bath to cure mwanalanda—a kind of body sore often developed by children.  I ask what the plant is called and he says he doesn’t know what others call it; he simply calls it mwanalanda after the illness it cures.

As he passes the plant to me I become aware of a faint humming.  He continues on to another plant, this time pointing to a knee-high shrub with bunches of bright red peanut-sized berries.  It is sabola, a member of the tomato family that cures both gonorrhea and genital swelling, but as Buredi details these uses I am distracted by the humming, which has grown to a drone and can now clearly be identified as an approaching swarm of bees.  John continues to listen to the healer, as does Levison.  Neither of them look up from Buredi’s pantomime chopping and crushing of roots as the swarm passes by the house, headed west towards Mozambique.  Here, there is no need to ask whether the bees have been Africanized; neither, apparently, is there any need to worry about what such a swarm might do.

Buredi moves on to the fifth and final plant, a thin-stalked shrub that has crept its way along the body of a young mango tree in the southwest corner of the garden.  It has small white flowers, and even rows of leaves shaped like the wings of dragonflies, but stacked upon each other eight to ten pairs thick.  Msekemseke, as it is called, is used to cure ngomwa, a problem that can be either impotence or sterility.

As I fold msekemseke and the rest of the plants to fit between the newspaper sheets of the plant press, I ask John to ask Mr. Buredi if he’d be willing to spend more time with us.

“A week, maybe, or two,” I say, “Maybe we could rent a small house nearby.”

John gives me a quizzical look before turning to Buredi to translate.

I’ve realized that we’re talking to a different sort of healer today.  A man who understands plants in something resembling the manner that I understand plants—someone who learned them via a lineage of knowledge and tests them for physical reactions.  Dr. Thamanda had learned from another healer, yes, but he had plants for making rain fall from the sky.  Mrs. Mberenga had learned from her mother, but she knew more techniques for childbirth than plant remedies, and many of her plants were charms to be worn on the waist or shoulders; washes to be poured over the head.  Grena Pwheremwe had learned her plants entirely from spirits who visited her dreams and guided her as she walked in the forest.  From what I’ve read, her story is typical rather than unique.

So finding a healer who thinks of plants in physical terms rather than spiritual ones is important.  I can’t call him a chemist, but I will say his taste and test approach is the closest thing to the scientific method that I’ve yet come across.  My plans were to start with a massive survey of healers, to identify a few who might be willing to work with us for extended periods, to spend weeks with each of those few performing large inventories of their plants and cures, meeting their patients, learning about the way they practiced.

Today, I feel like I might be able to skip the inventory—move straight to the healer—spend the rest of my research project learning from Mr. Buredi.

“Josh, he says yes, we can come back.”  John’s voice repeats the message for what I’ve just realized is the third time.

“Tell him thank you.  Tell him we’ll try to come again soon.”

≈      ≈      ≈

I try to hide my excitement as I question John on the way home.

“What do you think?  Could we find a house in the area?  Could we camp out in the dirt behind his house?”

John looks stunned.

“There might be houses to rent,” he concedes. “Or huts.  None as nice as the one at the hospital.  None with water or electricity or security bars.  Why would you want to move out here?”  John, who had escaped this place for the big city must find the prospects of returning far from attractive.

“He was perfect.  This guy knows plants.  Didn’t you think this guy knew plants?”

John nods, “he seemed to know plants.”

“And he said we could come back and stay.”

“Yes, but what about the other healers?”

“This whole phase of the project is about trying to find someone like Mr. Buredi.  Someone who wants to teach; someone who keeps a garden; someone who’ll let us stick around and learn a lot.”

“We’ll get strange glances in the village,” John shakes his head, “and the other healers might not be too happy about it.”

“Is that what his son was talking about?” I ask.  Levinson had offered to carry the plant press to the car after the interview, and had lingered at the window asking questions till we left.

“No, he wanted to know about jobs in the city.  He wanted to know if you needed another worker.”

“We could walk to Mozambique to collect,” I look in the rearview mirror, trying to make out the cluster of buildings that mark the border.  I’m imagining myself as an apprentice to Buredi.  I’m thinking that immersion out here at the border would really force me to learn Chichewa; really help me to concentrate on the plants.  I’d be learning faster than . . .

Than what?

Than any other American student fresh from college funded by a scholarship to talk to healers in southern Malawi?

Any other American talking to healers in Africa?

Any other ethnographer who started with a paucity of knowledge on the cultures he was invading?

Than Levison, Mr. Buredi’s son, who seems more resigned than excited about the prospects of carrying on his father’s traditions.

In this dry border town.

On this old dirt road.

Walking trails across this border to collect each week.

An idea begins to take shape as a far off hum in my ears.  I’m thinking that John probably just doesn’t want to return to Likangala; I’m wondering why he can’t appreciate the opportunity to learn from a healer.  But I’m also thinking of my address book.  The hum turns to a buzz.  Thinking of Besten’s name on the hopeless list.  Besten and John and Levison all appear to be about the same age; they’re all about my age, and they all want to get out.  They all want to find jobs or education or the next big thing to take them away from where they are.  The buzz nears to a drone.  They all look to me for that hope.  And I might change their lives—the life of one of them, at least—if I were willing to radically alter my own.  But rather than that I ask to learn from their elders—I want to be taught; I’m looking at them and asking for help.

The idea swarms in my mind.  Burying myself at the border under a new tongue, as far from my world as I can possibly get, I’m working under the assumption that the healers can help me find something.  I’ve come to my alter-ego, my “other,” the black man with little formal education, living a mystery-steeped world of custom rather than technology—come here to ask for assistance.  And I’ve done it because I can.  Because my nationality and education and skin make it possible.  This is the choice of privilege.  We all want something from our other; in the tradition of the colonialist I’ve come here to take it.

Like so many unwanted truths, this thought passes with the wind.  It’s not hard to rationalize conservation work, the collecting of endangered knowledge.  Motive is something different, but motive drifts from my mind and I’m back to the logistics of the moment.  The foregone conversation.

“What did you tell him about the jobs?” I ask John.

“They are hard to find.”

“You think the other healers would get jealous?”

“They’re expecting you.”

I stop to think about our list, about how I told all the healers who signed up that I’d try to make it.  About how different each of the four we’ve already seen has been.  I think about the pace of this project and know that we’ll need good luck with both the car and weather to finish off the list before I leave.  That we’ll be very lucky if we even start the more focused portion of the study—if we see any healer for a second time.  I think of Buredi’s eyes and how they hold something I want to learn more about—how that fire is probably not to be learned.

“We’ll finish, then, and first thing we’ll come back to Buredi.”

“Yes,” says John, “first thing.”

Odeta Jimu and Patient


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