Kumvera

I IMAGINE IT PLAYED OUT out something like this . . .

As they head out from Migowe, David’s gaze is lost in the hills of the Mulanje Massif.  Lovemore catches his line of sight and he too begins to probe the backside folds of Michesi Peak, looking for a shimmer of light, a river, or a spirit.

I imagine the young man who asks them about the plant presses is simply curious, or perhaps he just wants to talk.  Travelers using the communal matola rides in Malawi step into and out of conversation with an ease reserved for familiars in the white world.  In any case, we need not see him as a bully; there is genuine wonder in his voice.

“Friend, those wood slats, what are you keeping in the newspapers there?”

“Plants,” says Lovemore, “they are pressing and drying.”

“What do you need with plants, friend?”

“I’m doing a study.”

“What kind of a study?  What kind of plants?”

“They are mankhwala, we’re interviewing asing’anga.”

And here something shifts.  The old woman wrapped in a chitenge lifts her gaze from the wide-eyed chickens bound together at her feet.  The rim of a fedora tilts slightly to reveal the eyes of an old man cramped next to the rear gate of the truck.  His brown, misshapen, three-piece suit wears layers of dust thickening towards the feet, and one might have thought he was sleeping before his sibilant stare registered its presence.  A young woman perched on a burlap bag of mangoes glances up from the baby in her arms and adjusts her feet away from the plant presses on the bed of the truck.  And the man who has been asking the questions looks to his friends on either side, as if for affirmation, then waves dismissively at the plants.  “That is disgusting.  Do you practice ufiti?”

David answers, “We are working with the university, and these plants are for medicine, not witchcraft.”

“Where did you get them?”

“Machemba Mountain.  We went with a very strong healer named Yona.  He has a compound in Matepwe.”

“Yes, I know him.”  This time the friend on the left speaks.  “He is a powerful sing’anga, he doesn’t even ask patients what they have, you go to him and he tells you.”

“So you believe in him?” asks David.

“That’s witchcraft.  Nobody can be told what they have without talking.”  This from the third young man.

The second ignores his companion, “I don’t go to him.  My sister’s husband went one time.  He had a cough and Yona called it zirengo.  He ground up thanthanyelere leaves, soaked them in water, and gave this in a bottle to drink.  We could have done that from home, but my sister’s husband got better.”

“But do you believe in him?”

“No.  That was years ago.  The spirits used to have power, maybe even my sister’s husband was healed by them, but I don’t believe in that business anymore.”

The other young men nod in agreement.  “Healing is for hospitals now,” says the one who started the conversation, “why go to a sing’anga who could curse you when you can go to the hospital for an x-ray or an injection?  I’ve never seen a sing’anga with a bottle of pills.”

This final word seems to signify a consensus among their group, as the other two reply with nods.  David presses on with one more question, “So none of you would want to learn healing?”

“The healers are disgusting, their work is filthy.  No.”

It is difficult to know, and perhaps ultimately unimportant, whether this collective disgust is a posture on the part of the friends in the truck, or genuine.  David reports only that the discussion was with young men who expressed disdain and disgust; that other passengers sat silent in the truck.  Divining by statistics, I can say that most Malawians do visit traditional healers; for 85 percent of the population it is the primary form of health care.  And though I have little faith in statistics after watching a Malawian census, many of the patients I’ve spoken with approach their healers with gratitude and hope rather than revulsion.  Many go to healers after hospitals have failed.

But these have often been older patients; they were visiting older healers.  Out of the fifty healers interviewed by my research assistants and I, there were only two under the age of forty.  In both cases, they were following their fathers in the practice, but many others had no one to carry on their traditions.  David’s question, then, becomes one of importance.  And I’m glad he posed it, because I had asked it of him, Lovemore, Mathews and John, my research assistants, days before this ride in the truck, as we reviewed the goals of our study: learn how healers came to choose their work; collect medicinal plants they’re willing to show and explain; find out how deforestation is affecting them; preserve this knowledge before it disappears.  David had laughed and said that healers were useful, yes, but “why are we spending so much time on them?  Belief is what cures you.”

Do you believe, David?  Would you spend time learning to heal?

≈      ≈      ≈

Mathews laughed, but appeared uncertain when I asked him to translate.  He may have wondered if I was joking, may have wanted to avoid accidentally offending Mr. Manolo.  “I’m serious,” I told him, “I’d really like to try.”

So Mathews spoke to Manolo, who spoke back, paused, then turned to me with a grin.

“He can do it,” said Mathews, “but it will take some time.  He wants to know can we come tomorrow?”

“Yes,” I told him, “how much does he charge?”

“He says to remove the curse from the car will not work.  He will have to remove it from the car and from you.  This will cost 300 kwacha, and he can gather the plants tonight.”

Today I look back to the translated interview of Mr. Manolo’s remedies and see that most of the cures he shared with us were for clearly physical disorders.  I recall Mathews striking up a conversation with one of Manolo’s patients, a young woman who was receiving treatment on the first day we arrived at the healer’s house.  She had given birth twice after being treated for a type of barrenness known as nansula, and had returned to Manolo at the behest of her husband and family because they were ready for a third child.  She told Mathews that the healer was known throughout the surrounding villages for curing nansula.

Taking this specialization into account, I wonder if Manolo was the best person to ask for a healing on the car.  I had been loathe to ask anyone, had in fact refused the offer of a charm from the first healer I’d talked to, Lementi Thamanda, because I was skeptical of spiritual powers.  I had no doubt that the healers’ plant remedies often cured patients, but was far more reserved in my belief of charms for safety, luck, love or rain.  When Thamanda, a man I respected deeply, had offered a charm for protection from witchcraft, I hadn’t felt justified accepting it.

And perhaps after six months and five mechanics worth of faltering, my choice was borne more of desperation and timing than careful thought.  After doubling the money spent on the car and never having two straight weeks without a breakdown, after arriving at the final month of a year-long study with less than half of my work complete, after being told by numerous friends that amene wanayangana ine, “someone has looked at you bad,” I felt ready to try anything; any healer would do.  But as I leaf through Mathews’ notebook today, I do so knowing that the Land Rover ran without problems from the day that Manolo removed the curse until the day I left the country.  And I begin to believe that traffic with the spirits might have more to do with effective curse removal than a specific background in “bad luck for cars and trucks,” a distinction which some healers certainly did have.  Mr. Manolo had a history with the spirits, and that may have been enough to garner my three clear weeks with the Land Rover.

As he tells it, at the age of thirty-five he fell ill with mutu wakugwa, a headache that causes epileptic fits.  During one of these fits he died and went to meet his ancestral spirits.  He later awoke to find himself surrounded by mourning friends and pastors who were delivering his last rites.  From this day on he was in contact with his ancestral spirits, who would come to him in dreams and tell him how to use plants for healing.  The first disease he cured was an eye disorder known as maso amanthongo, after which his reputation began to spread throughout the area.  His popularity increased for a number of years, until he angered the spirits.  Mathews narrates the caesura in his practice:

The guy stopped healing for years.  The story behind it is that he cured a young lady who was suffering from magini (epilepsy) and her relatives failed to remunerate him, so he just married her.  This angered the spirits so that all his knowledge of plants was gone, and he was no longer a healer.

 I do not know if the diminutive “just” here originated at Mathews’ pen or Manolo’s mouth.  I’m shocked into a smile each time I read the healer’s simple remedy to the problem of money, but his original sentiment may easily have been filtered off by sieves of translation, transcription, or memory.  There is no such equivocation in the action of the spirits.  They were clearly upset by the marriage and their response was immediate.  Manolo would not heal again for five years.

≈      ≈      ≈

It would seem vigilance on the part of the spirits is a matter of course.  If they keep the knowledge of plants, they guard it by their own wills and rules.  Witness the case of Dr. Yona:

Rabson Bokosi Yona was the third of four sons to Mr. Yona, a sing’anga who lived at the foot of Machemba Mountain, and whose reputation extended as far as the mountain’s shadow.  Following tradition, Mr. Yona planned to train one of his sons in healing, and so, when the first reached the age of knowledge and had passed initiation to become a man, they traveled to the sacred mpoza tree on Michesi Mountain to make an offering.  The offer of this first son was rejected, as was that of the second, some years later.  When Rabson came of age, he too traveled with his father to offer maize flour and prayer to the mpoza.  This tender was accepted, as the spirits visited his dreams that night, and Rabson began collecting plants with his father, learning their use and the ways to read the signs of the spirits.  After five years of training, Rabson began his own practice in 1975, at the age of 17.

David and Lovemore have both recorded this story in their notebooks.  Though David’s account is clearer, only Lovemore mentions that the reason the brothers’ offers were rejected is still “behind my back,” something perhaps even Rabson doesn’t know.  Their accounts differ in other respects as well.  David notes the hide of an “animal I have never seen in my life” on the floor of Yona’s consultation room; Lovemore calls it a cow.  Only David mentions a passport size photo and registration card—mark of a healer’s association—hanging on the wall, but only Lovemore tells us that the association dissolved some years ago, after the death of its chairman.  Both note the display of charms, feathers, and strange objects in the room.

I too would witness these objects, the day after the interview, as I came with Lovemore to photograph Dr. Yona.  Black clay pots of all sizes; wooden bowls holding dried leaves; a mound of ash forming an altar at the center of the room, topped with two black polished pots and a large black litchowa.  The latter is one of many such medicine wands in the first photo I took.  They are made from the tail of a cow or horse, covered with spells, and contain strong mankhwala (medicine) in their handles.  They amplify and concentrate the power of a healer, and help in divination.

My photograph shows circular paths of white maize flour surrounding some of the pots, and a ridge of this same flour leading from the consultation mat up the heap of ash.  There are gourds, glass bottles, metal oilcans and various vessels of tin, wood and plastic arranged in concentric rings, echoing the shape of the main altar.  A small oil lamp burns amidst this collection.  Packages wrapped in leather hides hang from the rafters, presumably to ward off spirits and concentrate power.  They are joined in the airy darkness of the room by a tattered book and a glistening black pot, both of which are suspended in eerie levitation on either side of Dr. Yona’s head in the final picture I took.  Both David and Lovemore note a feeling of unease in the consultation room.  David mentions an “effluvia” from the charms that is “nearly suffocating”; Lovemore writes that “it was such a room that made a visitor like myself to feel uncomfortable.”

I recall the scent of tanning leather; the must of damp ash, but I felt no discomfort.  I was, rather, awed.  Though I entered the same room as David and Lovemore, I had come in from a different world.  One that feared the miasma of bacteria and virus; one that spent out its belief under the insignia of Rx; the amplifying, divining power of a stethoscope.  As I walked through the door I lacked the simplest child’s knowledge of what to fear, and the effect of the charms was somehow different for me.  I did not know until later that the rules were different too.

There is a folktale among the Lomwe, Dr. Yona’s ethnic group, that tells of an entire family who were transformed from black to white when the daughter married a monster—a human head.  The family became rich, as whites do, and incurred the jealousy of fellow villagers, who tried to bewitch their former friends.  But the curses fell flat for a simple reason: azungu, whites, are impervious to witchcraft.

The rules shift.  I owe this discovery to the late conjunction of a photograph and a journal.  Lovemore’s last entry on Dr. Yona contains an aside: “Another thing is that nobody is allowed to enter the office while wearing shoes, not even Dr. Yona.  It is part of respect to the spirits.”  My second photo shows Yona sitting before his altar, litchowa in hand, and two shoes clearly on his feet.  Likewise, I was allowed to enter the consultation room that day without taking off my hiking boots.  So was Lovemore.  I am left to guess why he waived the rule in my case.  Politeness or deference to the white skin?  To the fact that I drove a car and had people working for me?  A temporary lapse for the lure of the camera—the knowledge that his story and images were being recorded for the future?  Could he anger the spirits a little bit to look better for posterity, for the time when he would be among the deceased?  Whatever the cause, the rules were different that day; the presence of an mzungu negated their power.

Lovemore’s aside ends by telling that doffing the shoes occurs on one other occasion: during offerings to the spirits in the fields.  Both he and David went with Dr. Yona to make one such offering.

Initially, the healer was reluctant to take them for a number of reasons.  He asked if they had coins or flour to give to the spirits.  They did not, and no one could break change for their five kwacha note.  He then mentioned that it would not be convenient for him to travel just then, as he was in the midst of attending patients.  Lovemore records that Yona treated about eighty patients a day.  This is a high figure, but not unheard of for a reputable healer.  It most likely includes patients seen by his trained workers, as he was one of the few healers we met who could afford to keep a regular staff and a large compound for long-term patients.  He often left his staff to gather the plants for medicine, so a visit to the field with two researchers would not be particularly useful to him.

I would probably not have pursued the matter, but I was with Mathews and Mr. Manolo that day, and my assistants were more tenacious than I.  After a discussion of some moments, it became apparent that Yona’s primary concern was the motive of our research.  He did not want to train healers for free.  Perhaps more importantly, he did not want to train healers without the permission of the spirits.  In a reversal that I grasp but find troubling, David and Lovemore convinced Yona that they had no interest in healing; that research was an entirely different task.  The boundary here may too easily have been mitigated by the fact that they were working for an mzungu.  In this case, I cannot bemoan it, for Dr. Yona quickly became animated at the prospects of a trip to the field, provided they could make an offering.  They traded their five kwacha note for some flour.

When collecting alone, Dr. Yona would often travel to the Michesi cliffs, where the spirits were strongest.  But he lived at the base of Machemba Mountain, another impressive forest reserve, and it was to this slope that they made their trek that day in search of an mpoza tree.  The young men recognized the tree from the interview with Dr. Bandula, days before.  The cracking grey bark, blue-green leaves and fleshy orange fruits looked the same, and even the method of offering was similar.  The tree works as a sort of portal to plant awareness.  Dr. Bandula made the offering on a monthly basis and waited for a dream to see if it had been accepted; Dr. Yona made the offering when he went to collect, and could find plants seconds later.

It is difficult to view this account, extrapolated from notebooks, without some sense of chicanery: David and Mathews walk kilometers up the hill with Dr. Yona.  They reach the site of an mpoza tree and all remove their shoes.  The healer takes a handful of flour and spreads it at the base of the tree, chanting words that are not meant for human ears, though Lovemore makes out the occasional invocation of Yona’s father.  Next, David reaches into the bag and offers flour at the base of the tree, followed by Lovemore.  Immediately a change comes over Dr. Yona’s face, and plants that were, moments ago, part of a nondescript background, suddenly leap into green focus as mankhwala.  Here is thanthanyelere; there, to the right, ntima.  A meter away they find nyalise and naniphwelo.  And, finally, just off the trail they walked past when approaching the mpoza, less than three meters from the site of the offering, chimyomyo.

Would David and Lovemore know whether the plants had been visible before?  Clearly, Yona could have staged the entire production.  In a system of Cartesian truth I might place the healer’s range of vision on one axis; Lovemore and David’s credulity on the other.  The healer’s performance would probably plot somewhere in the negative three quarters of the graph, no doubt in a stained point of dark ink.  But I think on Yona’s background—the dark spot is starting to bleed—and wonder if a man who saw two brothers denied power by the spirits would risk making a joke of those same spirits.  The spot has turned brown at the center, and is growing still.  I wonder at his reticence to head to the field in the first place—now there is a white crack—his incantation to his father—an orange flame—his reputation.  I wonder if, in cases such as these, the only system worth dwelling on is belief, and I find a crumpled black page, quickly graying to ash before my eyes.  Yona made an offering to the spirits who gave him knowledge; the spirits who directed him.  In Chichewa, kumvera translates as the verb “believe,” but this meaning is secondary.  Kumvera’s primary significance is “obey.”

≈      ≈     ≈

It is this primary meaning that comes to me when I think about Mr. Manolo’s return to healing.  The healer told us about it in the field, as we collected plants for barrenness, headaches and epilepsy, and Mathews has recorded it well:

It was a Sunday morning when he wanted to go to church on bicycle that he started to experience spiritual powers.  When he tried to go forward the bicycle could not move, but if he could go backwards the bicycle could move.  So he returned and was showed that the spirits did not want him to go to church.  When he got home and wanted to sit on the veranda of his house, he suddenly saw spirits during the day.  The spirits asked him to sit, stand and to go into his house and look in a box.  He found a small bottle in which was some liquid.  After he brought the bottle to the spirits he was shown how to do charms.  He was told to apply white flour to the offer before making a sacrifice.

It is this same small bottle that Manolo has used for divining problems and cures ever since that day.  His ritual is elaborate.  In addition to the small bottle, it includes two large bottles and four heaps of flour—one for each direction of the winds.  He places the small bottle in between the piles of flour, and begins to chant to the spirits, asking their assistance.  He then clutches the bottle between his hands and shakes it.  Next, he sets it down in each pile of flour, gaining the assistance of all winds if possible.  He then shakes the small bottle at the two larger ones and raises it to his nose.  Mathews says he sniffs it “to have everything in his mind.”  I do not know if spiritual contact is synesthetic, but his final gesture is raising the bottle to his ear to listen for the spirits’ message.

I sat in front of him in a low dark shelter built of maize stalks while he performed just such a ritual on the day of our second visit, to dispel the demons of the car.  After listening to the bottle, he placed a black metal pan in front of the four piles of flour, picked up a plant from a pile at his side, and began tearing leaves into the pan.  He repeated the gesture with four or five different plants before adding water and grinding the mixture down with a pestle made from the root of a tree.  Setting the pan aside, he took up his bottle and made an airy cross with it in front of my face before reaching for a small litchowa.  He dipped this brush in the solution and then waved it over me, sprinkling my head and shoulders with the wash.  Manolo then turned to Mathews, and told him we could go out to the car.

As we stepped out of the darkness I was dazzled by the sun, and glad of the cool drops of water on my face.  They smelled something of sage, and bore traces too of a rooty scent; fresh turnip, perhaps.  Manolo asked me to get in the Land Rover.  He then walked around the car, waving the litchowa and sprinkling the mixture until he had made a circle.  He had me start the engine, and listened for a moment before walking to the front of the car and sprinkling it again, this time from a stationary stance.  He moved to the back, then to the left, then right, inscribing a watery cross of medicine across my vehicle before finally returning to the front and pouring the remainder of the mixture across the hood.

I have two pictures of Manolo standing before the Land Rover, pan and litchowa in hand.  He is waving obliquely in the direction of the photographer, away from the car.  These were posed after the fact; the real ceremony admitted no time for picture taking.  I did not even ask what plants were being used for fear of intruding on the ritual.  I did not talk at all.  For one hour I gave up the role of researcher; set aside the crumbling beliefs that called healing a science.  I asked for help.

And then I asked for a photo.  In the background of the pictures there is a young man next to a pile of bricks.  Still further back I can make out the slope of a mountain.  Chisambala, it is called, and it is the site where Manolo travels to collect much of his medicine.  He used to belong to an organization called the Chisambala Herbalists, but the group, like that of Dr. Yona, had disbanded years before we met.

It was this mountain that I was looking for when I rolled out my maps, days ago, as I started to write.  I wanted to place myself again, look down on the roads I had driven; the mountains that had marked them.  Though I didn’t recall packing them away with any order months before, I found their concentric layers took me closer to Manolo in a zoom.  I peeled off the 1:1,000,000 scale of the entire country first, and saw that it contained no trace of the hill.  Mulanje and Michesi were there, to be sure, and so too was Machemba, though I could scarcely make it out.  As the next layer curled out, a projection of 1:250,000, Chisambala was still invisible, though the Migowe market and the road past Manolo’s village could be seen.  The 1:50,000 map, my closest scale, showed four mountains around Manolo’s house; I could tell because this was the first that allowed me to track his village by name: Filisa.  But the mountains had no names.  I then turned to my blueprint maps, a set of six from the National Statistical Office.  Printed on butcher’s paper in blue carbon, they are also drawn to the 1:50,000 scale, but they show every permanent house and building tracked by surveyors; every stream known to flow during the rainy season.  The one covering Filisa was updated in 1987.  Or 1967; it had bled in on itself from a brief tenure under a leaking roof and I could not make out the date with certainty.  I searched for Chisambala, and finally found it, wedged neatly in a plot between survey points 97, 98, and 99.

It helped with nothing.  Tracing the map and fragments of memory I tried to reconstruct the photograph in front of Manolo’s house, but each time I found myself placing the mountain behind the camera, which I thought was facing northeast.  This recollection is clearly negated by my photograph.  Surveyors need three points of reference to nail a place directly.  If I recalled what time we visited Manolo’s house on that day, I might look for further evidence in the casting of shadows.  Photo, shadows, map: I could triangulate the moment precisely.  But I do not recall the time, so my triangulation runs photo, map, memory, and the lines do not intersect.  The photo shows Chisambala behind the Land Rover; the map tells me I was facing south when I took the picture.  I have no choice but to believe these two; to obey.

≈      ≈     ≈

Days later, the maps have not left my floor.  They are still splayed out on the carpet, held down by books on plant taxonomy and postcolonial studies.  I look to them now as I recall the drive home that day.  After leaving Manolo, Mathews and I picked up Lovemore and went to take pictures of Dr. Yona.  I had not yet read the fieldbooks; I had no idea what Yona had said about shoes or spirits; no idea that we would trample the rules.  I knew the Lomwe folk story about marrying a human head—knew that whites were sometimes thought to exist outside the realm of cursing—but I also knew the version told by the Chewa, Malawi’s largest ethnic group.  The details of the stories are similar, but the Chewa say the human head was born in punishment for his parents’ sins.  And for this the woman who married him was punished too; punished by becoming white.  No riches, no immunity from curses, this is an origin story, about how azungu came to walk the earth.  White people are punished for that original sin by being flayed in their mothers’ bellies.  White people, I had come to suspect, could be cursed and punished as readily as others.

The belief was comforting on that day, because I carried with me a chitumwa charm from Mr. Manolo—a small sack of mankhwala sewn closed on itself.  As long as it stayed in the car, Mr. Manolo assured me, I would have no problems; I would, in fact, have good luck.  Something had changed for me in the months between meeting Dr. Thamanda and Manolo—if this shift was marked by desperation, it was also marked by a kind of hope.  Hope that there could be more to my interaction with the healers than a passing of money, information and photos.  Hope that something surpassing black and white, Chichewa and English could pass between us.  Something less than friendship, to be sure, but greater than formality.  I had begun to hope that we might share some understanding of the world—a hope that verged on belief.  And I was buoyed by this hope as I met Dr. Yona, and rode its wave through the brief picture taking session.

As we left Migowe, Lovemore asked me to pull off to the side of the road.  He pointed at the heights of Michesi and told Mathews and me to look for a rock and the glimmer of water.  He told us the legend, which I relate now in David’s account of Yona’s words:

Do you see that rock there?  Most of the time in the morning a huge snake can be seen glittering like water.  Many people think it is water flowing if seen from a distance.  This is the lord of the spirits.  After that rock you see a beautiful cave where spirits live.  From here you can hear singing and drumming but if you try to follow the singing you can get lost.  Taking photos in this zone is prohibited, thus why many Europeans went missing.

When you climb up the mountain and when the spirits notice that you are hungry they will arrange a place where you can find bananas.  When you find them just eat and never take them back.  Sometimes you are offered nsima on a well made place with a bowl of water to wash your hands and a cup of water.  Do not be afraid just eat the food and you go.  This can only happen if the spirits have been appeased and only through those who believe in spirits offer sacrifice and in most cases if they are hungry they are giving food for the spirits feel exalted.

Today, I look to the maps trying to guess which stream this was, probing the folds and contours of the paper country for a shimmer of light, a river, or a spirit.  Kumvera means to obey first, and then to believe, but my Chichewa dictionary contains one other word with belief as a secondary meaning.  It is kukhulupirira, and its primary meaning is hope.


Coda

 

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