Offering to Mpoza

In Mozambique, a student was summoned to learn from an old healer.  For some days, the student took notes on a slateboard, grinding chalk into memory.  The old healer could not read or write.  He did not like the sound of the chalk.  His memory worked in different ways.  He began his stories with a lesson; his lessons with a story.  You must listen, he told his pupil, and to listen, you must first know something of the words.

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IN CHICHEWA, THE WORD for tree, mtengo, serves as a catch-all term for many woody plants.  But it also refers to numerous vines, shrubs, and even some small flowers.  And though the close approximation “tree” is accurate in many cases, the word mtengo might best be grasped in terms of utility.  In traditional classification, Malawians have been less concerned with morphology than with the usefulness of a particular plant.  So it is that countless plants flower nameless along the roadside, while a plain looking shrub, nyalise, is named and called mtengo.  Nyalise is known to cure chisonono (gonorrhea).

By the same token, an herbalist in Malawi will most likely identify a plant by its roots.  Bark and leaves would be secondary modes of classification, followed, perhaps, by flowers.  The explanation for this system could be as simple as the seasons, since plants do not flower all year round, but might more clearly be viewed in terms of use—roots identify the plants because roots get used.  The herbalist recognizes the plant by its leaves when leaves are crushed and infused to cure an illness; he will know bark if it is the bark that is burnt to ash and tattooed on the patient’s forehead with a razor.  And if this system seems foreign to the mind of a westerner trained in Linnaean classification by number of petals or stamen in a flower, it serves to underscore a fundamental truth for rural Malawians—plants are important because plants are useful.  So mtengo is a classification of utility, and mitengo (the plural) are the tools of everyday life.

Today, the mtengo we collect is known to Dr. Bandula as mpoza.  Two weeks from this day, scientists will classify it as Annona senegalensis, an identity that will confirm the link between Linnaean and Chichewa naming established by other researchers.  On that day, it will be just one of the two-hundred and fifty poorly pressed specimens that I’ve dropped off at the National Herbarium for frantic identification.  Specimens largely devoid of flowers because the healers with whom I worked were rarely concerned with the maluwa (flowers) of their plants.  The indigenous name of the plant will mean nothing to me until months later, back in the U.S.  Writing a database to house the information from this study, I will come across that name, mpoza, and realize that the tree was invoked by two of the most highly reputed healers in our survey; that they called on it for the same purpose; that the purpose has not been noted in the literature, though the plant’s medicinal and food use is well documented; and that because this purpose is new, unwritten by science, there may be some significance to the discovery.  At that time I will realize that this one use of mpoza, accepted as common knowledge by the healers in the plains below Mulanje Mountain, might affect my life because I can retell it at home.  But on 1 October 1998, mpoza is the fourth of five specimens that Dr. Bandula collects with us along the banks of the Phalombe River, and as he begins to relay the significance of the plant, I catch only the occasional Chichewa word, or infrequent whisper from Lovemore, Mathews, David, and John—my research assistants.

This is the final day of research training, and I play the part of an observer, having surrendered the interview to David and John, who are by now experienced enough to know the process.  As we come to the last month of my research I’ve realized that I need more help to interview all of the healers on my list.  I’ve hired Lovemore and Mathews and, after today, all four of these young men will go out into the field to work and perform interviews on their own.  With that goal in mind, today’s session is conducted entirely in Chichewa, and I cannot help but mark the change this has made in the speed and animation of the process.  The interviews up to this point have been like journeys in the Land Rover—exciting by grinding.  The constant shift of talk for translation has been their failing gear box.

Not so today.  As Dr. Bandula explains the significance of mpoza, I watch his motions and try to pry meaning from the gesture of hands or stray recognized word: mankhwala (medicine), ufa (maize flour), mizimu (spirits), sing’anga (healer), Mozambikee, Malawi.  I will hear these words drawn together in English on the drive home this evening; see them written out tomorrow, after David and John have transcribed them in fieldbooks.  But for now, I can only watch for signs that transcend language.

Dr. Bandula calls the mpoza tree his first bit of mankhwala azitsamba (plant medicine).  Like most rural Malawians, he began learning about healing plants as a child, and he ate the fleshy orange seeds of mpoza from an early age.  But neither his childhood knowledge of herbs, nor his use of the plant for food constitute true mankhwala azitsamba.  Learning about mpoza at the age of 22 was different, because this was the first plant revealed to him by his ancestral spirits, or mizimu.

They came into his life in 1975.  This was the year that he left Malawi to work in the South African gold mines, and before his first year had elapsed, the spirits started to visit his dreams.  In a recurring scene he found himself in a house with no roof, looking up at the stars.  From these stars three women with wings descended to speak to him.  (David’s account of these women says they are “like seraphim,” while John’s does not make this specification.  Do I chalk this up to creative license?  Does Chichewa have a word for seraphim?  If so, what would the word mean?)  The women took him to a well and told him that he would become a healer; that he must return to Malawi to do so.  Every third night he was visited by these spirits, and eventually he obtained the foreman’s permission to return home.  The spirits continued to visit him in Malawi, but they would now take him to the mountains where they taught him plants for healing.

And mpoza was the first plant that he learned.  It was of primary importance because it was an offering to the mpoza tree that allowed Dr. Bandula to find other healing plants.  The tree is, in effect, his conduit to the world of the spirits and their knowledge.  In order to obtain the spirits’ permission to collect plants, he must perform the offering in a particular way.  First, he needs to find the right kind of mpoza tree.  In order to act as a nsembe, or place of offering, the tree must have grown to maturity and borne fruits, then been cut down.  From the trunk of this tree, four offshoot trunks must have emerged and once again reached maturity.   Only a tree that meets these criteria can be used.

During this explanation, I recognize the repeated words mtengo and mizimu, and note Dr. Bandula motioning in four directions as he faces this tree.  Later, I will learn that the specimen he allowed me to take is only a common mpoza—one trunk, never cut.  In a true nsembe, the offshoot trunks represent the cardinal points, and it is important that there be four of them because the four winds can carry spirit messages from any direction.  To make the sacrifice, the healer brings ufa (maize flour) to the nsembe and kneels at the eastern base of the trunk, facing the tree.  He throws this flour at the base, calling out the names of his ancestral spirits at the same time.  When the offer is complete, he rises, and walks home without ever looking back; to do so would anger the mizimu.

He performs the ceremony at 6:00 p.m., and sleeps upon returning home.  A specific dream indicates that his offer has been accepted: he is in a shop purchasing goods.  He approaches the shopkeeper and places his money very deliberately on the counter.  If the shopkeeper picks up the money and hands it back, the spirits have accepted the sacrifice, and he will have luck finding plants for the next cycle of the moon.

Neither of the transcriptions I now have mentions the possibility of the offer being declined.  Likewise, specific details about the spirits are lacking.  I know that they are ancestral spirits, but are they all women?  Why would Dr. Bandula learn the mankhwala from women when that knowledge is traditionally passed on among the same sex?  Are they specific spirits?  Many of the other healers I talked to learned from the mizimu of an aunt, uncle, or grandparent.  How long did he remain in South Africa waiting; listening to the message of his mizimu before deciding to return home?  Was the call welcome for its prestige, or a distraction from the relatively rewarding job of mining?  As far as I know, Dr. Bandula still lives, and could answer these questions if asked.  But I can no longer ask him.  The fact that our interview was performed entirely in Chichewa may be the only reason that he shared his story with us; it was certainly more than earlier healers had shared.  For better or worse, the blurred chalk of this interview is all that I have of Dr. Bandula’s story; these dusty details must serve for now.

I do know that by 1978 he was in Malawi again and had learned a great deal about plants from his spirits, because it was in 1978 that they informed him it was time to learn a new facet of healing—divination.  They told him to travel to Mozambique, where he would meet a healer named Tete.  Following this advice, Dr. Bandula crossed the border in search of his new teacher.  This earned him some prestige, as learning from a Mozambican healer is particularly reputable for a sing’anga (healer) from Southern Malawi.  Conversely, many patients travel from Mozambique to seek the healing of asing’anaga (plural) like Dr. Bandula, who practice in the powerful shadow of Mulanje Mountain.  While few Malawians or Mozambicans ascribe much significance to the crossing of their unpatrolled border for everyday matters, and indeed many make the trek regularly, the mystery of the foreign still seems to hold some weight in the realm of healing.

Tete was not surprised when Dr. Bandula arrived, for just as our healer’s sprits had told him to seek Tete, the latter’s spirits had agreed to the training before the journey had even begun.  Dr. Bandula remained in Mozambique for one year, learning the process of diagnosis with charms, a skill that obviously meant a great deal to him, as the cost of tuition and board was 400 British Pounds.  This sum sounds incredible given the current situation in Malawi, where the average yearly income is less than 200 U.S. dollars.  But taking into account that Dr. Bandula had recently returned from a relatively lucrative job digging in the mines, the figure might well be accurate.  More important than the amount is the fact that the matter was settled for money in a contract guided by spirits, rather than by barter, apprenticeship, blood ties or other obligation.  The spiritual bond is one of the strongest.

David and John’s fieldbook transcriptions do not give the details of Tete’s teachings.  Dr. Bandula learned to “diagnose illness using charms,” a skill that would, according to the classification of one ethnobotanist, group him with a relatively specialized class of healers—the diviners.  In this model, the diviner occupies the middle-ground between the straightforward herbalist, who treats illnesses with a plant pharmacopoeia and diagnoses only by symptoms, and the more mysterious spirit-medium, who channels mizimu, and may heal entirely by the power of the spirits.  The diviner uses charms ranging from turtle shells to vodka bottles to hyena dung to porcupine quills to assist in the diagnosis of illness, and then treats these illnesses with a combination of plants, charms, and protective words.  His practice thus blends the borders between pharmacist and magician if translated into western terminology.  I had read about these three distinctive categories—herbalist, diviner, spirit medium—before coming to Malawi, and I do not doubt that this colored my research.  I know that despite my interest in the study from many angles (ethnobotanical, anthropological, spiritual, psychological) I molded my questionnaire with a certain distinction in mind—do the healers rely on magic, or do they use plants that really work?

But by the time of Dr. Bandula’s interview, my ability to distinguish between these categories has disappeared.  The chalk has been blurred by prior lessons.  A healer like Lementi Thamanda, who used only plants to treat patients, also performed some diagnoses with the shell of a turtle and was known in Naseta village as a powerful rainmaker.  He had offered me a charmed necklace that would serve as protection from guns and knives, if I were willing to give up okra and eggplant for the rest of my life.  Did this make him a diviner?  Grena Pwheremwe, a traditional midwife, described to John and me a process of healing based on specific plants for specific symptoms, but she had learned of the plants from the spirits, and the spirits had only come to her after an illness during which many say she died.  Her knowledge was of herbs, but it was tied to the spirits.  Where did this leave her in a system that dealt with supernatural or taught knowledge?  Naison Buredi was the prototypical pharmacist/herbalist.  He had learned from his father and was teaching his son.  He even experimented on himself with the physiological effects of new plant mixtures.  But alongside his cures for syphilis, shingles, and impotence, one finds plant medication used to ward off sorcery.  In the face of these blurred distinctions, I could not maintain belief in boundaries; even my own had shifted.  By this first day of my twelfth month in Malawi, I maintain some faith in the idea that, to put it in Chichewa, sindikudziwa ameme wandiyangana ine (I don’t know who, but someone has looked at me bad).  This, because my luck with the Land Rover I had purchased has been so sour as to defy explanation.

So, though I do not deny that the term diviner fits Dr. Bandula, I hesitate to make the distinction a clear one.  I do not believe that he went to Mozambique to reach the next “stage” in the proposed model.  I would guess that for him the choice was a simple matter of learning more about healing, rather than moving from pharmacist to magician.  The fantastic nature of the plant remedies he shares certainly illustrate the impossibility of slicing a clean line.  Mpoza is, after all, the fourth of five plants that Dr. Bandula collects and explains to us on this day.  And though it may be the most important, as it grants access to all other plants, the remedies described for our remaining specimens are no less intriguing.

Likulupsya protects both an individual and his house from witchcraft.  Dr. Bandula uses the plant alone, grinding its bark in a mortar then soaking it in water.  His patients wash in the nude with this water while standing in the doorway of their house.  They must chant to activate the medicine, “This is likulupsa.  Everybody was born of a woman.  I bathe in this medicine while naked to be protected from man’s harm.”  Dr. Bandula makes three liters of the wash, and tells his patients to perform the ritual in the evening for three days in a row.  The medicine sticks to their skin, releasing a smell that is recognized and feared by sorcerers and witches.  The patients know the medication is working if they dream that they fall while fighting an enemy.  This is the sign that the dreamer has won; the witch has failed to bewitch him.  I do not understand the symbolism of the remedy or the dream, but I note that likulupsya is a fairly common name for plants (lupsya means burnt woodland) said to cure problems ranging from gonorrhea to headaches.

Nchape cleans the blood when it is black or dark red.  Dr. Bandula grinds the bark in a mortar then soaks it in a bottle of water in the sun.  After a few minutes, he shakes the bottle to activate it for use.  The patient drinks half a cup every morning until the odor of the bad blood fades.  This usually takes about three bottles or four weeks.  Dr. Bandula knows the patient has recovered when he cuts mphini (small tattoos in parallel lines or concentric rings) and the blood flows crimson as it should.  When taken, the medicine flows together with the blood and cleanses it.  Nchape is most likely a transcription of mchape, which means cleanser, and has become a popular name for plant remedies in recent years, since a treatment by that name was reputed to cure AIDS.  But Mr. Bandula makes no claims about AIDS; the nature of the blood illness he cures is ambiguous.  There are many blood disorders in the Malawian pantheon of disease.

The bark of kachere wang’ono is used to cure male genital problems.  Dr. Bandula grinds it in a mortar, dries it, and soaks it in water.  He then slaughters a cock and adds its backbone to the mixture along with the kidneys and salt.  The patient drinks one cup of the solution, eats the backbone and swallows the kidneys unbroken.  This ritual should be performed at 6:00 a.m. every day for two weeks.  Dr. Bandula lists precautions: overdose may result in vomiting, and sexual intercourse should be avoided while taking the medicine.  When the groin swells and the patient urinates large quantities of milky urine, the medication has worked.  Dr. Bandula says that all patients are healed by this remedy and ascribes its success to the use of a cock.  He explains, “There is no cock that doesn’t chase hens.”

He uses chisamba mafumu in three ways.  The first, protection from witchcraft bullets, applies only to those aspiring to become asing’anga.  It can guard the healer from the jealousy and curses of fellow healers.  Bandula supervises the process.  The healer-in-training burns the red part of the seed then burns and grinds the wings and legs of a chicken.  He throws a live cat on a fire until it is thoroughly charred, then grinds its body up and mixes all the ground ashes together.  He must then go to any tree which has a hole carved by lightning and draw water from this hole after the first rains in a year.  After assembling these ingredients, he mixes them together with cooking oil.  The aspiring healer sits on the underside of a mat and Dr. Bandula applies the medication through mphini tattoos.  Bandula notes that the water from a tree struck by lightning is scarce, and he only knows how to find it after performing sacrifices.

A second use is the settling of disputes; this is reserved for chiefs or village headmen.  Bandula grinds the leaves then soaks them in a basin.  The chief keeps this solution and bathes in it the day before settling disputes while reciting, “This plant is chisamba mafumu; it was created by God.  Man is born of a woman; I am bathing in this so that everyone should fear and respect me tomorrow as they fear fire.”  After bathing, the chief is supposed to sleep.

Bandula also uses the plant to cure someone who has been bewitched at work.  He grinds the tree’s bark with leaves of nkanda nyalugwe, soaks the mixture in water briefly, then removes the bark and leaves and allows them to dry.  He adds a chicken’s head and backbone to the leftover water and cooks these over a fire with salt.  When it comes to a foaming boil, he shakes the wet bones around the fireplace.  He cuts mphini into the hands, knees, wrists and other joints of the patient’s body and presses the dried mixture into these tattoos.  The patient drinks the remaining solution every morning and evening for two weeks or a month, depending on the severity of the illness.  If a patient has been bewitched for more than two years, a cure is unlikely.

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As we pile into the Land Rover for the trip back to Dr. Bandula’s house, David begins to ask the remainder of the interview questions.  Knowing the order of the questionnaire, I can piece together some of the responses myself.  He heals about eighteen patients a month, and may have as many as four in-patients at any time.  This distinction is an important one because Dr. Bandula is one of the few healers we’ve met who has set up quarters for long-term patients.  This is a sign of high repute and relative wealth.  He knows about 150 plants and travels as far as thirty kilometers to find them during his four monthly collection trips.  Though he does not refer patients to other healers, he will recommend the hospital if his remedies do not work.  He believes that hospital medicine is better for some things.

The questions end as we pull in to town, and this is the point at which I usually pay the healer for working with us.  But Dr. Bandula is not interested in payment; he is happy to share his story and at least a portion of his plant knowledge.  In lieu of payment, I stop at the market and purchase two bags of sugar as a token of thanks, then we drive back to his house at Likaka village.  From nearly a mile off I see the white flag tied to a pole in a paw paw (papaya) tree in his yard.  This precarious sign—usually white or red, often attached to any high pole that can be found—denotes healers throughout Malawi.  The rainy season floods have washed out the canal bridge about half a mile from his house and, though the canal is now empty, the sides are far too steep even for my Land Rover.  We walk Dr. Bandula home along the same route that we followed this morning.  The four hours of interviewing have passed relatively quickly for me and, though I have yet to grasp much of what has been taught, I believe this all-Chichewa attempt has worked better than any before.

We arrive at the house, and I pantomime a camera to ask permission for a picture.  Dr. Bandula agrees, and disappears into his house, emerging minutes later in a brilliant white robe embossed with red crosses on the chest and arms.  He pulls out a matching white cap with its own red cross, setting it carefully on his head.  He first poses in front of a window sign bearing his name.  Then we enter his office and he sits down before a large white flag bearing the same red cross as his robe and surrounded in black letters, “African Doctor, Bandula – 1980, Mulanje and Phalombe.”  Alongside this flag are an old calendar for a Dutch milk company, and a Chichewa poster telling parents to spend time with their children.  Dr. Bandula poses seriously, arms crossed, staring straight into the camera.

After the pictures, we give him thanks, say our good-byes and begin the walk back to the Land Rover.  It is only now that the events of the day begin to shift into focus for me.  The story of guidance by spirits; the travels to South Africa and Mozambique—these are testaments to the strength of his healing tradition.  I realize we’ve met a healer who’s excited about the project and happy to share his time and information.  If we make it back to any healers during this project, Dr. Bandula will have to be one of them.  David and John agree; having met a wide array of healers, they think that Dr. Bandula is perhaps the most interested in our work.  Lovemore and Matthews, relatively new to the process, are excited about interviewing others in the days to come.

Tomorrow, we will split up.  Matthews and I will visit Dayton Manolo, who diagnoses with a bottle and agrees, for a fee, to remove the curse from my Land Rover.  I will receive reports from David and Lovemore about Dr. Yona, the only other healer with a patient compound and arguably the most successful healer in our survey.  He uses the mpoza tree for the same purpose as Dr. Bandula and, like Bandula, will only make an offering to a tree that has borne fruit, been cut down, and sprouted four times from the stump to bear fruit again.  While Dr. Yona leads them to gather plants on Machemba Mountain, John will meet Fayson Reriha in Thomu village.  The paradigmatic herbalist, Mr. Reriha learned plants from his father and uncle, and keeps diaries of these mitengo and their cures for specific illnesses.  He travels to Michesi Mountain, stronghold of the spirits, to collect his mankhwala, but makes this ten kilometer trek not for the spirit power but because deforestation has forced him to spread outward.  The population has increased, farmland is scarce, and firewood for the daily meals is no longer easy to come by.  In the last decade, the average distance for Mr. Rerhira’s collection trips has doubled.  And if he feels these effects more markedly than Dr. Yona, it is probably because the latter lives next to a forest reserve.  Outside the reserves, wood, shade, and free land are scarce commodities.  So, then, are medicinal plants.  This has lead some healers, like Rabson Mukhova, to gather in the formerly taboo graveyards, for graveyards and forest reserves contain the only protected mitengo in Malawi.  Mr. Rerhira has opted to plant a garden, but he worries about the plants he cannot cultivate, and were he aware that Malawi’s deforestation rate of 3.5% is one of the highest in Africa, he might be more worried still.

For the healers are not the only Malawians who center their lives on the useful plants—mitengo.  Any tree used for firewood is called mtengo, and in Malawi, wood is the only fuel for eighty five percent of the population.  This population grows daily and needs not only more fuel to cook meals, but more land on which to grow food for those meals.  Under these twin burdens the forests dissolve; I’ve seen it happen in weeks. These days, not even the Mulanje reserve is safe from the process.  Mysterious fires occur regularly.  Mysterious because no one knows why they start and no one really cares.  What matters is that in the wake of a fire, industries buy trees from its seared path.  What matters is that each time one swath is cleared, there is always another fire on Mulanje.  The situation is not reducible to any clear voice, any clear plan of action.  Traditional medicines are of little benefit to people who can’t meet their basic food needs.  And if mitengo are important because mitengo get used, one can only hope that some balance can be struck with the uses.

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I write four years after the events of this day.  I work from memory, statistics, notebooks, and photographs.  The chalk of this day has blurred to me and, perhaps, so too has the message.  I went to Malawi a conservationist and a skeptic.  What I saw written in the lives of the healers and their patients; erased and re-written in the search for wood to make a fire, has been chalked over yet again by time and distance.  In writing an account I grasp at one truth out of many—a hopeless task but one marked nonetheless by hope.  These tracks on the board, the dust that falls below them, are of course a trick of selective memory and rationalization.  Tracks and dust are what I offer for now.


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