Last year, The Sun published Stephen Ausherman’s account of his trip to India [“India: In the Eyes of a Stranger,” March 1994]. Since then, he has traveled to Tanzania, Africa, as part of his work with the Institute for Development Training. There, he translated training manuals for health clinics, working closely with Christian missionaries. He also found time to study the methods of the area’s traditional health practitioners: the witch doctors.
— Andrew Snee
“I would seriously advise staying away from the witch doctors,” the Bavarian missionary tells me. “They are dangerous people.” He has a strong German accent and a lisp; as a result, I can’t take anything he says seriously.
Nestled among a thousand acres of banana trees in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, the Lutheran compound is a haven of modern conveniences. But in the surrounding village the people remain steeped in tradition and still rely on witch doctors to solve problems.
“How dangerous could they be?” I ask.
“A woman here was about to deliver. She was only seven months pregnant,” he explains, suddenly affecting a grim tone. “She was ordered to the hospital, but the women escorting her decided it would be better to take her to the witch doctor. The next day, there was a funeral.”
“Both the mother and the baby,” he replies solemnly.
“Well, I’m not having a baby. I just want to talk.”
The missionary purses his lips and shakes his head. “I would advise against it.” Then he marches away.
Once he is out of earshot, one of his students approaches and says to me in a low voice, “Tomorrow I will take you to a real witch doctor.”
It’s Hans. He’s tall with a smooth, dark complexion and a chipped front tooth. He has a fair grasp of English and a normally serious countenance, though at times he is prone to break into choking fits of laughter.
Hans and I meet our first self-proclaimed witch doctor near the clock tower in nearby Moshi. He is in the middle of a passionate speech, which he delivers in Swahili from atop what appears to be a shoeshine box. A crowd of about fifty people watches curiously. According to Hans, the man is selling “magic stones, good for extracting the poison from a snakebite.”
“Do you think it works?” I ask.
Hans stifles a laugh and says, “No.”
“What about everybody else here? Will they buy any?”
Hans shakes his head. “Nobody will buy his stones. They only gather around to see the snake.”
“In the box he is standing on. He has a snake in there to prove his stones work.”
“He’s going to let the snake bite him?” I ask hopefully, reaching for my camera.
The “witch doctor” sees my camera and starts screaming at me. Hans jumps to my defense with a retort that makes the crowd laugh and the phony doctor fume.
“Care to tell me what’s happening?”
“He said you cannot take his picture because you do not believe in his magic.”
“And what did you say?”
“Neither does anyone else.” He giggles.
The man, perhaps realizing that he is going to have a slow day in the sales department, offers to pose with the snake for five hundred shillings (about one U.S. dollar).
“That’s too expensive,” Hans tells him.
The man replies: “He will sell my picture in Europe for a lot of money, and I want some of it.” Hearing that, Hans nearly falls over laughing. The man, growing more furious, raises the price to one thousand shillings.
“You’re not helping,” I tell Hans after he translates all of this.
“Do you really want his picture?”
“But he is a fake.”
“If he lets that snake bite him, I’ll buy his whole supply of snake rocks whether they work or not.”
Hans just shrugs and begins negotiating with the man. Once they settle on the price — five hundred shillings — the man opens his box.
The crowd gasps and backs away. I wedge in closer, drop to one knee, and steady the camera. The man spins toward me, six-foot snake in hand. But I lower the camera. Seeing this, he says something to Hans.
“He wants to know why you aren’t taking his picture,” Hans says.
“It’s a python,” I reply. “It won’t bite anyone. It isn’t even venomous. Look at it: it couldn’t hurt a beached squid. Poor thing’s nearly dead from the heat.”
Hans leans in closer to inspect the snake wilting in the man’s hands, then says, “Yes, but I told you — he is not a real witch doctor, so it would not be good for him to use a real poisonous snake. Anyway, you should take his picture. I have already paid.”
I raise the camera and try to focus on the miserable snake as the man, a menacing grin spreading over his face, thrusts the snake close to the lens, withdraws it, then thrusts it close again.
As we leave the phony doctor and his dwindling crowd, Hans, sensing my disappointment, promises to find me a real witch doctor. He leads me to a dusty clearing near the bus station where about a dozen practitioners have set up tables to sell their potions.
We approach two teenagers slouching near a table covered with corked bottles of oils, herbs wrapped in newspapers, and powders in crucibles. After an amiable conversation with them, Hans says, “This one —” he points at the older of the two — “is named Msagate.”
Msagate, frowning, interjects something.
“Doctor Msagate,” Hans says, forcing back a smile.
Doctor Msagate beams.
“He is from Tanga region, which is famous for its witch doctors,” Hans continues. “He was trained for three years by his father, who is also a witch doctor. The most popular remedies he sells are for stomach ailments and sexually transmitted diseases. He doesn’t do curses. He can only advise on what course of action you should take to change your predicament.”
“How much does he earn?”
“He says about ten thousand shillings a week.”
“Ten thousand a week?” It’s only twenty dollars, but the average Tanzanian earns slightly more than that a month.
“I don’t think he’s telling the truth,” Hans replies, lowering his voice.
“Maybe we should find another witch doctor.”
Hans nods thoughtfully. “I will find.”
Two days later, on a chilly Wednesday morning, Hans leads me down a muddy path through banana fields to the witch doctor’s house. I know we’re close when I see a wooden sign nailed to a tree. In hand-painted letters, it reads: Prof. Dr. Bintmariam Mganga Wa Tiba Ya Asli Ya Jadi.
“Witch doctor,” Hans says, gazing up at the sign.
“It says more than that,” I tell him. “What is Mganga?”
“Then what does the rest of it say?”
“Doctor who treats in the traditional way,” he says.
After hopping over a ditch, pressing through a grove of banana trees, and edging around a thatched fence of dried banana leaves, we find ourselves in Dr. Bintmariam’s front yard, a grassless patch of hard-packed dirt littered with batteries, dead rats, razor blades, and two soda bottles buried up to their necks. Newspaper articles are posted on the outer walls of the house reporting, among other things, the victories of Tanzania’s Simba soccer club, the life and times of Bob Marley, and recent European trends in men’s fashion. The cement walls, though apparently sturdy, are breeding moss and in dire need of a paint job. Around the windows, messages are scrawled in paint; one reads (in Swahili): If you are serious, it will take only thirty days.
An iron-grid door and bars in the windows protect the house, but the backbone of the home-security system, I later learn, is the bottles buried in the yard. Packed with magic roots and herbs, they act as a kind of security camera, providing the doctor with a clear mental picture of any “bad people” who might approach the house.
The front door is open. Hans steps up to the porch, leans through the threshold, and calls out, “Hodi!”
I peer around him. On the cement floor of the front room is a straw mat underneath a pile of blankets and surrounded by bananas and mangoes in various states of decay. Corn husks and more batteries are scattered about. I see nothing in the house that requires electricity, not even lights. The house is dark, cool, and damp, smelling of mildew, urine, and animal musk. A message painted on the far wall reads: Do not enter with shoes.
Suddenly a screeching mass of fur leaps toward us. Hans jumps back, nearly knocking me off the porch.
I regain my balance and look for the attacker, but it’s nowhere in sight. “What was that?” I ask.
Hans wipes his forehead and laughs. “Monkey,” he says, still catching his breath.
As if on cue, the monkey — roped at the waist and tethered to the doorknob — saunters into the doorway. Hans laughs nervously. The monkey retreats into the shadows, chattering and picking its way through the rotten fruit.
Hans and I wait on the front porch. I ask him if I should take off my shoes when the doctor arrives. He surveys the floor inside, where, at that moment, the monkey has decided to defecate. “It is not necessary,” he replies.
After twenty minutes, a man comes strutting into the front yard wearing a black derby, a powder blue Members Only jacket, and a sulfur-colored shirt and matching pants bearing the logo Cat Diesel Power. His basketball shoes are stylishly unlaced. He has bloodshot eyes and stained teeth, and wears sideburns, a mustache, and a scraggly goatee. He can’t be much older than thirty.
“He is the witch doctor,” Hans whispers.
“Remember,” I say, “no laughing.”
Hans grins, baring his chipped tooth and many others.
The doctor greets us with a broad smile and a complicated handshake. He apologizes for his lateness — he was in Moshi, ten kilometers away, for lunch. As Hans translates for me, the doctor’s smile stiffens. Suddenly looking very concerned, he says something in an ominous tone.
“What is it?” I ask Hans.
“He thinks something is wrong with you,” Hans says, “because you are unable to speak Swahili.”
It is a common impression among people I meet in Tanzania. Nearly everyone seems to suspect that I suffer profound mental retardation because of my limited knowledge of Swahili.
“Tell him that my university never offered courses in Swahili,” I say.
Hans relays the message to the doctor, who appears understanding and invites us into his office, the second of two rooms in the house. Hans and I follow him, edging our way around the watchful monkey. The office is also in an advanced state of disarray. Fresh-cut tree limbs, Japanese newspapers, a wide assortment of roots and herbs, plastic film cases, a buffalo horn, gourds, bongo drums, glass vials, soda bottles, a spear, and other things I can’t identify are arranged on the floor in no discernible order.
The doctor finds a clearing in the middle of all this and takes a seat. His nurse, a teenage boy wearing an Islamic hat, brings in two stools and offers them to Hans and me, then quietly reclines in a patch of sunshine against a wall the color of dried blood. After another round of formal introductions, greetings, and handshakes, the doctor asks where I’m staying.
“The Lutheran compound,” I say.
The doctor points at my chest and asks (according to Hans’s translation), “Is that Christian?”
For a moment I think he’s asking about me, but then I realize he means the medallion around my neck. “It’s a Saint Christopher,” I tell him. “It protects me while I travel.”
He smiles and nods knowingly; I get the feeling he’s amused by my superstitions.
“Christians give me a lot of trouble,” he says. “They don’t approve of ‘witchcraft,’ so they try to keep my patients away.”
Hans is having a difficult time translating, mainly because he can’t stop convulsing with silent laughter. I ask, “What about the Muslims?”
“Muslims don’t give me any trouble because I am a Muslim,” the doctor replies with obvious pride.
Not a very devout Muslim, I think. It’s the month of Ramadan — a time of intense fasting for Muslims — and he’s just returned from lunch.
“Hans, how do we know he’s a real witch doctor?”
“He has a certificate,” Hans answers, and he asks the doctor to show me his certificate. The doctor searches through several notebooks and mounds of newspapers before producing two documents.
“These are his official licenses. He got them from the district-council health officials,” Hans explains. (The Tanzanian government, I learn later, does license doctors who practice traditional medicine, but only to keep a lid on flagrant quackery. It does not endorse other aspects of witch doctoring such as curses, charms, and fortune telling.)
The doctor hands me his certificates and nods as if to reassure me of their authenticity. I examine the flimsy, yellowing paper but can’t decipher more than three words. I try to look impressed, then ask why he chose this profession.
“I got dreams in the night,” he says. “And I went crazy for some time.”
Hans is choking on his laughter. I elbow his ribs, but this only makes him laugh more. The doctor smiles patiently and continues: “Then, afterward, I dreamt I would be a witch doctor. So my grandfather trained me, and by 1986 I had my own practice.”
I ask him what a witch doctor does. At first he seems confused by the question, as if he doesn’t know where to begin. He glances over his bags and jars of herbs, grabs a handful of leaves, and shuffles some papers around. He shows me a notebook containing a list of clients, the times they arrive, the diseases they have, and the prices they pay for treatment.
Gradually the room darkens and rain begins to rattle down on the corrugated-metal roof. Then, for the next forty-five minutes, the doctor cheerfully explains his powers and medicines while Hans, maintaining his solemnity for a change, translates. In short, this is what he tells me:
“He can treat many different diseases. For example, when a woman cannot get pregnant, she can use this drug so that she can conceive. The drug also helps if someone is crazy. If another witch doctor has made you crazy, this drug makes your mind fit again.
“If you have a genie or a devil in your brain, he can rub medicine on you to make it get out.
“If somebody puts something in your stomach, like a large stone or some hair, he has a medicine that will get it out.
“If you leave your parents and don’t want to go home, he can give your parents some medicine that will force you to return home whether you want to or not.
“He has a medicine that can cure HIV; it makes you healthy for two days, but after two days, you die. He tested it on a monkey, but he won’t use it on people.
“Also, he has a drug that you can use when you are suffering from AIDS. It can make you healthy again, but it can’t kill HIV. You can live for not more than one and a half years; then you’ll die. He can tell you exactly at what time you will die, so you can alert your relatives. He has treated six patients with HIV; two are still alive.
“He has a medicine that, if you bathe with it, will make a loved one give you many gifts.
“If someone has done something bad to you, he can find out who it is. Then, if you want to kill that person, he can give you a medicine that will kill him. He has many different ways to kill people. He can command creatures you can’t see with the naked eye to kill.”
By the time the doctor has exhausted his inventory, the rain has slowed and sunlight filters back into the room. A growing number of voices drift in from the porch: villagers greeting each other. They all have appointments with Dr. Bintmariam. I expect they will be angry that I have kept them waiting, but I have one last question for the witch doctor: “Will you play your drum for me sometime?”
The doctor says he will play it now.
“But you have patients outside,” I say.
“They will wait,” he says with a shrug. He pulls his drum close and pats out a rhythm. It’s smooth and melodic, not unlike a drummer backing up a singer in a hotel lounge. His song, however, is a haunting chant.
“What’s he singing?” I ask Hans.
“I do not know,” Hans says. “We are not from the same tribe, so I do not understand his language.”
When the song is over, I ask what it was about.
Hans relays this answer to me: “It’s a song to chase away the sultans.”
“Sultans? What sultans?”
“You mean Satan?”
“Ah, yes,” Hans says, realizing his mistake, “the satans.”
The next day, after blessing the lunch (in Swahili), the Bavarian missionary turns to me and asks (in English), “Will you be meeting with the witch doctor again?”
I hesitate to answer, wondering who might have told him about our meeting yesterday. “Yes, I plan to see him right after lunch.”
He raises both eyebrows and his eyes widen, but his tone remains level. “You are learning much from him?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“That is good. I think you can learn much more from him than I could. I don’t think he would be so interested to talk to me.”
“Sure he would,” I say. “He’s really friendly.”
“Don’t get too friendly with him,” the missionary tells me. “Remember, we are Christians.”
After lunch, Hans and I head back to the witch doctor’s house. When we arrive, eight patients are waiting silently on the front porch, blocking the doorway. Hans walks to the window and calls, “Hodi!”
“Hans, maybe we should wait our turn,” I say.
He ignores my hesitation. Soon, the nurse appears and leads Hans and me through the crowd, back into the doctor’s office. Two patients are sitting on the floor, facing the doctor.
As we enter the room, the doctor stands and greets me with a complicated handshake.
“Hans, is it all right if I watch while he sees his patients?”
“Of course,” Hans says without consulting the doctor.
“Ask him,” I say.
Hans relays my request to the doctor, who answers, according to Hans, “Of course.”
“Shouldn’t we ask the patients, too?”
“It is not necessary,” Hans says.
I decide to take his word for it. The patients don’t seem to mind my presence, much less acknowledge it.
The doctor sees fifty to sixty patients in an average day. Their visits last no longer than five minutes and they usually visit in pairs. Most arrive barefoot, though some have sandals, which they remove before entering the house. Their feet are hard and cracked like pottery. The men’s shirts are beyond threadbare; their dark, bony shoulders glisten through tatters and gaping holes. The women are usually wrapped in bright, lightweight cloths (kitenge), though some wear T-shirts and long, wraparound skirts (kanga) with unraveling hems. All of them seem to be middle-aged, but I suspect that they’re not as old as they look.
The first two patients are a husband and wife. Their problem, Hans whispers to me, is a family dispute.
The doctor tells the husband to hand him a leaf from one of the branches on the floor. The husband obeys, and waits while the doctor lights a cigarette and studies the leaf. He tears a small chunk out of the leaf and examines his patients through the hole. Then he asks the husband five questions, all of which the husband answers, “Ndiyo (yes).”
Finally, the doctor prescribes a cure: The husband must sacrifice a goat on his grandfather’s grave, spill the blood on the gravestone, and pray. Two days later, he must pray again.
“Then what?” I ask.
“Then everything will be OK,” Hans says.
The couple pays the doctor fifty shillings (ten cents) and thanks him profusely.
The only patient who arrives alone is wearing an old business suit, no tie, and dusty black-leather shoes.
“His business is failing,” Hans says. “He once made lots of money, but now he doesn’t get it. People don’t come to buy his things. They go other places.”
The doctor smears oil and black powder on the businessman’s face.
“The medicine,” Hans explains, “will bring customers from far away.”
Another patient, a small, bent woman, is led in by a schoolgirl with beauty-pageant posture. Hans points to the bent woman and says, “She has brought in some clay from where she usually walks.” The woman hands the doctor a sample of the dirt wrapped in a leaf. The doctor examines it, then hands it back. “It was not enough,” Hans says. “She must collect more and come back tomorrow.” The bent woman looks pained and dejected, and she insists on walking out without the schoolgirl’s assistance.
The next pair are farmers. One is covered head to ankle in a blue kitenge with a golden ax-head print. Her hands and feet are a bas-relief of veins and bones. Her face is smooth, but her eyes are sunken. The other woman is wearing a baby blue bandanna on her head and a fuchsia T-shirt. The print on her kanga is a pattern of electric guitars, crossed trumpets, and red violins. She is plump, her skin tight, as if barely able to contain her body.
The first woman laments her predicament, while the second nods sympathetically. Hans translates: “Once she was getting milk from her cows, lots of maize, coffee, bananas from her farms. Then, all of a sudden, her livestock and crops died.”
The doctor frowns and strokes his chin, then reaches for an instrument called a jinikashkash. It looks like an ordinary stethoscope except that, on the end where the cold metal disk would be, there’s a gourd adorned with white beads and a piece of goatskin.
“It’s magic,” Hans explains. “He can listen to it and tell you what your problem is and what you need to do about it.”
The doctor fits the ear pieces into his ears and shakes the gourd. A small bell, the kind a cat might wear, rings from within. He looks confused. He rattles the gourd again, but it doesn’t seem to be telling him anything. So he reaches for another instrument. This one resembles a fly whisk made out of a cow’s tail — except one end is fastened to an ink bottle filled with a dark red liquid.
“That thing is very powerful,” Hans says. “He can use it to make you crazy, but only for a moment.”
The doctor whacks the bottle against the floor, examines the liquid, then whacks it again. A look of recognition emerges on his face. He tells his nurse to prepare some medicine. The nurse takes a long drag on his cigarette before butting it out on the floor, then collects some herbs from several paper lunch sacks and mashes them together in a mortar, all the while chomping fiercely on his gum.
The doctor places the mixture in an antelope horn, where it ignites and pops like a champagne cork. Thin smoke rises from the horn, filling the room with the smell of burnt matches.
The doctor offers his diagnosis: someone used witchcraft to kill the crops and livestock. He gives the contents of the antelope horn to the patient, instructing her to sprinkle it around her farm. Then he adds a few words that make both women clap their hands and squeal with joy. Hans and the witch doctor laugh, too.
“What’s so funny?” I ask.
Struggling to keep a straight face, Hans says, “Now, if anyone tries to harm them with magic, he will get sick and fall down dead.”
“You think that’s funny?”
“No, she is funny. Look at her!”
The first woman is on her feet, dancing an ecstatic jig while her friend claps and whoops all the way out the door.
Friday, the witch doctor shows up unannounced at my apartment in the Lutheran compound. He greets me with the same handshake, but it no longer seems complicated.
Hans is not around, and neither is anyone else who can translate. So the doctor and I engage in a fruitless game of charades. We finally give up. For an awkward moment, we just smile politely at one another. At last, the doctor says (in the only English I’ve ever heard him use), “I’ll be back.”
A week passes without any word from the witch doctor. I tell Hans that I want to visit the doctor one last time before I leave the village. “This time,” I add, “I’ll be his patient.”
We find the witch doctor alone in his house. Immediately I sense that something is different. The smell of urine is gone. The floors are clean. The blankets are folded neatly on the straw mat, the bags of medicine arranged in neat rows, the newspapers bundled and stacked against the back wall, the branches in a tidy pile against another wall, and the paperwork and equipment laid out for easy, efficient access.
There’s something different about the doctor, too. Instead of a black derby, he’s covered his head with a white cloth. “It is traditional for Muslims to wear this on Fridays,” Hans explains.
Otherwise, the doctor’s clothes are the same as every other time I’ve seen him.
Hans tells the doctor that I want a checkup. The doctor is very happy, and asks me to write my name in his notebook and hand him a leaf.
He examines my name and tries to pronounce it, but just can’t seem to get it right. Then he looks at the leaf for about ten seconds and, through Hans, gives me his diagnosis: “You don’t have a problem in your body, but sometimes you suddenly feel that your heart is beating too fast, and then it is normal again.”
“That’s it?” I say, my disappointment obvious. “Aren’t you going to burn something in the antelope horn or shake your jinikashkash or something?”
With a sigh he slips the jinikashkash in his ears, rattles the gourd, and listens. Then he thumps the bottle end of the cow tail on the ground and examines the red liquid as if reading a thermometer. He tears a piece out of the leaf and holds it up, but I get the feeling that he’s just going through the motions.
A minute later, however, he announces another diagnosis: “Your business is well, but you have to do something for your family. You need to say a prayer for your grandfather — the one who died a long time ago. Then you need to do something traditional for him.”
“Like a sacrifice.”
“What? Slaughter a goat on his grave?”
“Perhaps. Or you can just give the church some money in honor of your grandfather.”
“And then what?”
“Then everything will be OK.”
“Is something wrong now?” I ask. “Is there anything else you can tell me? Don’t you have any medicine I can take?”
He offers to sell me some herbs to protect me while I travel in Tanzania, but says I don’t really need them. “There is no danger in your future,” he says.
At that, the monkey screeches and claws at the walls. The doctor ignores it, but I’m certain it’s a bad omen.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
Hans discusses the question with the doctor, then tells me, “He can give you a charm, something like your Saint Christopher. It will protect you when you travel and it will live for twenty-five years. But he has to go back to Moshi to collect the special herbs. He says you should come back at three o’clock to get the charm. At that time he will beat his drums for you.”
“He wants to beat his drums for you.”
“Is there anything I can give him in return?”
“Containers,” Hans replies after consulting the doctor. “He needs containers to keep his medicine in. Like this —” he picks up a plastic film case — “only bigger.”
“He wants Tupperware?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“I’m afraid I didn’t bring any.”
Hans relays this bad news to the witch doctor, who is visibly disappointed.
After lunch, Hans is nowhere to be found. So at 2:55 I set off alone to pick up my charm from the witch doctor. It’s only minutes past three when I meet him along the road. He’s with his nurse and another friend who doesn’t speak English. The doctor hands me a pouch made of black cloth and bound in army green cord. I slip it over my neck and it dangles just below Saint Christopher.
“Asante sana (thank you),” I say.
“Asante,” he answers.
Since there’s nothing left to say — nothing we both are able to say, anyway — he shakes my hand one last time and leaves me standing there on the dirt track in the middle of the banana fields.
That night, the Bavarian missionary and I dine by candlelight because, once again, the power has failed. The power — which comes from Moshi — can’t always reach remote villages like ours. It’s also possible that someone has stolen the power lines. (In fact, some unfortunate thief tried recently and was electrocuted.)
The water has stopped, too. Usually, the compound manager trucks in enough water from Mount Kilimanjaro to supply the villages nearby. But because of the severe drought, people have been coming from other villages late at night to steal water from the communal taps. So the compound manager has had no choice but to shut off the water for a few days. Now he’s facing a new problem: with the water shut off, the pipes are much easier to steal.
Tonight, however, the missionary has a different explanation for the lack of power and water.
“It’s the Catholics,” he says. “They know we are expecting dignitaries, so they have halted our electricity and water.”
Eventually, the conversation turns toward the subject of the witch doctor, and I tell him about the doctor’s diagnosis of me.
“Is it true?” he asks.
“What he said about my heart is true. Occasionally I feel my heart race, just for a second or two. It’s like a rush in my chest; it just seems to happen for no reason at all.”
The missionary doesn’t look impressed.
“Also, his second diagnosis implied that both my grandfathers are dead. That’s true. One died just last year, and I don’t remember exactly when the other one died because, as the witch doctor said, it was a long time ago.”
He still looks skeptical, so I show him the charm around my neck. “It protects me while I travel, like my Saint Christopher.” I show him the saint, too.
He gazes blankly at my chest and says, “I would advise you not to wear that.” But I can’t tell which one he means.