A few days ago, a man showed up at our gate. He said that his sister-in-law was sick and needed me to come visit her since she wasn't walking very well. The only other piece of information he gave me was that she was two months pregnant, according to his estimation. I told him I'd come that evening for a visit.
4 pm rolled around and I started my trek to the village with my trusty backpack full of medicine and my day guard, Tengan, who also acts as translator when I need him. The village we were going to was a good 45 minute walk one-way. It should only take me half an hour to get there, but I have to figure in multiple stops to greet people and shake hands along the way. We arrive at this woman's village to be told that she wasn't home, but had just been taken to a river for a traditional healing practice. The old women of the village had insisted on this practice, so they rigged up a stretcher made of sticks and rope and carried the sick woman a good distance to the river.
I was probably twenty minutes behind them. A sister of the sick woman led us to the riverbed. Six foot high grass slapped me in the face as I tried to follow the unfamiliar path. A weed called blackjack shed it's sticky seeds onto my skirt and scratched my ankles as I walked. A field mouse crossed the path just ahead of me. It wasn't my idea of a good time. But finally we made it to the river. From the top of the riverbank, I could see the old women and the sick woman sitting below in the river. It was just a stream really. I descended the bank about fifty feet into the stream below. This is where my translator left me to ascend the bank once again and be a spectator from the top. I later realized that I probably wasn't supposed to be so close to the ritual.
The women were sitting near a banana grove. As I neared them, I found myself surrounded by bees who were thirstily buzzing near the water. The water itself was a murky, clay-orange color. Someone later told me that the ritual began with the women all drinking this contaminated water.
Finally my eyes focused on the sick woman. The first thing I noticed was that she looked nine months pregnant instead of two. So much for an accurate estimation! She was awake but seemed unresponsive. I couldn't tell if the woman was being dramatic, as the Ik tend to do when they're sick, or if she really was as unresponsive as she looked. Two old women were busy massaging the sick woman's body with a live chicken. I knew the Ik used 'poultry' massages for some diseases, but I don't know the origin of this practice or how they think it helps. Terrill believes that the Ik believe that the spirits of sickness can pass from the woman's body to the chicken. Indeed, after the massage, they killed the chicken. Possibly killing the disease? They plucked the feathers from over the chicken's vital organs and scattered them in a circle around the banana grove. Then they rubbed the chicken's bare organ's over the woman's belly. Next they cut the chicken further and splattered it's blood around the banana grove.
All the while, the sick woman sat unresponsive, being held up by her brother-in-law. Next came a basin of ash which was poured over the woman's body, focusing on her belly. Then the other old woman walks up with a gourd of river water and starts splashing the sick woman & her brother-in-law. At one point, I had heard that this ritual was a sign of forgiveness from the community so that the sick person would be spared a terrible fate.
The traditional healing ritual was almost over. A fire was lit around the woman and the man supporting her. It was lit for less than a minute but still almost managed to scorch the woman's skirt. After the old women lit the fire, they walked around the woman and stomped the fire out.
Three live chickens were left in the riverbed as live sacrifices. The dead chicken was left as well. Then they scooped the sick woman up and assisted her to walk up the riverbank. On the way, someone had placed a hoe (pointed side up) and a maize stalk on the path. An elderly woman told me to walk over the maize stalk but to avoid the hoe. I think this was to represent an entryway/exit for spirits.
When we were a good distance away from the riverbed, the group sat the sick woman down in an abandoned garden. Her eyes were open but she was still unresponsive. I checked her for malaria. Negative. I listened to her heart and lungs. They were fine. It was late by now (almost 6 pm) so I left the group with vitamins, painkillers and a package of instant chicken soup (ironic!) for the sick woman. I suspected that her delivery of the child was near. Since it was getting dark, I couldn't take her to the hospital until the next morning.
I hiked home exhausted. At 7 pm, I collapsed in our front yard and told Terrill the story.
The next morning, I prepared for a trip to Kaabong. I needed to take a 3-yr old with a broken arm to the hospital for a cast. Right before I left, the sick woman's husband showed up at our gate saying she had delivered her baby the night before. A healthy baby boy. Now he stated, the problem was that she was shaking. In my mind, that is either chills or seizures. The Ik can't always differentiate them for me. So I sent the husband home, telling him to bring his wife to the road, which was very close to their home. The husband said the family was refusing to let the woman go to the hospital. I drove by their village twice and they didn't bring the woman out either time.
The morning after that, another relative comes saying the woman needs to go to the hospital. Still 'shaking'. A truck was coming to our house to deliver some supplies, so we told the relative to bring the woman. They never showed up. The last thing I heard was that the family was taking the woman back down to the river for an healing ritual and more chicken sacrifices.
Yesterday a woman brought the baby for me to see. His mother, Betty, was dead. I still don't know what took her. I don't know if the hospital in Kaabong could have helped her anyway. I'm pretty sure the chicken massage didn't do much good. In my mind, it seems so clear how senseless their rituals are. In my mind, they waste time and resources for what they believe to be related to spirits of disease.
Do you feel my frustration as a nurse in this Ik community? They are straddling two worlds: trying to adopt modern medicine while retaining their traditional practices. The introduction of Penicillin injections changed everything in Africa. It made people believers in modern medicine and in injections. But they can't quite relinquish the old ways. They don't quite believe me when I say that the water is contaminated by small bugs. If they can't see them, how can they be there? They are stuck. And they want the best of both worlds. But does it work to have a foot in tradition and a foot in the modern world? For some people it may, but it didn't for Betty. Modern medicine might have been able to save her if the family could have put their traditional practices behind them. I know that some anthropologists say we shouldn't mess with culture and tradition. But my question remains: what is best for the people themselves? Should we leave people alone with some of their harmful traditional practices and just accept that they will have a poorer quality of life than westerners do? Or should we try to be a voice of change at the risk of doing away with some of their traditional practices? These people are my neighbors. I care about them. And for those reasons, I'm choosing to speak truth against their ignorance.