This blue marble

– and yet it spins

On voodoo and the reason for illness

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lowtideAs our bungalow driver drove me to Stone Town he told me he had just driven his son to see the witch doctor, with pains in his stomach. It happens from time to time, he said, and the doctors at the hospital cannot find anything wrong. The boy has been helped by the witch doctor every time, with potions, magic, and by recognizing that someone wants to hurt the family by causing the boy to be sick.

According to other stories I have heard, too, this witch doctor seems to be famous and receives patients from far away African countries. It is said he can raise people from the dead. Somewhere on Zanzibar there is a forest of the dead. When you go there properly prepared by the witch doctor, taking a potion, you can see a dead friend or relative. Perhaps you have unfinished business, or simply want to wish goodbye. The witch doctor also has the ability to bring the dead person back, completely so she or he can continue life as if it never ended. This of course costs money, some 5 million TSH (approximately 1,700 EUR). The best proof of this medicine is the story of a local man who should be dead many times over, but always returns to his home.

Voodoo is still common on Zanzibar and nearby islands. Pemba is a globally known center of black magic, so famous that practitioners from Haiti do pilgrimages to the little island to learn. My knowledge of voodoo is limited, and so I listened with a growing perception that in voodoo the main reason for ailments is not disease or bad spirits, but that someone, a specific person, wishes to harm the sick person or his or her nearest family. Evil spirits or djinns may occupy a person, but most often an unexplained illness is due to ill-will of a person known to the victim, who sets the evil spirits after the victim. The witch doctor is able to both point out who this person is, as well as cure the illness.

Is this just the viewpoint of a successful, envied businessman? The underlying attitude is alarming to a European. On Bali, disease is seldom caused or wished by one single individual. The Balinese believe everything is a struggle and balance between good and evil, and that diseases are caused by bad spirits. They are typically not the fault of a human being. Here on Zanzibar the view portrayed by the driver is that most unexplained illness stems from people wishing to harm other villagers or relatives they know well.

There is scientific evidence for that illness can be propelled by our own minds: depression causes inflammation in the brain, and many difficult-to-diagnose pains and aches end up as psychosomatic, meaning they are caused by the patient’s mental pain and unwellness. But there is something more alarming to the concept of illness in voodoo. I could not help but follow the trail of my European-conditioned mind: if the reason for illness is inflicted by other people there must be much anger, envy, and hate around. After all, people do get sick from time to time, and every time they do they get to hear of a person who has something against them. Such a contrast, then, to the impression I have of the Swahili people: friendly, caring, people with a strong community feel. Kindness and charity are important aspects of Islam. None of these attitudes fit what I am now hearing: of a society where blame is easily pointed and many personal problems explained by ill-will by a community member.

But then again, I am not an African and am possibly missing about 99% of the cultural context of voodoo. Lovely ones, if anybody of you know better, please educate me!

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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