Hello dear OSers, I miss you all dearly and have just moved to the other Salon but will continue to post here as long as I am able. I am also at www.storiesandstorytellers.com. I am starting a book on Mozambique and hope to publish some of the stories behind the stories in the book.
For most of the nineties, I spent much of every summer in Mozambique. Even as a war-zone, Mozambique offered me a much-needed respite from the stresses and conflicts of being an untenured professor at a large US university. So, by the late nineties, I fancied I knew a thing or two about this country. My delusions of adequacy began to crumble one day in 1996, however, when a Mozambican neurosurgeon friend of mine referred me to a curandeira –a traditional healer. I had spent the last several weeks languishing on my friend Carmen’s couch, the world spinning too wildly for me to get any of my fieldwork done. Mingas, I was assured, could fix me right up.
I was eager for relief, as I certainly had not come to Mozambique to watch Brazilian telenovelasin my friend’s living room. I had come to Mozambique to follow up on some innovative programs the FRELIMO-run Mozambican government had put in place to assist war-affected children during its drawn out conflict with its nemesis (and now opposition party) RENAMO. The war was now over and I had returned to see how these programs were being integrated into post-war reconstruction efforts. I was hopeful that these efforts could serve as a model of how post-conflict countries could provide ongoing support to the vulnerable generation of youth that were most likely to lapse reconciling countries back into war or states of protracted violence.
The circumstances of this particular visit to Mozambique could not have been more propitious. I had received a generous grant and research leave from my university. At the time, there were still only a few hotels in Maputo and so I was able to negotiate accommodations at Maputo’s famous five star hotel–the Polana– for the two months I would be there conducting my research. My good friend Idasse, an artist who knew everyone in town as well as everything that was going on with everyone in town, offered to take me around. After years of living on beans and rice to pay for my summer visits to Mozambique, this was a dream come true.
And yet, from the moment I landed in Mozambique I began suffering daily bouts of fevers and queasiness that dragged on for weeks. In all the years I had spent in Mozambique, I had never been sick. Now I spent my days sprawled out and moaning from my five-star king-sized fluffy-pillowed bed as I watched the rising and setting sun over the bay of Maputo mark days and then weeks with no work accomplished. I visited doctor upon doctor, had blood tests drawn and still no one could find anything wrong with me. Finally, my friend Carmen decided that what I needed was not a five star hotel but a good home in which to rest and promptly whisked me off to her house.
There I continued to languish among the telenovelas, until one afternoon, a neurosurgeon friend of Carmen’s, Teresa, stopped by for a visit. A woman and an African in the world of neuroscience, Teresa was perhaps destined to be labeled a “non-conformist.” When it came to thinking, Teresa avoided boxes altogether, equally curious about western, African and eastern healing modalities. Later, she would introduce Carmen and me to a wonderful Chinese qigong doctor—one of many setting up shop in Maputo– whose massages ranged from gentle waves of his arms as he “moved” our chi (energy) to repair badly set bones, to all-body pummelings that made you feel light as a feather—at least once the pain and the vomiting stopped. But that is another story of healing in Maputo…
On this day, my predicament led us to the medicine of most Mozambicans. As Teresa inquired about what was wrong with me—good Italian Catholic that I am—I answered that if I did not know better, I could swear this was the evil eye of some colleague jealous that I had gotten such a wonderful research opportunity. Teresa jumped to her feet and said in that case, she knew just what I needed. Or rather, who I needed. And so the next day, on Teresa’srecommendation, Carmen and I made our way to an apartment a few blocks away to meet Mingas. Teresa knew Mingas from her days as a pharmaceutical technician at Maputo’s central hospital. But these days, Mingas sat on a straw mat, a red cloth wrapped around her. Beside her she had a collection of shells, coins and tiny bones. As a “mulata,” as she called herself, as well as a woman with advanced degrees, Mingas was not your typical curandeira.On that first day, she explained how, much to the chagrin of her family of engineers, she had had no choice but to become a curandeira. She had been riddled with a mysterious crippling illness that had left her wheelchair-bound for many years. She had sought medical treatment in South Africa and Portugal but no one could find a reason for her illness. One day she found herself in a Lisbon park, despairing because another specialist had told her there was nothing he could do for her. An elderly African man sat next to her and asked her, “daughter, why are you crying?” She explained to him her dilemma, to which he responded, “well, there is only one thing to do. You must become a curandeira. You are obviously sick because you are ignoring your spirits who are trying to tell you they want you to work for them. You will not be well until you do so.” And so, as a last resort, Mingas had gone off to become a curandeira. She recovered from her illness, got out of her wheelchair, and now was fine. Her brothers had stopped speaking to her and her Pentecostal mother prayed incessantly for her soul, but what was a girl to do if the spirits called you?
When Carmen and I met her, Mingas had just graduated from curandeira school. I grew up on my mother’s stories of my maternal grandmother‘s ability to speak to the Virgin Mary and remove the evil eye with olive oil, bay leaves and special incantations. My Aunt Rosaria remembers the incantation as the following (in neopolitan dialect with some of my grandmother’s own invented words thrown in)
uocchie e maluocchie e futtuccelle all’uocchie
iate a fà ‘nmocca a chi v’è muor…
Agli e fragagi fattura ca’ nun quaglia..
Coglie e precoglie cape alici e cape d’ agli
My family is from Naples, Italy. To this day, solitary witches or stregas, whose traditions of healing have quietly survived Catholicism and the Inquisition, live in the surrounding Benevento area. It is said that Benevento was once home to a giant walnut tree around which the stregasdanced during seasonal festivals. So the predicament in which I found myself was not wholly unfamiliar to me.
Still Mingas’ analysis of my situation surprised me: she picked up her collection of shells, bones, and coins and threw them on the mat. She would eventually teach me to read them myself, but on that first day, she simply told me that I had a xipoco, a spirit of gloom sent by someone thinking poorly of me. The xipoco had covered me in a cloak of darkness that rendered me unable to see the positive in my life; instead, the xipoco held my gaze captive to loss and sadness. Mingas said she saw that I was grieving the loss of my mother, and a tense work situation that centered around uncertainty whether my contract would be renewed. I had come to Mozambique she said, as a way of escape. But the xipoco had followed me.
Mingas assured me that a kufemba, followed by some purifying and protective baths would fix me right up. But kufemba involved spirit possession, something as a newbie curandeira she was afraid to do. So Mingas referred me to Dona Rosa, who specialized in such things. After thekufemba, I could do a series of baths and vaccinations (medicinal herbs are placed in small incisions on the body) with her to seal in the protection of the spirits. She phoned Dona Rosa, who offered to see me promptly the next morning, a Sunday. I must have been an emergency case….
Mingas told me that when I came back to see her after the kufemba, I must bring a hen and a rooster. Don’t close them in a gym bag, she warned; white people often did that and the poor animals ended up suffocating. I also should bring some coins. And an aguardente (a kind of grain alcohol that the spirits seem to enjoy). I wondered aloud wherever would I find a live chicken and a rooster on a Sunday morning. Mingas howled with laughter. “My daughter, you’re in Africa; you can always find chickens and roosters”.
The next morning, Carmen drove me to Dona Rosa’s house. It was a fine poured concrete house of the colonial period. In the middle of her large yard, was a round straw hut. I could see a horse’s main, and several desiccated animal skins adorning the exterior walls of the hut. No amount of pleading could get Carmen to come in with me, but she promised to come back in an hour and wait for me outside Dona Rosa’s front gate. I got out of the car and before I could turn back around to ask Carmen what I was getting myself into, she had driven off.
A young boy and girl met me at the gate, took me by the hand and invited me into Dona Rosa’s courtyard. They led me to the hut’s interior, where a very beautiful large African woman with a bright smile met me and gave me a welcoming and reassuring hug. We sat on her mat and she pulled out her shells and bones in order to re-confirm Mingas’ diagnosis and she promptly showed me a black stone that had landed right on top of the bone that represented me—just as had occurred during my consultation with Mingas. It was a xipoco alright. She cautioned me that my mother had her “legs up in the air” (pernas no ar), a sign of displeasure. Then Dona Rosa said, “although your mother is very upset about your situation, she is a little bit worried about your coming here; she wants you to remember you are Catholic and to be careful in what things you decide to meddle.” It was only after a personal crisis sent me on a year-long odyssey of seeking out healers across Mozambique in 2000-2001 that I understood the nature of my mother’s worries regarding the path on which this initial visit with Dona Rosa was about to put me. In my hunger to recover from my sense of loss and powerlessness, I sometimes encountered people and allowed myself to become involved in situations I was too naïve, foolish, and emotionally vulnerable to know to avoid. At the time of Dona Rosa’s analysis, however, it all seemed like a grand adventure into an unknown spiritual realm.
Dona Rosa told me that aside from my mother, her diagnostic tools told her there were others who wished to speak with me, notably, my paternal grandmother for whom I am named (something Dona Rosa surmised on her own), a man named Alberto who said he was an old Mozambican friend, and the xipoco spirit. Dona Rosa’s children told me to relax as we would be starting and that they would tell me what to do as the time arose. Once in trance, Dona Rosa only spoke Changane and so they would also translate for me.
And so, Dona Rosa closed her eyes; her young son began drumming and her daughter shaking a gourd. They began to sing. Dona Rosa’s head dropped to her chest and then a few moments later lifted up. ……. (to be continued)