Love and Alchemy

JANUARY 4, 2013 8:54PM

Healing, Power and Medicine, Part 2

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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. She was no longer Dona Rosa, but—her children told me, my grandmother. Dona Rosa moved towards me and took my hands in hers, and kept stroking them and telling me my hands were as beautiful as ever. Only later did I recall that my grandmother – who had taught me to sew and do needlework—used to call me “mani d’oro” (hands of gold) because I picked up sewing and needlepoint so easily. Soon Dona Rosa’s head again collapsed in her chest and this time when she opened her eyes, she was my mother.  She flew into my arms and hugged me. She said she knew how much I had prayed for one last hug. She said she was sorry for having left me, sorry for my pain, but that she wanted me to get on with my life and that I deserved happiness.

This man Alberto who Dona Rosa said wanted to speak to me puzzled me as I could not really remember anyone by that name I’d met in Mozambique. As Dona Rosa was possessed by his jovial laughing spirit, he insisted I needed to thank him because he claimed to have introduced me to curandeiros years earlier and was now responsible for getting me to this place, where I could finally get some help.  I suddenly realized it must have been my very dear friend whose first name was Alberto but was known to everyone by his surname--Chissano. Chissano is one of Mozambique’s most important sculptors; he had been a father figure and mentor to me. I remembered that many years earlier, he had shown me his most treasured sculpture: one of his beloved grandmother who had raised him, herself a curandeira. The sculpture of her sitting on a straw mat was located in a prominent place in his house, and as he stroked her, he told me how his grandmother had taught him the ways of the curandeiro but that he had given it up to pursue his art. Still, he acknowledged that what made him such a great artist was the ability to read people and that was something he had been gifted by his grandmother. During personal crises I had experienced in previous trips to Mozambique, I had sought his advice and counsel. He had told me once I should not be afraid to let my light shine and that he was troubled by the fact that often, when in the presence of unfamiliar people, my spirit not only went silent; it actually left the room.  It was an important lesson. His death had left a huge hole in my life, and during my present troubles, I missed him terribly. The thought that he might still be watching over me moved me deeply.

These realizations and connections, however, only occurred to me much later. Throughout the kufemba, I was respectful but in disbelief. It was just too much to take in at once. And so my mind wandered to questioning how this 300 pound black woman could be my mother. I observed how her children participated in this ceremony with such ease. And yet I also knew they would go to school the following day and be forced to deny this reality. I was suddenly aware of the huge gap between Mozambican children’s lives inside and outside of school – and perhaps between what I had thought were the gaps between public and private life.

Before I knew it, I was forced to meet  face to face with my xipoco, to ask him what he wanted and to please go away. I offered him some coins and drink, which he accepted. Then Dona Rosa was back as curandeira. She took a brush of horse’s hair and swept the offensive spirit off my body and into her mouth. She then spit him out of the confines of the hut.

Once the xipoco had been eliminated, Dona Rosa’s children began to drum and sing again. And soon the intense red-eyed curandeira was gone, replaced by the wide-eyed, merry Dona Rosa. She was very happy with the result and threw her shells again to be sure her treatment had worked. She said it was a resounding success and that I would feel fine now.

I thanked her and thought, well… how interesting. It was really all my mind could muster to think in the moment.  Carmen was in her car in front, and I got in, ready to go to Mingas for the first of several special baths. But within minutes I felt suddenly soooo tired. We decided to go to Carmen’s first so that I might rest, but by the time we got there, I barely had the strength to get out of the car and make it to my bed.

And I fell into a profound sleep for the next 18 hours.

When I finally made it to Mingas’ house the next day, she nearly doubled over in laughter once again, asking me why I was so surprised my body had been exhausted from having so much negativity removed from it. She added that she had asked the spirits to be especially dramatic and make my kufemba a memorable event in order to remove any lingering doubts about the kufemba’s effectiveness. Over the next week, I received a series of baths and vaccinations. Mingas implored her spirit guides first to seal in their protection and then to open me up to new possibilities. I learned this is how most people talk about illness: you go to a curandeira when you feel fechada or “closed,” meaning shut off from community but also from one’s self and one’s desires. A curandeira can help you become aberta or “open” again – open to community, to self and to possibilities. Although there were illnesses that a curandeira might insist were hospital illnesses, the majority of illnesses were spiritual in nature, the cause and result of being “closed” from the possibilities of communion with one’s self and one’s neighbors.

Just what happened that day—did Dona Rosa really reach my mother? My grandmother? Did she really remove an evil spirit?  I can offer no proof one way or the other and most Mozambicans would find this question irrelevant. What I can tell you is that I arrived in Maputo clinically depressed and that Mingas’ description of the xipoco’s effect – seeing only doom and gloom around me—came pretty close to what I was feeling. I can also tell you that from that day forward, I was never sick again.  I felt somehow lighter, even a bit giddy. When I returned to the US, my colleagues kept asking me what I had done to look so different. “I had an evil spirit removed,” I’d say. They would laugh, “Oh, sure you did!  Well, whatever it was, it worked!”

Happy to have my health back, I started off on my research plan to find out how Mozambique’s post-war leaders were continuing their efforts to assist war-affected youth and their families in their healing process. But my attempts to follow up on this extensive inter-ministerial effort that at its height had also involved embassies and international organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children were stymied. Suddenly no one in the government or the international community remembered such an effort ever having taken place – an effort so widely and internationally acclaimed, it had even been part of a 20/20 special!!  I finally learned in hushed and off-the-record conversations with Mozambican and international policy makers that, once the conflict had ended, neither side in the RENAMO-FRELIMO conflict wanted any part of an effort that would have them admit they had traumatized children or used child soldiers.

I spent the next several years writing about how this failure to acknowledge the existence of war-affected children plays itself out in postwar educational policy formation. I was very disappointed that I had come to learn how Mozambicans had healed themselves and their children after decades of war and conflict and had left –I thought- virtually empty-handed. But sometimes we don’t know what we are looking for until we find it. In healing myself in order to conduct the research on postwar healing that ultimately turned out to be fruitless, I stumbled upon the culture of healing that had existed under my nose all along. Depending upon your cosmology, the illness that led me to seek out a curandeira just as I was studying about healing and reconciliation in Mozambique is either an ironic but unrelated event or the lesson I was supposed to be learning.

In fact, I sought out Mingas after becoming ill during an initial interview with Boia Efraime Junior, a Mozambican psychologist who with other colleagues had founded a non-governmental organization named Reconstruindo a Esperança (Rebuilding Hope or RE) , which is dedicated to the psychosocial reintegration of war-affected children and their communities. Boia was explaining to me how he and his colleagues worked closely in consultation with local traditional healers, but the smell of the coffee he had kindly offered me suddenly made me so queasy, I had to beg his pardon, abruptly end our conversation and ask if I could re-schedule a meeting with him. By the time we rescheduled our meeting, I had been to see Mingas and Dona Rosa. The timing was propitious because I now knew what it meant when Mozambicans said you were looking a little fechada, why people at the market nodded solemnly when you bought a rooster and a hen on a Sunday morning and why when an elected official conducted a shady deal with impunity, people whispered “he must have taken some really good baths.”

I returned to speak with Boia after my kufemba, and given his discussion about his and his colleagues’ work with traditional healers, I shared my own story with him, though Mingas subsequently chastised me because while I was all excited about sharing my experience, Africans did not speak of such matters. Though this realization of my ignorance did not always keep me from acting out of further ignorance in the future, I did suddenly realize how shallow and limited my understanding of this place and these people for which I had so much respect and admiration had been. The signs of healing and healers, the continuous connection between the living and the dead were everywhere; why had I not seen them before? How could I possibly have thought I understood anything about Mozambique and Mozambicans if I had missed the values, beliefs and dispositions that were so central to their world of meaning? Could a scholar presume to understand American society and culture without an understanding of a Judeo-Christian worldview?  I also realized that until that point it was not simply that Mozambicans had rendered the most sacred aspects of their daily practices invisible to me but that I had had no lens that would have allowed me to find their manifestation all around me.  And so it is that my first kufemba with Dona Rosa and Mingas put me on long road to healing. It gave me an opportunity to understand and to witness not only my own healing but also that of others.

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Antoinette.. another great installment. I doubt I would have been a doubter in the different conversations with your late family and friend- but probably would have doubted they made me feel better. But look at the outcome and one must know there things out there that we do not understand.
Well done and sending hugs
I wish ... that everyone ... would come and read your words ... and breathe ... for all that you bring to us ...
You are an incredible woman, Antionette!
Obrigada, Antoinette!
...por otra cuenta de oro ~
It is always such a pleasure, and so restorative, to cruzar caminos contigo, especially when I have been hoping for just such an encounter.

Y parabens, siempre!