Call Mama Doctor

Chapter 11. The Mwali Girls

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

One day in Igota as I was dozing on my bed in the midday heat, I heard faint knocking at my door. I tried to ignore it, but as the knocking persisted, I had to get up and open the door. This time it was a boy--a school boy as I saw from his uniform. Noticing my annoyance he nearly lost his courage. He stuttered something about his brother being ill. “I can't bear to see him like this any longer.” The little guy burst into tears. I tried to distract him on our way to the village, but the tears continued to flow down his cheeks.

Many people had gathered in the yard of his home so I knew the situation was serious. I had to bend down to get through the narrow entrance and found myself in a dark room with a small fire burning on the floor. There was a peculiar smell in the hut. When my eyes got used to the dark I saw with horror something like a living skeleton on a straw mat. The skin of someone who must have been a young man was hanging loosely over the bones. Only the lower legs and feet were swollen to double their size. At the foot of the mat the boy's mother sat rocking and humming her mourning song, the white mourning paint already on her face. There was an unfriendly attitude in the room. “Why did you not send for me before?” I asked into the silence. Nobody answered, but the suffering boy looked at me with pain in his dull eyes. I gave him some water and as he gulped it down I could not help asking, “Did you not want my help?” But I regretted my question right away. An ironical glimmer in the boy's eyes showed that he had heard me, and the hostile silence in the room persisted. What on earth could I do? A little cross was hanging on a chain around his bony neck. Would he want me to call a priest, I suggested, trying nervously to break the silence. A sound like the rattling of dry leaves in the wind came from the boy's lips. His father bent over him and then gave a sullen nod, but not a word was said. I felt so unwanted that I turned around and left the hut. The schoolboy was waiting outside and on the way back I showered him with questions. I was angry too. How was it possible that a young man had been left lying sick for a long time so close to the mission and I had not been called to help as long as there had still been a chance? The schoolboy hung his head and instead of answering all my questions he simply told his brother's story.

The young man had been working away from home in another village. There he had tried to seduce a mwali. I knew that mwali was what the people of the Ulanga district called the young girls for a period of time after their menstrual cycle had started. In this period of transition from child to woman a girl is believed to have special powers and is considered dangerous to anybody but a few close relatives. To protect herself as well as others from the risks of contact, she is secluded in a hut, attended to only by old women. The schoolboy told me that his brother had been observed by the girl's father as he sneaked into her seclusion hut. When the boy ran away, he heard the angry father shout a threat at him, “Just wait, the mwali will send you an evil spirit which will suck out your blood.” The boy was scared stiff and when he shortly afterwards contracted diarrhea he was convinced that the mwali was causing it with her supernatural power. He gave up his job and hurried home in panic. His family was no less frightened when they heard what had happened. Convinced that a sucking spirit was slowly killing their son, the grief-stricken parents did not even bother sending for my help. The medicine man was consulted but could not help the boy against such a curse, and everybody then accepted the illness as fate. Finally the young brother, who had been exposed to Western schooling, mustered enough courage to approach me and ask me to help. Now I understood why my young escort was crying so bitterly and I promised to do what I could. But the young man died shortly afterwards without the parents allowing me to see him again.

Time passed but I could not forget the tragic fate of that young boy, who had to die because everybody expected him to; a phenomenon which has been called voodoo death. I became very curious to find out more about the mwali and the power they seemed to have over people's minds and lives. Since I was a woman, there were fewer difficulties in accepting my help than that of a male physician and consequently I was often asked to see a mwali in her seclusion hut. Eager as I was to learn as much as possible about these young girls, I always tried to avail myself of these opportunities, even when it meant marching long distances through the bush. Through these visits to sick mwalis and by questioning women patients who had themselves been mwali, I came to know more about them and their ordeals than other outsiders.

When a young girl finds herself with her first menstrual bleeding, custom is that she goes to a lonely place in the bush not far from her village. There she is to squat on the ground and cry loudly until she is ceremoniously found and led back to the village. The crying marks the end of childhood and the beginning of the mwali period. And indeed she has reason to cry. Gone are the happy days of playing with other children, the evenings eating and joking with the family and listening to stories around the fire, gone the closeness with her mother whom she used to follow around and help wth the daily tasks of cooking and looking after small children. Until now she had been everybody's favorite, receiving love and affection from the whole family.

Little girls are doted upon, since having daughters means wealth to the family. Men have to pay a high bridal price which benefits the bride's whole family. Therefore the little girls are looked after well; they are the family's investment if they grow up and reach the marriageable age of a mwali. During childhood they have much freedom. They wander at will to the huts of relatives and look upon all sisters of their mother as additional mothers. “Little mother” is what they call mother's younger sisters and “big mother” her older sisters. All the children of these mothers look upon each other as brothers and sisters, play together and receive equal care in all the homes. Mother's brothers' children are not as close and the same is true of father's sisters' children, since these cousins may marry each other. The mother's oldest brother holds most authority over the children; he has to sanction marriages and receives the biggest share of the bridal price. He watches ardently over the mwali that she is kept secluded, properly instructed and protected, so that she will become a well-bred bride, wife, and mother, and therefore secure a high bridal price.

The girl sitting in the bush cries out of apprehension and fear. Before her lies a long and strenuous time. She will be lonely and scared in the darkened hut where she will sit passively long boring hours without being allowed to stand up erect or speak out loud. Her only company will be her grandmother and old aunts from her family. They will teach her what she needs to know about married life, how to please her husband, how to become and stay pregnant, give birth and care for her baby. They will pinch her when she appears inattentive and beat her for disobedience or laziness. In a crouched posture she will have to weave mats and do other manual work. Since dark skin is looked upon as “dirty” by the old people, the attendants will wash and scrub the mwali daily, hoping that her skin will become lighter. Because of the supernatural powers a mwali possesses, she is not allowed to see the sun. Her power is not only a threat to other people from whom she must be isolated, but may also be fatal to herself if she does not carefully follow the advice of her guardians or if she unwittingly breaks one of the many taboos which rule her life. For years she may not be allowed to venture outside her hut in daylight, only stepping out during the dark hours of the night, never facing anyone but the old women. She may never speak loudly, only whisper necessary words into the guardian's ear; never walk upright, only crawl inside the hut, or move with deeply bent head when taking her little stroll at night. The more lively and independent a girl she was, the harder the old women will work on her “to break her spirit,” which is deemed necessary for making her a good wife and mother. The intention, I was told, is to create a subdued, obedient and subservient woman, whatever hardship may be necessary to reach that goal. Therefore she cries anxiously there in the bush as the custom demands.

The first person who hears the crying and recognizes the girl will hasten to her mother and call out: “Your daughter has become a mwali.” Mother will drop whatever she is doing and with rising excitement run from one neighbor to the next, proudly announcing the glad tiding, “My daughter is a mwali.” Soon her women friends will accompany her to the place where the young girl is sitting and with shouts of joy they will return to the village with mother and daughter. Immediately the men in the family will be called home to build the hut that is going to be the girl's prison. They encircle it with a high fence and prepare for the feast which will mark her state as a mwali. During the feast she is carried in procession on the shoulder of a man around the huts of the village followed by weeping and laughing women and finally escorted into her new compound. There darkness and fear, loneliness and boredom, scary rituals, silence and suffering will engulf her for a long, long time. The “breaking of the spirit” may take years, and sometimes young women cannot walk upright or talk long after they have been released from confinement.

The men's role in relation to the mwali is quite ambiguous. Male family members, including father and older brothers must avoid any contact with her, lest their crops should fail and their game hunts be spoiled. But young men outside the family often make it a sport to try to seduce the mwali. A boy has to be extremely cautious, cunning and courageous to take such risks. It often needs weeks of secret observation before he finds out the times when the guardians leave the girl. He must then sneak in unseen and win the mwali over. If he succeeds in making the girl pregnant, then the girl's family is very much ashamed and the attendants become the laughing stock of the whole village. Then the best solution for everybody is for the boy to marry the girl--a way of securing a cheap bride since the parents cannot ask the full bridal price for a “spoiled” mwali. Actually the whole affair does not harm the girl herself. She is assured of another suitor, even if the child's father should not want to marry her, since she has shown her ability to become pregnant. No blame is put on her and pregnancy will certainly end her confinement as she is now an expecting mother and not a mwali any more. The boy, however, risks a severe beating by the guardians. The infuriated old ladies will spare no torture, and he is lucky if he gets away with a beating and the ridicule of his friends.

Sometimes when a young man has been accepted as husband-to-be of the mwali but is unable to come up with the full bridal price as yet, he is allowed to visit the girl in her confinement hut where both will receive instruction in the arts of love by the old guardians. The mwali's ordeal will come to an end when the bridegroom is able to present the full dowry to her family or, again, if the girl gets pregnant. But if the suitor is not satisfied with the girl's behavior, finds her still lazy, unfriendly or uncooperative, he can demand that she stay confined for another year or so, or at least until she is more accommodating. One can imagine the mwali's dependence upon her fiance and how anxious she will be to please him, her relief when he finds her satisfactory, and her happiness when finally allowed to leave the dark hut and join her family in the daylight. Her grateful devotion towards her liberator would make any young man feel like a hero and establish him as her master once and forever.

I often wondered how these adolescent girls, still half children, were able to endure this mental and physical ordeal without sooner or later suffering a nervous breakdown. Mothers sometimes admitted to me that a daughter had died during the time of being a mwali, either from a known illness or from no apparent cause. Most mwali have to suffer through times of illness without medical help. Only on rare occasions and if a hospital or a physician was not further away than one night's march, would she be allowed to receive medical treatment. If the hospital staff do not know the custom or are not sensitive enough to afford the mwali the necessary privacy in the hospital, the family will take her out of the hospital before sunrise, even if the girl is seriously ill. If the mwali is not isolated from the other patients, her family has to take the full responsibility for whatever goes wrong with anybody who happened to see the girl.

No wonder, therefore, that I became very popular as physician for the mwali. Since I was a woman, there were no objections to letting me into her compound as long as I adapted myself to certain restrictions. I would hardly ever be allowed to stay alone with a mwali and questions had to be directed first to the old women who would then relay them to the girl. Usually she sat upon a mat on the floor with her eyes downcast. She whispered her complaints into the ear of one of the old ladies, who then told me. The mwali never dared to look at me but kept her eyes firmly shut when I examined her. In pain, she would only whimper, never cry out loudly, and I became amazed at the amount of pain a mwali could endure. When I thought they trusted me, I would ask the old women to leave me alone with the girl, and although they usually turned a deaf ear to my request, it sometimes happened that they went out for a little while. Then the mwali would look at me, and if I smiled at her, she would smile back with an absorbing intensity and curiosity in her gaze. One sensed her mind's hunger for new impressions. I knew then that whatever I said, the way I looked, the expression on my face, my clothes, my instruments, and the touch of my hands would be remembered in the smallest detail over and over again during lonely hours ahead. The mental craving of these deprived girls must make them extremely suggestible for whatever teaching they receive! Carefully and with as few words as possible I would ask the girl why she so patiently endured this long ordeal as a mwali. The girl inevitably looked surprised. Did I not know that without having been a mwali a woman would be sterile? And even if she should happen to get pregnant some disaster would befall her. Each mwali knew some young woman who had died in childbirth or lost her first child. The reason given was always that the girl had not stuck out her time of confinement, or had rebelled altogether against being a mwali.

Sometimes when I was working at a dispensary it happened that a mwali was brought there to see me. Her guardians had led her on lonely paths through the thickest bush to avoid meeting other people. They would arrive with her in the evening toward closing time. The little boys who were always hanging around at the dispensary would become excited and whisper to me, “A mwali is coming, they are bringing a mwali!” People always withdrew to a respectful distance as the mwali approached. There was an air of mystery around that deeply veiled figure who walked slowly with head bent, taking care not to show her face lest anybody be harmed by the power of her glance. The little boys walked stiffly up to her and showed their courage by trying to catch a glimpse of the face between the blankets. If they got too close, the guardians chased them away with harsh words. People who otherwise fought for their place in the waiting line, immediately cleared the treatment room when the mwali entered and never begrudged the time I spent with her. A feeling of happiness and excitement filled the place; people looked up to a mwali. They shared with her the conviction that a woman who did not faithfully go through this period of transition would become infertile and bring bad luck to the whole family because she would be a failure as mother and wife. Therefore people loved the girls who took upon themselves the sacrifice of being a mwali. There was a deeply felt sentiment that the preservation of the tribe depended on everybody doing the right thing by living according to ancient teaching and custom.

Copyright © 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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