Call Mama Doctor

Chapter 13. The Devil's Dance

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

Theresia was brought to me in Kwiro by a group of neighbor women. They had her in their midst, supporting her around the waist and holding her by her arms. They looked worried and angry, while Theresia was trembling and sobbing and gasping for air. As soon as her friends let her go she sank to the floor. Choking spells forced her to sit up and she rubbed her neck and rocked her body, whining pitifully between the sobs. Sweat and tears poured down her face. Her clothes were torn and she was covered with dirt as if she had been rolling on the ground. I led her to our emergency room and helped her on to the bed. Her body was shaking so violently I could not examine her properly. Her heart was pounding wildly, she had bruises, and blood was trickling from cuts and scratches. I washed her trembling body, put cooling compresses on the bruises and tried to find out what had happened. But she was completely absorbed in her own misery; she did not even hear me. Her heartbreaking sobbing and crying seemed to express just as much mental as physical hurt. Touched by her profound unhappiness, I stayed with her, hoping that if words could not help, my presence might comfort her in some way.

It was a shock for me to see a woman so utterly unable to control herself. I had learned to admire the women of the mountain people among whom I was working; they had a great capability to remain strong and calm in the face of tragedy. There always seemed to be plenty of worry and misfortune in their lives: a sick child, death of a loved one, ailing parents, an abusive husband, not enough food to keep above starvation. And yet, the women were always ready to smile and laugh; they took advantage of any opportunity to enjoy themselves and to make those around them happy. The women worked hard day in and day out the year round. Work might change with the seasons, but it never ended. The family's well-being depended upon the woman's capacity for labor. I had seen women at work in the fields, a baby on their back and another child hanging in a sling on their hip. Why not put down the child? There were venomous insects, snakes and wild animals in the grass, too dangerous for little children who could not yet stand upright or run. If the mother was lucky, one of her daughters would be old enough to take the child on her little back for a while. The women were courageous and somehow they possessed the stamina to overcome the drudgery of their daily toiling, knowing instinctively that they had to fight physical weakness, pain and tiredness in order to keep going and that their families' survival depended on their endurance.

One of the women's daily tasks was to grind flour in big wooden mortars with heavy poles. A strong back and strong arms were needed for this work. “She cannot pound maize any more,” was a standing expression for someone wanting to tell me that a woman was very ill, and “she has picked up the pounding pole again,” indicated that she had recovered. Sometimes a woman would neglect herself, or not find time to get treatment for the ubiquitous parasitic infestations, and then she would grow too weak even to walk. I have seen such women dragging themselves to the dispensary, their babies still on their backs, faces and limbs swollen from severe anemia and their blood looking like water when drawn from their fingers for testing. I marveled at their ability to recover under medical treatment and often thought they got well through sheer will power. They seemed to have this urge to survive in order to protect their children. When seriously ill they would anxiously ask, “How will my family survive? What will happen to my children if I die?” The people did not know any other ways of feeding babies and little children than by mother's milk but due to complicated rules and taboos of the Wapogoro people it was impossible for another woman to offer her milk to the child of a deceased mother. Therefore, if a mother died, her small children would perish with her. The older children able to walk would find food and shelter with relatives and might survive.

Mothers, well aware of the danger for their little ones, were careful to avoid another pregnancy until their baby was old enough to eat ordinary food. That meant sexual abstinence for at least two years, during which time they accepted that the husband might turn to other women. Traditionally the husband could take a second or third wife, and quite a few women I spoke with preferred this solution to having their husband fooling around. I once gave a necklace to a village chief for his wife as thanks for some services he had rendered but he looked embarrassed and did not want to accept the gift. He asked me to wait and went home to return with three laughing women, all young and handsome. “Which of them should I give the necklace? They are all my wives,” he said proudly. I came to know his three wives quite well and learned how they managed to get along in their daily life. They were like sisters to each other, and although each of them had her own hut, they coordinated their work. Pooling their children, one of the wives looked after all of them while the other two were free to work in the fields or attend to some other task. At times the chief took one of his wives on his many trips, making sure they all had their turn. How he successfully divided his affection between them I do not know, but he seemed to keep them happy. Few men, however, were wealthy or strong enough to manage more than one wife.

Generally women showed great tolerance toward their husbands. The teaching they received during their seclusion period prepared them well for a subservient role in marriage, and social rules and customs upheld and fortified male superiority. A woman was supposed to walk a few steps behind the husband, carrying heavy loads while he might not carry anything but his walking stick. During meals the husband was to be served first and to receive the best and biggest morsels. When men spoke, women were to keep quiet and look down. They were supposed to listen and to respect men's wishes. Mothers seemed to have a peculiar respect for their male children too. I never saw a mother impatient with her child or letting it cry unattended. If a little boy was disobedient, his mother would patiently persuade him until he went along; if he hit her in anger she would protect herself with a forgiving smile. Once when a boy struck out at his mother rather viciously I asked her why she did not reprimand the child? A good smack on the behind would put him in his place, I said. She was startled. “Oh no, how could I!” she exclaimed. “Don't you know that our forefathers' spirits are reborn in our children? What if this boy is my reborn grandfather? How could you spank your own grandparent?”

I looked at Theresia as I sat with her in the little room. She was still crying. I spoke to her again and she grabbed my arm with her trembling hands. “I got the Devil in my neck.” She twisted her body. “He is pushing me down,” he muttered with chattering teeth. Her face was swollen from crying so long. “Shetani, the Devil is choking me, I'll die,” she gasped.

Shaking and sobbing overwhelmed her again. Was there nothing I could do to comfort her? Rarely had I seen a woman so downcast. Even when standing in line with their sick children, waiting anxiously for treatment at the dispensary, the women would quickly cheer each other up. With shiny teeth flashing between their smiling lips, they would joke and laugh drawing from a well of warmth and strength that never seemed to dry up. Women readily helped each other when in trouble and neighbors would always know and sympathize if a wife had marital problems. Such difficulties were taken seriously and well-meaning intervention by the neighbors was always at hand. If this did not improve the situation, the woman might return to her parents for a while. Great pressure would be exerted to make her conform, for if her husband refused to take her back, her parents would have to return the bridal price to him and keep the daughter. As in all human societies there were unhappy marriages and family quarrels in spite of everybody's efforts to help the couple to get along. Wife beating was not uncommon, and if it did not happen too often, it was tolerated by the woman. I suspected that Theresa had been beaten, perhaps just once too often. She certainly appeared at her wits' end. Maybe she would calm down if left alone. I finally went outside to ask the neighbor women what had happened to her.

Theresia's brother had joined the indignant group of women. He was angry and insisted he should be the one telling me what was the matter. But they all talked at once and it was difficult to sort out the facts from the angry accusations against her husband. I gathered that Theresia was one of many children of a village headman. When the children were small their father had lived in peace with his four wives. But when Theresia was seven years old the two youngest wives decided to leave the old man. To Theresia's chagrin her mother moved in with a young man and during the family quarrels that followed, she was sent off to a boarding school for girls, run by the mission. At the age of fourteen her family married her off to an old man who died while she was still at school. She had to spend two boring years in mourning until she was betrothed again. This time she suffered under a brutal man who beat her severely. Under these circumstances custom permitted her to seek refuge at her father's place. Her family refunded the bridal money and Theresia stayed at her parental home with her only child. She was now free to marry again. It was during this time that she met the man she had now been living with for the last fifteen years. They had three children.

Theresia was very fond of this man and made all kinds of excuses for him for not paying her family the full bridal price but this caused permanent friction between the two families. To live with a man who considered her not worth the full bridal price was looked upon as a disgrace for any woman. Theresia, however, appeared to be happy until about a year ago when her husband inherited the young wife of his deceased brother. From then on he began to criticize Theresia; he was impatient with her and favored the other woman. Theresia felt very threatened by the presence of the younger woman and by the fact that the husband began to beat her much in the same way as her first husband had done. Neighbors would find her standing alone behind the house, staring at the mountains with a sad and forlorn expression on her face. Theresia's older brother, now the head of the family, was annoyed at the treatment his sister had to endure. He insisted that the husband pay him the full bridal price for Theresia, but the husband refused and the two men had many quarrels about the matter until finally the husband angrily shouted he did not want Theresia anyhow; nothing would please him more than to see her return to her family. Theresia felt caught between the two. She did not at all want to leave her husband, but she knew that her brother had the right to take her back. He could get her married again and in that way procure the bridal price her husband refused to pay. She felt deeply hurt and rejected and was afraid her husband would indeed send her away. However, he could make true his threats only as long as she was well. Custom demands that a husband has to keep his sick wife, and Theresia felt sick. She began to have shaking spells and complained of having bad heart pain. This made her husband even more irritable towards her and he continued to mistreat her. When he again gave her a beating without any justifiable reason, Theresia could not take it any more. The neighbors heard her crying for hours and when the women went over to her place they found her Iying on the ground just as the husband had left her, bruised and hurt. She did not respond to their efforts to console her so they brought her to the dispensary.

In the days that followed, Theresia refused to leave the room. She would not eat and continued to cry for hours, causing much consternation to her neighbors and friends. She refused to see her husband and I had the impression that Theresia was determined to make him change his attitude. She continued to be extremely depressed and to talk about the Devil torturing her. Again neighbors and relatives assembled outside the room where Theresia was staying. Her brother and husband were also present, and when Theresia finally came out to join them, their arguing became excited. The sullen husband and angry brother again started one of their usual quarrels when suddenly Theresia uttered a loud cry and dropped to the ground. She began to breathe laboriously and her eyes widened in fear as she lifted her head and stared at some invisible horror in front of her. “Help, help, Shetani, the Devil is grabbing me! ” she yelled and threw herself on her back with jerking arms and legs as if fighting with the Devil. Then she jumped up and ran off, gesticulating and shouting, tearing off her clothes in the struggle until she disappeared naked in the bush. Two women immediately set out after her. Everybody was stunned by the dramatic scene. The women turned to the now fearful looking husband. “You are a fine one,” they scolded him, “mistreating Theresia in such a way! Now she is possessed by Shetani and will perish somewhere in the bush if we don't succeed in catching her, subduing her and bringing her back.” The presence of Shetani was a threat to the whole village, they continued, and only the joint efforts of all the women could prevent further tragedy. They would now have to perform a Devil's dance; ngoma ya Shetani. It would be hard work for the women, they would have to perform rituals and dances until Shetani was forced to name the conditions upon which he would let go of Theresia and disappear from the village. Angrily the women turned away from the men and walking homewards they loudly discussed their plans; behind them followed the intimidated husband and brother.

Having decided to hold a ngoma ya Shetani, the women set out to prepare the ritual. Theresia was found in the bush and put in isolation, waiting for the ceremony to begin. From now on the women appeared to be in a state of continued agitation. They shouted instead of talking as they ran around gathering firewood and preparing food for the days to come The small hand drums used in the ceremony were taken from storage and repaired. New ones were made and dyes were mixed for the decoration of their bodies during the dance. The men kept wisely out of the way and the children were sent off to relatives in other villages. I inquired whether I would be allowed to attend the dance, but every woman I asked declined. The ngomaya Shetani was a dangerous matter, they said, and no stranger had ever been allowed to see it. Outsiders also warned me; some because they believed the Devil to be indeed present at this ritual; others because they thought the women could be quite dangerous when working themselves into the frenzy required for the ceremony. Everybody at the mission made arrangements to stay away from the village and not to get anywhere close to the place where the ngoma ya Shetani was to be performed.

One evening when I opened my door I heard faint drumming from the direction of the village. I listened into the dark. It was not the usual drumbeats I knew so well from many feasts. This was a very rapid rhythm--an eerie sound which made my heart beat faster. I knew the ngoma ya Shetani had begun. I had been told that no woman could withstand the calling of these drums. Even far away, where nobody else could hear it, women would perceive the fast beats. Unable to resist, as if drawn by a magnet, they would drop whatever they were doing and run through bush and fields until they reached the village where the ngoma ya Shetani was taking place. An intense curiosity made me forget all warnings. I turned off the lights in my room, locked the door and slipped away from the mission, following a path in the direction of the calling drums. I strained my eyes in the dark and proceeded very slowly hiding each time I heard the quick footsteps of a woman running behind me. I held my breath as the dim figures whisked past me in the dark and a feeling of unreality gripped me. It was as if I had been placed in a scene right out of the medieval Walpurgis Night with witches scurrying off to their Sabbath. I sneaked ever closer with pounding heart until I could hear the crackling of the fire and the excited voices of many women. Not daring to approach any further, I found a place where I could hide in the bush.

From my hideout I could faintly feel the heat of the huge blaze, and see the silhouettes of women running in front of the fire. At one side I could distinguish a person sitting in a stooped position completely covered by a blanket. That must be Theresia, I thought. More and more women arrived. They began to arrange themselves in a circle and to dance around the fire holding on to each other and singing in unison. Some of them were beating their small hand drums and as they danced the rhythm became faster and faster. Dust was stirred up and dimmed the view. The women looked like ghosts as they began to break away from the circle and whirl around on their own in an ever quicker tempo. Shrieks and angry cries interrupted the singing and the air seemed charged with aggression as the women worked themselves into a frenzy. Woe to the man who would dare to come within sight of these furies! I could fully believe what I had been told, that the raging women would fall upon a male intruder and beat him senseless or even kill him. Nobody could blame them afterwards since they were possessed and had therefore lost control of their actions. It seemed to me that the ngoma ya Shetani was a female outcry, a protest against male dominance. Maybe this was the only time women could act out their frustration and their pent-up resentment against men. No wonder men kept silent and hid in their huts during the time the Shetani was around. I could imagine the grudge the men would have against the unwise husband who had unleashed these evil forces in their village.

From my hiding place I saw one dancing figure after the other clutching the drum and beating away in a fantastically rapid rhythm, thereby igniting the others to an ever-increasing ecstasy. From time to time one of them would be flung to the ground, throwing her arms and legs around, grappling much in the same way as Theresia had done when she announced the Shetani was upon her. Clothes were flying and the smell of singed fabric was in my nose. Suddenly the drumming stopped and the women tumbled to one side of the fire. A few of them started to dance towards the covered figure which I thought was Theresia. They beat their drums again and danced around her and slowly the person under the blanket began to move. As the drumming intensified the women moved faster, making stroking movements over the crouching figure. The blanket fluttered but was not thrown off. I could not see the woman underneath and from a distance it looked as if the blanket was hovering above the ground, moving swiftly in the air in rhythm with the drums. It appeared to be a living being in itself, a grotesque blanket-being! The whole thing looked very spooky to me and I suddenly feared some of the women in their altered state of mind might perceive my presence and discover me behind the trees. I was shivering in the cold night and felt it was time for me to retreat. Slowly and cautiously I backed off from the scene and groped my way back to the path. Only then did I dare to walk upright. Not a soul met me on the way back to the mission; even the animals seemed scared away. I could not help smiling when I thought of all the brave men huddling in their huts anxiously listening to the noise, imagining their women-folk dancing out there with the Devil! I was sure that the memory of such a demoniac orgy would help keep the men in line and warn them not to misuse the right they had over women.

The ngoma ya Shetani continued for three days and four nights. Finally the women, exhausted and still angry, summoned all the men to a meeting. The leader of the dancers announced in front of all the villagers that the Shetani would leave Theresia and the village on the condition that her husband give a new garment to his wife and pay her brother the full bridal price. The Shetani threatened to return and possess Theresia again should the husband continue to mistreat her. Grudgingly the husband consented to the Devil's demands.

He knew that having exposed his fellow men to the risks and embarrassment of a ngoma ya Shetani he could not afford to refuse or else they might well chase him away from the village. He actually had no choice but to pay everything and take better care of Theresia lest the Devil should plague them again. But that was not all. He also had to pay off all the women who had “worked” so hard to cure his wife of her possession and who had with so much effort obliged the Devil to leave the village. Thus the ngoma ya Shetani had helped to restore the equilibrium of power between male and female and to re-establish peace between husband and wife.

Copyright © 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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