Call Mama Doctor

Chapter 19. The Maskini Boy

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

Whenever I had the opportunity to work at one of the missions situated in the Mahenge mountains, I felt great relief, not only because of the cool fresh air at night, but because there were always one or two nurses among the many nuns stationed at the Kwiro mission. This gave me some free time since the nurse and her helpers could take care of the dispensary. Calling upon me only for difficult cases, they could look after some of the patients in the small treatment room until I had time to see them.

I loved to go for walks in the mountains and enjoy the scenery before me, overlook the plains below and see the little villages half hidden among the banana groves. The people working in the fields smiled and greeted me as I passed by and the little children came running from the huts to follow me at a distance. I would hear them giggle and whisper behind my back. When I turned around to face them, they would run away laughing but scared at the same time. As I went along the path I would meet men coming home from hunting, bow and arrows in hand, women with their babies on their backs returning from the fields and old women carrying heavy loads of firewood on their heads. I had to admire the physical strength of these fragile looking old women. I once tried to lift their load myself and I was hardly able to place it on my head. After a few steps I had to put the heavy burden down, much to the old women's amusement.

Fields of manioc and millet alternated with landscapes of huge black rocks of fantastic shape where hardly anything but grass and cactus would grow. And then there were mountain streams with lush vegetation along the banks, forgotten coffee plantations long ago cultivated by German planters of the past, with beautiful flowers and trees, not to mention gracious birds of delightful shapes and colors such as I had never seen before. There were unfamiliar smells and noises and at times the frightening experience of hearing animals prowling in the thick underbrush without being able to see them. And above the trees the tropical sun brightening the colors and dazzling the senses.

Once I lost my way among the rocks and trees. I turned a few times on the narrow path and tried to find my way back, but my orientation was gone. Slowly the blissful feeling of being amidst warm and friendly nature gave way to an increasing apprehension. Sunset was nearing and I had been warned that hungry leopards were out looking for prey at dusk. With pounding heart I thought I saw their spotted fur between the trees and behind the rocks. A big black snake appeared on the road and came gliding down the path toward me. I stood motionless, paralyzed. The snake came slowly closer; it seemed to look me directly in the eyes and showed no fear or hurry. Just in front of me it suddenly turned off the road and disappeared into the bush. The majestic tranquility of that snake made a tremendous impact on me, and as I stood there recovering from the shock, I perceived a person hidden among the trees looking at me from some distance. Realizing I had seen him, the person came hesitantly out of the bush. Glad to have found another human being, I hurried towards him, but noticing his fear I slowed my steps. He was a strange sight.

Seemingly a young boy, he had the face of an old man. His expression was humble and mild but also curious and shy as he glanced at me. He looked filthy and neglected and old rags barely covered parts of his body. His skin was wrinkled, dry and cracked, especially on the legs, as one sees it in severely undernourished people and his arms showed thick keloid scars from poorly healed wounds. Flies seemed glued to his body and lumps of dirt stuck to his skin. Behind him I noticed a small ramshackle hut. I felt a spontaneous sympathy for the strange boy.

“Are you living here all alone?” I asked in amazement. “Good afternoon Memsahib,” answered the boy with a dry crackling voice; he was not lacking good manners, but did not say another word, only stood there as if waiting. “I have lost my way, can you show me how to get back to the mission?” I asked. He nodded and started to walk along the path. After a while, he turned his head to make sure I followed, but kept at a distance which made conversation impossible. After we had walked for a while he stopped and with a humble gesture indicated that he wanted to carry my bag. When I declined he looked so disappointed that I gave it to him anyway. He placed it on his head and walked on ahead of me with stiff, clumsy movements. I thought his thin neck would bend under the rather heavy bag, but he marched on unperturbed. As soon as we approached the first settlement he stopped, put down the load and whispered in his strange voice, “Goodbye, Mama Mganga,” then he quickly ran back into the forest. “Who was this boy?” I asked a young woman who was pounding maize in the yard and had seen us coming. She shrugged her shoulders indifferently and as I persisted she explained with some contempt in her voice, “Just a maskini.”

My heart sank; that placed the boy in the category of a social outcast. Maskini means the poor one; the wretched one who through illness, old age or other misfortune has lost his capacity to act as a useful member of society; the useless one who has no productive function. A maskini has no duties any more; he is unable to take the responsibility of keeping himself alive and must be given food and shelter. Families usually look after their own maskini, but if they misbehave they can be chased away. A person who has been labelled a maskini must behave in a certain way. He must be utterly humble and unobtrusive; he cannot take part in any conversation or join the people around the fire unless invited. Usually the maskini sits quietly in a corner or somewhere apart from the others, living on the crumbs left over for him. Quietly and without protest, he must tolerate all kinds of abuse people might heap on him. He is a beggar without any property, privileges or rights in his society, living at the mercy of others. Once a maskini he is beyond blame and arouses no other feelings than contempt or pity.

I felt very sad for the boy, and while I hurried back to the mission I pondered about why this boy was a maskini, and why he was living alone in the forest since maskini usually stay at some hidden place in the villages. Except for some wounds and scars on his body and his clumsy movements, he did not look physically ill and mentally he appeared alert and normal. But he obviously avoided contact with other people. Perhaps the aged expression on his face was due to the hardship of his existence as a social outcast. What could be the matter with him? For days I could not forget the impression he had made upon me with his humble and mysterious silence and his old-young face.

Some days went by until I again found time for a stroll in the mountains. This time I did not venture far and chose a path in another direction. To my great surprise I again met the maskini boy on a lonely part of the road. From then on I would meet him every time I went for a walk, no matter how far apart the places were. How on earth could he know where I would go and when I would take a walk? It seemed weird and I would have been scared had it not been for his unaggressive and humble behavior. There he was, always keeping his distance, hardly speaking a word except for a greeting, disappearing in the bush as soon as anybody else came along or when we came close to a village, always reappearing as soon as everybody was gone. He showed his friendly inclination in many small ways, leading me to beautiful places and pointing out to me birds and animals which I would never have noticed without his keen eyes. Strange it was to know nothing of his life and still to feel his kindness. Whenever I tried to make some personal contact he became anxious and unhappy and never answered my questions. Sometimes I sat down to eat and offered him some food. Then his face lit up and he reached for it with trembling hands, saliva running from his mouth. His face continued to fascinate me and one day I brought along my charcoal pencil and paper and asked if he would allow me to draw his portrait. I do not think he understood what I meant, but he sat quietly looking straight ahead while I did the drawing. The only time I saw him smile was when I showed him the finished portrait, but even then he did not say a word. Who knows what he was thinking! There were days or even weeks when I had no time for hikes in the mountains but whenever I ventured out alone, that strange boy, the maskini, was at hand.

On Sundays I sometimes attended Mass at the mission. I liked to see the people gathered in their best clothes, the women with the curious and smiling little children on their backs. One Sunday during the service a terrible cry rang through the church. It sounded like the cry of a dying person and terrified the people. Panic-striken they rushed for the doors. The children screamed with fear as they squeezed through the doorways, but I remained in my seat, fearing the stampeding masses more than whoever had caused the turmoil. Finally everybody was outside and in the silence of the deserted church I heard some strange noises coming from a dark corner. I went over and found my friend the maskini writhing in convulsions. That was what was wrong with him. The poor boy was an epileptic and while hiding in a corner of the church a sudden epileptic attack had thrown him to the floor. I helped him as best I could and when the convulsions had quietened down I got some people to carry the unconscious boy to our dispensary where I gave him an anticonvulsive injection. After about half an hour the boy came to his senses. When he looked up and saw me and the nurse, he understood that we had watched him having an epileptic seizure. His eyes widened with fear. He jumped to his feet and before we got over our amazement, he staggered down the road and disappeared from our view.

After that, the maskini did not turn up to accompany me on my walks in the mountains anymore. The nurse then told me that people dreaded epileptics and believed an evil spirit possesses the convulsing person, hence the panic in the church. Those afflicted are deeply ashamed of their condition and accept social isolation as a matter of course. I could now understand the boy's behavior and feelings and I decided that I would try to help him. I took with me a small bottle with phenobarbital tablets, a well known anticonvulsive medication, and went to the place where I had first met the boy. It took me a long time to find the spot where I had encountered the snake and I proceeded cautiously lest I should come upon the creature unawares. But everything remained quiet in the hot mid-day sun and finally I saw the little hut among the trees. I called the boy, but he did not come out. “Don't be afraid of me, maybe I can help you.” No answer. Had the timid youngster left for good? His desolate hut appeared to be empty, but I slowly approached and found him crouched behind his little garden, hiding from view as best he could. “Listen, my friend,” I said gently, “I know the illness you have and I am not afraid of it. Come here, I have a medicine with me which will take away your attacks.” But the boy did not move or raise his eyes. I sat down beside him and saw his quivering mouth and tears running from his lowered eyes. He looked so miserable I would have liked to take him in my arms but I did not want to scare him away. I spoke to him for a long time, telling him that I could see no reason for him to feel embarrassed. In my eyes it was not his fault that he had fallen ill. Finally I placed the container with the little white tablets in front of him and told him to take one every evening before going to sleep. He stared at the medicine and his body started to tremble, but he still did not move or say a word. “Will you take the medicine?” I asked and waited until he hesitatingly nodded his head. I left some food with him and said I would come again in a couple of weeks.

Two weeks later I returned with more food and medicine. This time the boy came forth. He grasped my hand and said in his crackling voice, “Mama Mganga, I have not had any more seizures.” He eagerly received his supply of medicine for another two weeks. From then on he greeted me with a smile and a new air of hope lit up his face. I noticed that he was keeping himself clean and that he had thatched the roof of his little hut and worked his garden. The whole place looked friendlier and when he now accompanied me, he would begin to respond to my questions. It took many walks before I was able to piece together his tragic life story.

As a little boy he lived with his parents in a village not far from the mission. He was the youngest of three brothers, but as he was bright and eager to learn, the parents decided to let him go to school at the mission. Competition for admission to this school was stiff and many dismal parents had to return home with their weeping children who failed the entrance examination. However, the boy learned English quickly and got into second grade without difficulties. His mother felt so proud and happy, she forgot the old peoples' advice never to brag about one's children and praised her clever son in front of her neighbors. Too late she saw jealousy in the eyes of a neighboring woman whose son had been rejected at the same school. Frightened, she returned home, not daring to mention what had happened.

One day the boy was alone at home studying. The neighbor woman entered. She went up to the boy and pressed her hands against his head. The frightened boy heard her mutter some words and her hands felt like a burning ring around his head. The woman looked into his eyes and said, “Poor boy, you will soon be sick and have fits.” Then she hurried out. When his mother came home she found her son huddling in a corner, trembling and sobbing from fear. The boy told her what had occurred and the whole family became apprehensive and fearful of what was going to happen. A few days later the boy had his first epileptic seizure, and everybody was convinced that the neighbor woman had used magic poison on him. But hoping that there would not be any more attacks and wanting to keep the shameful event secret they decided to take no action against her, and the boy returned to school as if nothing had happened. Unfortunately he had his second attack right in the middle of the classroom. The children fled in terror and even the African teacher left the room. When the boy came to himself he was alone in the school and cried bitterly, knowing too well that the news about his disease would spread to all the villages where the schoolchildren lived. Still he went back to school the next day, but the teacher told him to stay away. The children looked at him as if he were a dangerous being. Not even his closest friends would put in a word for him. As he stood there forsaken, the teacher told him to go home and that if he turned up again the parents of the other children would forbid them to attend school. The boy realized that he had no chance and, discouraged, he went home.

In the beginning of his illness the family was supportive and tried to make up for his misfortune, but as his attacks became more frequent they felt embarrassed and afraid. Since it was the general belief that the evil spirit which possesses the epileptic might jump over to any bystander during a seizure, or be transmitted by the saliva frothing from the mouth and by the urine going off, not even his mother would dare to stay with him and help him. It happened therefore that he burned himself on an open fire during a fit, left alone as he was. His father took him to a medicine man but the old man shook his head and said it was too late to help as the boy already had burns on his body. Embittered, the father called a baraza, a village court, and accused the neighbor woman of witchcraft. She was called in front of all the elders at the baraza to defend herself. She, of course, denied having harmed the boy and said she had heard the boy cry and went over to see what was the matter. There were no other witnesses and with only the poor boy's words against hers, she was acquitted.

Now friends and neighbors started to avoid the family. The boy's younger sisters cried if he wanted to play with them and his brothers, afraid that he might have a seizure, did not take him along on their excursions any more. When he sometimes hit them in frustration, he was severely punished by his parents. He was told never to touch another person; his food was prepared in separate dishes and he had to fetch his own water from a waterhole far away. Even at night he had to stay away from the others and sleep alone close to the door. With growing grief he realized how everybody, even his mother, avoided his company. Soon his parents started to call him maskini and used a harsher voice when talking to him than when speaking to the other children. He tried to rebel and the parents finally decided that he had to leave the home. His father knew of an old abandoned hut in the forest. That was where he would have to live. His mother wept when they accompanied him to the lonely place and she helped him plant a small garden while his father repaired the hut. The boy remembered how desperately frightened he was when he found himself abandoned there in the forest. In the beginning he would run home when fear overwhelmed him, but each time he turned up at home his parents became increasingly annoyed and took him back to his lonely abode. His father warned him not to come close to the village. Anyone knowing that he was an epileptic possessed by evil spirits could stone him, chase him away or even kill him.

During his first year in the bush his mother would visit him or persuade one of his brothers to bring him some food, but then visits became less and less frequent and he had to spend most of his time in solitude struggling for survival as best he could. He seldom dared to make a fire or venture far away from his hut lest he would have an attack. His life became burdensome, but fatigue and hunger dulled his senses. As there was nothing to look forward to he became depressed and resigned himself to his wretched existence, only awaiting the day when he would succumb to some illness or drown or burn to death in an attack. His only comfort had been to hide in a corner of the church, listening to the music and ceremony of the Sunday mass.

In spite of the fact that on medication he had no further attacks, the boy remained depressed and withdrawn. My suggestion that he might return home now that he was free of seizures only aroused apprehension and renewed fear. I thought about a way of getting him out of his fatalistic apathy.

One day when he appeared in a good mood I told him that, encouraged by the good recovery he had made, I wanted to start a treatment center for epileptics. I would offer the medication he was receiving to any epileptic who wanted to be treated. I told him that I needed a helper who could speak English well and who knew the local people, their customs and their language. Since he himself had experienced both the illness and its treatment, and as I considered him a clever boy, thought he would be well-suited for such a job. The boy was silent for a long time. It was moving to observe how his face reflected conflicting feelings of hope and fear. “Then I would not be a maskini any more,” he whispered, and after a little while he added, “I would be able to go home.” I could see his anxiety mount as he wondered whether or not they would accept him at home and I quickly added, “If you will be my helper you will receive a small salary, and for the time being I would prefer that you stay at the mission so that you could be available all the time.” The boy seemed to grow. He stood up. A new dignity shone in his eyes. “All right, Mama Mganga, I accept.” He looked me straight in the face and with a faint smile he said, “You help me by letting me help you.”

Copyright © 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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