Sunday, August 23, 2009

Religiousness in Atiak: Part One

The term “witch doctor” falls with some dissonance upon modern ears. The witch is the figure that works magic or deals in witchcraft. She is the conduit of unseen and sometimes diabolical powers. But the doctor addresses only the seen. He sets out from the appearances and will craft ever new machinery to see deeper. He cuts the body into its meaning with a sharp gaze and brings health for which no sacrifice must be made. The merger of these terms feels like some contradiction, an insult of sorts to the doctor, whose profession we have learned to privilege against the superstitious confusion that accompanies the witch. The Acholi word over which the colonial power placed witch doctor sounds like something to the effect of ajwaka. The name of the ajwaka that I met was Flo.

She led us out of the coolish breeze of the afternoon into her hut. As we sat upon mats made from papyrus, she shooed away some stray chicks and laid a dried goat skin down in the middle of the floor. I had a feeling like maybe I was about to learn a secret, as though something had been kept from me for a long time but that now some kind of truth would be shared. We greeted her and I asked questions about her style.

She had been in the vocation for nearly 20 years, moving all across Uganda rocking her trade. Sometimes she was just rolling up on a new scene, sometimes she was fleeing the war and sometimes she was summoned by cats who felt her style. She hadn’t been in Atiak that long, but mad cats knew about her and she maintained ties with the town community leaders. Apparently, if ever cats rolled up on her talking things that were important to the town, she would let the authorities know about it. I couldn’t figure if that was a bit narcish or simply a version of community service.

I asked her how it is that she did what she did. She was like, let me show you my tools. She then pulled out a goat’s head and emptied from it an assortments of beads, coins and cowry shells. She handed me one in particular for closer inspection; upon it was the face of Queen Victoria. On the other side was knight-looking dude killing a dragonish creature. I tossed the coin back into her pile, where it came to rest by a bore’s tooth and a crucifix. I asked her about it and she assured me that she was a good catholic and she asks God to bless her work before she begins.

She said that when someone comes to her with a problem, she used these tools to figure out exactly what is wrong and what the solution is. The general style goes like this: she throws the beads upon the floor and begins a kind of communication with the spirits who tell her what needs to be done. Most often, the solution is to gather things from nature to make medicine. Sometimes, drumming and singing or animal sacrifices are necessary. There is a basic fee for the small jobs and the spirits will tell her what to charge if the task is great.

I asked her if the spirits of which she spoke were the jok. They were. She told me particular names of the jok and at some point in the list she told me of the jok rubanga. This spirit is responsible for afflicting people with hunchback, she said. It seemed that I had corroboration for p’Bitek Okot’s account; perhaps it was true after all that the early missionaries gave the name of the hunchback spirit to Jesus’ father. Despite an apparent research breakthrough, I found myself wishing that this were not the case; it would be a painful metaphor for the church’s disconnection from the people it claims to be serving. I asked her about the name and why it appeared to be the name that the catholics used for God. Either she did not have a clear answer or its clarity was lost between her and the TBA who translated for me. Perhaps I should have pursued the matter further. And perhaps there is no answer that reflects well on Papal authority.

I listened as she told me about people who she has helped. With the help of the jok, she has made barren women conceive. She has straightened out the hunchback brought on by Rubanga. I get the impression that she may have even made it rain on occasion. Take that, Fat Joe. She told us also that she had never been to a hospital or health unit, that any ailment that befalls her she cures with herbs or other means revealed to her by the jok. Once again I felt the mystifying connection between the supposedly supernatural and the physical. There are so many ways of putting the world together; it almost seems a sin to live one's entire life from a few limited grids.

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