Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Clearing the path for our research on the recent explosion of albino killings across Tanzania, Kenya, and Burundi (an issue which Tanzania finally declared, late January 2009, as a human rights abuse—witchdoctors sending men to hunt albinos for their genitals, limbs, and hair for use in spells which supposedly bring their clients wealth) we ventured out to a Borana hotspot, an area in the mountains of Isiolo known as Dargaar where the tribe has recognized a significantly and magically spiritual zone.
We were invited by our friend ‘Coach,’ whom we had met in town. (His name coming from his reputation as being the best soccer coach in the area. The teams here play on dirt fields bedazzled by stones the size of softballs and the boys run barefoot, or wearing sandals at best!) Coach is the grandson of one of the most respected medicine men of the Muslim Boran culture. (Most Boranas here are Muslim.) Although granddaddy has passed away, Coach is well respected within the community and is close to the spiritual doctors who protect the area and visit it every Saturday for communication with the spirits and rituals in accordance to the Quran.
Although the Boranas are a pastoralist tribe, for generations Dargaar has been esteemed as a spiritual spot with a nearby semi-static village to protect it. Most doctors within the tribe make long journeys to the little acacia-covered hill alongside an oasis of a stream in effort to communicate more directly with Allah and ask the spirits to help them find the herbs and plants needed for medical practice.
We packed our newly purchased ‘tent’—an African construction of plastic poles and a thin tarp-covering—a couple bananas (ndizi in Kiswahili) and water (maji) and began our hour trek by foot into the hills. There was no convincing necessary about the sacredness of Dargaar. It was the first time in months we’ve inhaled and breathed air and the scent of trees and dirt and flowering shrubs. (Not years of accumulated human and animal feces, boiling milk, and the stench of burning trash!) We were immediately greeted by a group of teenage girls collecting water for a nearby village (see photo) and once the day began to fade, the doctors from all over the region began to trickle in one by one, carrying nothing but a walking stick and strong legs from a day’s journey.
The moon was high and the fire was roaring, emanating just enough light to look into the tribesmen’s eyes and see kind smiles rather than ferocity and mal-intentions that would have provoked our subconscious minds into thinking further into the possibility that we were here for some sacred killing of mzungus (whites) or for an FGM ceremony which the culture fervently believes in.
They separated Austin and I, as in Islam, women pray with women, and men with men. I shared a small grass-thatched rug with five 60+ year-old medicine women chanting and singing and sitting so incredibly awkwardly that I awoke the next morning with bruises on each side of my hips. I peeked over into Austin’s man-huddle and he was among ten medicine men and Coach, perched in a circle ranking from right to left most noble and well-respected down to Austin, the welcomed pale-faced newcomer. We were advised to bring a cornucopia of miraa (also known as chat: the direct derivative of epinephrine), coffee, sugar, tobacco, tobacco salt (what looks like, and may be, broken fragments of a cowlick), and kerosene. Initially perplexed by the grocery list, we later discovered we had supplied the group of doctors with a prescription to remain awake for the next 48 hours chewing miraa like rabid cattle and drinking enough coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes to keep our soldiers in Iraq awake long enough for their never-ending war.
We chanted various verses from the Quran as smoke plumes swirled about, hovering low and heavy like fog in a Louisiana marsh, initiating our departure from the earthly Dargaar and into the spirit-world where Allah banishes genies and the spirits whisper hidden truths to the doctors regarding their patient’s diseases. The two gender-separated circles seemed to collide together after two hours of collectively repeating ‘Amen’ over and over while looking up into the starry Kenyan night.
I’m not sure if it was specific to the doctors’ belief or if it is inherent in Islam, but the initial prayers that evening were to gather our independent identities, our individuality and come together as one whole. This ideology was reminiscent to my teachings of Hopi beliefs, where before humanity can join with the spirits and reach ‘god,’ humanity must first come together—accept each other as one—and then, and only then, will we be able to reach a higher consciousness (or in this case the spirits and Allah). I liked this prayer. The others, well, the doctors had great voices.
I’m not Muslim. I don’t eat meat. But this night, through the same romantic appeal that wooed me to sit for eight hours beside a mound of burning incense-stone that suffocated every pore and rendered breathing almost impossible, I found myself swallowing roasted goat meat from the night’s sacrificial killing.
The doctors believe their spirits come and linger in areas of blood and bone, so the sacrifice drew them near to us so we could be secure in knowing our prayers were to be communicated to Allah (and the group was able to mow down on fresh animal flesh).
We watched in curious horror as one of the doctors grabbed the goat by the throat, elongating his skinny neck like a hungry python reaching down from the trees in extended effort to snatch his prey. The doctor then drew his steel knife and sawed into the esophagus with one clean cut. The goat dropped to the ground and by reflex began violently slamming his adorable head into the ever-darkening red-dirt. After a good two-minute fight, the goat extended his limbs like Jesus on the cross and relaxed into death.
I’ve never eaten an animal I watched die. I suppose its better than ingesting hormone-pumped, antibiotic-laden meat that has lived the entirety of its life inside a metal factory stepping over and clobbering others, cannibal—not by choice—and rushing with adrenaline from fear and anxiety of a life within the industry of mass-meat production. Yeah, I suppose eating wild goat is better, although he granted me the misfortune of staring directly into my eyes the moments prior to his death, as though I could explain in one evening (or lifetime) to a pastoralist tribe that they shouldn’t eat meat. I didn’t appreciate that much.
The doctors draped his body over the fire, cleaned his insides and placed them in a pot for frying, and hung his head and testicles over a separate fire in medicinal ceremony. If one is ‘mad’, the doctors believe that he will be cured by placing his head in the smoke that is emitted from the roasting goat head. Had it been any other day, I would have gladly smoked goat-head, but after watching a violent death in sacrifice for a violent god, I wasn’t too sure who exactly was the mad one. The testicles—I’ll leave that up to your imagination.
The night continued in Muslim Boran song and dance and the doctors kindly spoke to Austin and I about their medical practices. Some declared themselves simply as herbalists: they collected indigenous plants and herbs for treatment of disease, believing that the plants possessed the spirit of Allah and cured by spirit rather than through the specific chemical structure of the organism (as most herbalists I’ve met believe). Others were called spiritual doctors, whereby they were hyper-sensitive in perception and could communicate with the spirits through actual conversation. The spiritual doctors could see a genie possessing an ill person and would then tell the spirits to remove the genie from the patient, thus healing them. All were of Muslim faith and all denied practicing ‘witchcraft’—magic that created negative effects—but they did admit that they could, if they wanted to.
We slept for a few hours in the early morning and were visited by some form of a living creature which we never saw, but defended from within the tent as it jumped upon it and aggressively poked it’s nose into the zipper. The doctors thought it was a dik-dik, an African antelope, but I’m placing bets that it was a genie.