Sept 9 My favorite part of the day is a quick lunchtime dip in the lake to cool off from the midday heat. I grabbed a mask and snorkle for my swim and started to venture in. The water was especially rough – it is always surprisingly rough for a lake, but today epecially so – and I had to use all of my strenght prevent my body from being slammed against the rocks by the waves. After 10 minutes or so of alternating between clambering over rocks and bracing myself against them, I made it out into the open water. No sooner was a free than I realized the snorkle had fallen off the mask somewhere in the process. I began to look for it but the sea proved too rough for me to accomplish anything without cracking my head open. But, as the mask and snorkle didn’t belong to us, Max valiantly braved the chop to continue the search.
I had been watching from shore for another 10 minutes or so when I realized my engagement ring was gone. (My fingers have been mysteriously thin since I arrived in Africa, and rings equally loose. Unfortunately the trend has not migrated to the rest of my body.) I burst into tears and walked over to the edge. Max popped up and asked what was wrong. I raised my hand and pointed to my finger.
“Oh, you mean this?” he asked, holding up my ring. “I just found it sitting on a rock at the bottom.” We never did find the snorkle.
Sept 15 One of the widows I work with recently lost her 15 year old daughter, allegedly to malaria. M. explained to me what happened. Five weeks ago she was sent home from school complaining of a headache at the base of her neck, and blurred and blacked out vision. She kept losing site of the blackboard. She had a high fever so M. brought her to the hospital, where she was almost immediately diagnosed with malaria and started on the appropriate course of drugs. After 3 days she was discharged. The next morning she woke up in a frenzy because two women had visited her during the night demanding things that she didn’t have. A nightmare, I thought. No, witches, M. told me. Witches were also the source of the headache. The headache and fever grew worse throughout the day. Around dusk she staggared out to the middle of the room, vomitted, and promptly dropped dead. M. is certain that witches took her daughter.
Belief in witchcraft around here is alive and well, even among the highly educated and devoutly religous. If you wake in the morning with a headache, witches have been meddling in your head at night. When you hear dogs howl at dawn or dusk, witches are passing overhead. It’s the witch plane, as some call it. Some believe that witches fly to Mozambique, Zambia, and other neighboring countries for training.
Witches are often blamed for untimely and sudden deaths, as in the case of M.’s daughter. Naturally, such deeply ingrained beliefs further complicate the challenge of health education, particularly around prevention and treatment of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Many westerners scoff at the notion of witchcraft as silly superstition that can easliy be debunked with some basic education. But when you hear the conviction in M.’s voice when she talks of witches taking her daughter you can begin to understand that this isn’t some silly superstition. It is a much more deeply embedded part of the culture that needs to be taken seriously when devising development schemes, particularly in the field of health. Culture cannot be wiped out with a few books and some disinfectant.
Sept 16 I was walking with a Malawian friend along the dirt path connecting two villages. As we crossed a wooden footbridge over swampy grassland she pointed to the water below. I saw a massive decapitated snake, 4 meters or so in length.
“Cobra. You know cobra? Very dangerous snake.” Yes, I am aware, thank you. And totally freaked out by the sight of it. She pointed to a house up the hill.
“Cobra in my friend’s house last night. She killed it.” She made a swooshing motion with her arms, as though she were holding a machete.
“Cut off its head with a big knife.”
You better believe that a cobra check is now the first thing I do every time I return to our room. Hopefully I’ll never actually find one – somehow I don’t think our little pocket knife would do the job. So I’m putting all my faith into Plan B: run like hell and scream bloody murder. Wish me luck.