When I am rudely and abruptly confronted with something that is entirely outside my realm of experience and incongruous with my ways of thinking, my first reaction is usually one of hilarity. What a nonsensical world! As long as I keep this reaction under wraps, I have found it an immensely useful one. It keeps me from digging into my way of thinking too deeply and going completely crazy.
I had a chance to practice this reaction quite extensively over the past few days. Susan and I attended a summer camp for 15-25 year olds from the Bilwi area. It began with us regaling Neko, the director of my dance group, about the hummingbird that had gotten trapped in our house. "It's a bad omen," he said. "Something bad's going to happen."
His suspicions were confirmed when, on the way to Betania where we were going to camp, we ran into a roadblock set up by some locals. They were angry that the government wasn't sending money to fix the road, so they were barricading it. Neko and the other leaders talked with them for a while about how they totally agreed with them but were just trying to take some young people up to a summer camp. Then the blockade people responded that they completely understood, but if they let the buses through they'd have to let everyone through and then where would they be? This conversation never resolved itself. We ended up turning around our old school bus from Missouri and heading to Tuapi, a small town on the outskirts of Bilwi. "See?" said Neko. "I told you something bad was going to happen!"
We arrived in Tuapi, who let us set up camp in their school. The guys and the girls each got their own classroom to sleep in. We used the river for bathing, and people from the town graciously let us pull water from their wells for cooking, drinking, and cleaning. There was no electricity, so nighttime activities consisted primarily of guitar playing, singing, and talking.
The second night, as I was coming out of the outhouse and wishing I would remember to go in there during the day so I knew exactly where the toilet was, I ran into a girl named Ingrid, falling into Michael's arms on the path in front of me. "She just fainted."he said. I thought they were playing around, and said, "Seriously?"
Several guys rushed over and carried her to the girls' classroom. By the time they arrived, the girl had awoken, screaming and crying. Susan was inside playing with a 5-year-old from the town nearby. "What's going on?" she said.
"Grisi siknis." replied the boy matter-of-factly.
I was sitting with Michael near the classroom, listening to the loud screams that were now filling up the camp, when Xander, one of the other dancers, came over and informed us that the girl had grisi siknis. I had attended a student's senior-year presentation on grisi siknis, so I was familiar with the subject. It's adapted from the English "crazy sickness," and it's a culturally-bound, contagious malady caused by witchcraft. It primarily affects young women. The first symptom is usually fainting, followed convulsions and visions of riders on bloodstained horses beckoning them into the wilderness.
We waited silently in the dark as the directors of the camp brought a Bible to put under her head and pray to cast the demons out. "Why are there so many men in there with her?" I asked one of the women who was watching. "To keep her from running away into the wilderness!" replied the woman, clearly agitated. I sat for a while with Michael and two of the other dancers, listening to Ingrid's cries. In that moment, I was a not-quite-insider, not-quite-outsider. It frightened me, and yet never touched me because it was so far from my world, even while being within earshot. I started running my hands through Xander's hair to keep myself anchored in the moment. Michael moved closer to me, and admitted he was scared.
Eventually, a truck came and took Ingrid back to Bilwi. Neko informed the group that no one was to leave the immediate area of the two classrooms, and if anyone needed to use the outhouse they were to inform their director and go with an escort of two to four men. I later asked him if that was in case the person fainted, or in order to fight off the evil spirits that might attack. "It's psychological," he replied. "If they believe that the men can protect them, they won't be affected." Like many people in Bilwi, Neko is a not-quite-unbeliever in witchcraft. He spoke the language of psychology, perhaps recognizing his American audience, but when push comes to shove, he too ascribed the events of the evening to witchcraft.
I returned to bed shortly after the girls' classroom cleared out. I discovered that the mattress Michael loaned me had been used for Ingrid during the rituals, so I cleared off the bits of herbs that remained and laid down to go to bed. I was shortly followed by a flood of young women who, as I learned the next morning, had been reluctant to return to the classroom after the nights' events and were waiting for someone else to go to bed before they were willing to face whatever evil spirits might still be lurking about.
Later that night, I was awakened by Franci, the woman in the bed next to mine, moaning, "Giddyup! Giddyup!" At first, I thought someone was having sex outside the window, but I soon realized that Franci had also begun convulsing. Neko and the other directors came back into the room, and we rubbed a mixture of herbs and water into her feet and held her down while she convulsed. "Who's doing this, Franci?" Neko kept saying. "Give me a name!" Franci was not as seriously afflicted as Ingrid, and she recovered within the hour.
Neko later announced that he was certain it was one of the women in the group of students that was practicing witchcraft, and he was going to talk to the Solkia, or the primary healer in the community, and get to the bottom of it. Softened by my confidence in the security of my relationship with Neko as well as lack of sleep, I lost my general acceptance of witchcraft as a part of my new reality and snapped at him for blaming a woman in the absence of any apparent evidence. I didn't really expect to convince him otherwise, but it felt good to vent. Ever since I got here, I have been piled up with reasons to feel vulnerable and afraid because of my gender. I had no interest in having another one, and less interest in women beng made responsible for this vulnerability.
Thoroughly exhausted from the nights' events, we packed up our belongings and prepared to leave the next day. Michael no longer wanted anything to do with the mattress that had been used in the rituals, and instructed me to burn it on the trash pile.
As it turns out, grisi siknis is a common summer camp malady here. When a bunch of kids get together, someone in the camp or someone in a local community uses it as an opportunity to try out the magic they've been practicing. As far as curses go, it's a relatively mild one, paling by far in comparison to demon possessions.
Hilarity works as an initial reaction, but now I am left with the work of reconciling my experience with what I had previously known as my world, in which magic and witchcraft were fantastical or academic questions. What is it about culture that has such power to give our beliefs control over our bodies? As an outsider to this culture, I firmly believe that the demons that haunt this place have no power over me. Still, what of the demons that haunt me back home, the ones that followed me here? The demons that we call anxiety, stress, depression, low self-esteem, and all of the physical maladies they cause? If I stop believing in them, will they no longer have power over me? I wish it were so, but I think I would have to be stronger than my cultural upbringing in order to make that true. Is grisi siknis simply one more manifestation of an experience that is essentially human and is bound to appear everywhere, though the circumstances that trigger it and the way it presents itself vary from place to place? If that's true, then maybe I can avoid catching grisi siknis during summer camp, but that won't stop me from buckling in my own way under life's myriad pressures. The possibility of a culturally accepted avenue of temporarily going crazy is actually quite appealing. I have no doubt that I would have fallen into it at various points during my adolescence, had I grown up in this culture.