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Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Sometimes You Need a Good Witchdoctor

     Readers of my vintage might remember a program called On Safari, by a husband-and-wife film team, Armand and Michaela Denis. In the mid-1950s they decided to settle in Kenya, residing in a Nairobi hotel while their house was being built at Langata, 11 miles out of town. That was how the trouble started. Michaela had been so engrossed in watching the Sikh carpenters and Kikuyu workmen, that she casually left a certain heavy biscuit tin in the dressing room. Only when they had returned to the hotel did she realise she had forgotten it. Feebly, she agreed to her husband's suggestion to wait until the morning to go back.
     Their friend, Tom Stobart in fact returned by half past nine the next day, and phoned to announce that the box had gone. "What was in it?" he asked.
     "Thousands of pounds worth of jewellery, that's all," she replied. She always carried it around with her.
     Of course, the Criminal Investigation Department did their best, but they suspected that the jewels had been smuggled out of the country within twenty-four hours. The list of suspected "fences" was eleven double-sided foolscap pages long. So Michaela decided to do what she considered should have been done in the first place: she asked her two African assistants to take her to a mganga, or witchdoctor.
     It came as a surprise that the witchdoctor turned out to be a beautiful woman in a European dress who, after being taken to the house, and the dressing room, immediately laid hands on the exact spot were the biscuit box had been placed. Unwrapping a bow-like object from its serval skin covering, she drew a circle with white powder around the place where the box had been. She then shook some beads and beans on the serval skin on the floor, and began to chant.
     "This is a Hindi," she intoned. "There are five Hindi here." (Hindi is the Swahili word for Indian.) "There are five Hindi working here and one of them has taken the box. He is the tallest Hindi and he is the one who gives orders."
     Armand confirmed that there were, in fact, five Sikh carpenters, and that the overseer was the tallest one. They summoned him. Meanwhile, she conducted another form of divination, this time with the bow, and again announced, "He is the thief."
     When the tall Indian then arrived, she again repeated, "He is the thief". The accused said nothing, his face as pale as his presumably brown pigment would allow. Michaela decided to take it to the next step.
     "I want you to curse the man who has stolen, unless he returns the jewels within three days," she said. After all, if he were innocent, no harm would come, and if he were guilty, he might return the jewels.
     The mganga took Michaela's hand, spat on it, shook some yellow powder into it, and then placed the Indian's hand in hers. Michaela felt her strength drain out, and she could not remove the hand until the witchdoctor touched her. Of course, this might have been merely a psychological response.
     The tension on the site for the following two days could be cut with a knife. And on the third day - surprise, surprise! - the headman fell off the roof and broke his leg.
     Filled with contrition, Michaela returned to the witchdoctor with a present and asked her to remove the curse. "I know my husband has done wrong," wept the headman's wife, when they arrived at his house. She begged them to remove the curse. The witchdoctor did so.
     "I cannot tell you where the jewels have gone, Memsahib," said the conscience stricken headman. "They would kill me."
Reference: Michaela Denis (1956), Leopard in My Lap, W. H. Allen & Co, chapter 14.

     Now, I have an amateur interest in anthropology, and I have noticed that anthropologists have certain blind spots. One is that, although they will describe in detail the methods of witchdoctors and shamans, they hardly ever enquire about their success rate, or seek to determine whether mundane explanations are available. Their assumption appears to be that it is all a load of rubbish, and so there is no need for investigation. Perhaps they are right, but if you take that attitude, no belief system will ever be able to defend itself. So let us attempt to apply Occam's razor to this account.
     I think it obvious that the culprit's accident was no accident, but a self-fulfilling prophesy. Either he was distracted by worrying over the curse, or he subconsciously willed himself to fall. True, he was not a tribal African, but it shouldn't be assumed that he was immune to the local superstitions - especially since he was not strong in his own religion. (Sikhism does not encourage jewel theft, as far as I am aware.)
     The real question is: how did the witchdoctor identify him. If the suspects had been lined up, she would have had no problem finding the guilty party; he would have given himself away by the subtle clues of a guilty conscience. Reports of this nature are legion. However, in this case, the diviner was able to identify him before any of the suspects were brought on the scene. Did she detect something noteworthy as soon as she arrived at the building site? Was she somehow plugged into the "bush telegraph" so that she knew all about the crimes in the local area? Or was she truly clairvoyant?
     Mrs Denis never did recover her jewels, but she did leave us with a piece of advice: "A woman on safari had best leave her jewellery at home."

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