On a recent field visit to Eastern Kenya region,I made a surprise visit to a local witchdoctor.
It wasn’t my appointment exactly,but my driver’s,Makau,who also acts as guide in this extensive region.
The reason for this trip to the witchdoctor was shrouded in mystery and when I asked Makau,my colleague, why he was going to this superstitious clinic, he only rubbed his stomach
and said:“I been sick three weeks.”
Makau had already visited the clinic 60
kilometers away at Makueni to see the ‘modern’ doctors, but he was still feeling ill and now seeking a traditional remedy.
Knowing that my community (Kikuyu tribe) liked to experience this intriguing tribal custom of Kambas, Makau had
thoughtfully invited me to visit (Mganga) the witch doctor, with him.
Now Makau’s slight figure marched across the fields, back straight,
arms swinging and head set firmly towards the horizon, while I stumbled behind, eyes trained to the ground.
From time to time he waited for me to
catch up, but as soon as I drew close and slowed to take in the scenery, he sped off again, apparently indifferent to the fiery sun, rough terrain and my aching lungs.
Eventually we arrived and were ushered into a tiny thatched hut where the dread-locked mganga awaited us, wearing a smart shirt, a pink scarf, a blue blanket and a huge smile.
After cheerfully shooing away two curious children, he sat down on the dirt floor, back and legs straight, ankles
The smell of smoke filled the air, and dust clung to an array of bottles and jars
clustered behind him.
Makau and I sat down too and, as our eyes grew used to the flickering
darkness, the consultation began.
Mganga and talked to each other in kikamba with low, urgent voices, while I watched and listened, but understood nothing.
The Mganga carefully unwrapped a paper
parcel and took out some small bones.
He cupped them in his hands, shook them and dropped them deliberately, then mumbled softly to himself and
shook his head.
His magic rituals and charismatic energy transfixed us, and Makau and I watched
carefully, trying to read the secret messages hidden in the pattern of the bones and the Mgaanga‘s body language.
I was looking forward to seeing which of the assorted containers held the
cure for Makau’s ailment.
Our meeting ended abruptly, the bright sunlight breaking its spell as the Mganga waved goodbye.
Makau maintained his usual silence all the way on drive to my temporary home and walked me right back to my door.
I thanked him for taking me, but was still curious about what treatment the nyanga had prescribed him.
I waited for him to confirm my suspicion that
we’d driven and sometimes walked in hot midday sun some 30 kilometers only to be hoodwinked by a charlatan.
I hadn’t seen any money change
hands, but I guessed Makau had traded
something(or had incurred a debt to be setlled in future after the promised cure) for an hour of hocus-pocus and a
For African people, it’s rude to look at someone straight in the eye but, if Makau had not been an African just like me, I’m sure he would have looked right
at me as he revealed the witchdoctor’s advice:
“He told me to keep taking the pills they gave me at the clinic in Makueni”