African medicine

For as long as I have been aware of my body I remember having an aching belly every now and then. It responds to the magnitude of impressions by just refusing to play along any longer and demands immediate rest. The same happens to me in Africa. I need to catch my breath for a few days. The Dutch pace I was trying to maintain is now turning itself against me. I decide to take some rest and to stay in bed for a day.

Being ill = being on your deathbed!
Azou is crazy with worry. In Africa being ill is nearly equal to dying. Not so strange a thought if you know that there is no money to pay for a reassuring visit to the doctor’s. Many people die just out of the blue without anyone knowing what was wrong with them. Now Azou is afraid I am dying. No matter how I try telling him about how I know my body and that this will all be over within a few days, still I fail to convince him. Shouldn’t you be going to hospital, let me order a taxi, shall I call for the Marabout (medicine man).  I answer ‘no’ to all his questions which only drives him to deeper despair. He sits by the side of my bed with a sad face. Every time I open my eyes he still sits there in the same position. He doesn’t leave my side for a minute. He refuses to eat – how can I eat if my guest can’t join me – is his logic. At night he lies on the cold stone floor next to my bed and regularly shines a flashlight in my face to check whether I’m still alive. The next day my belly doesn’t feel much better yet. I tell him and his face becomes even more sad.  Again he asks questions about hospitals, taxis and so on. Again I respond that is really not necessary. To comfort him I guarantee that I will go to hospital if the situation has not improved in three days. I know from experience that my illness will not take that long anyway.

Unstoppable compassion
Then hell brakes loose. Apparently the word has spread in the village that I do not feel well and one visitor after the other comes to sit by my side.  Chairs are being dragged along since hardly anyone pays a visit without bringing the whole family. Everyone wears a serious expression on their face. Being ill is only the messenger of death. They stroke my feet and mumble prayers. In the afternoon I feel worn out with all the talking and I really don’t want to see anyone for a while. It is all very well intended but also incredibly tiring.  Even if you are not ill it would be exhausting. The majority of the visitors hardly speak any French and all I can do to express my gratitude for their compassion is showing a faint smile.

African medicine
At the end of the afternoon Azou allows visitors to come in again though. This time it is the sweet people who have gone into the bush to fetch medicine. After accepting about a dozen of different leaves, twigs, barks of trees and a number of undefined substances – all with lengthy explanations about preparation and use and that at least twice since you never know if the Dutch lady gets it the first time –  I ask Azou to keep the visitors outside. Being ill in Africa is no joy, I am aware now, but the compassion is unprecedented.

Azou has a miracle cure
When all is quiet again I start to think about how to prevent such a day from happening again. The only solution I can think of is to no longer be ill. I decide to take a mega dosis of laxative. Belly empty, owner healthy, was my thought. Azou finds proof in my being seriously ill when witnessing the number of pills I am about to take. Again he starts his plea for hospital, taxis etc. As I explain what the pills are for he argues that there is an African medicine that surely is a better option and moreover it is only the size of a pin head and not such an alarming quantity that I am about to take now and that he will go get it immediately and that I must be patient and how he’s sure about it is the best medicine ever and that so many people have benefitted from it before so I just need to be patient for a while, why haven’t I mentioned this before anyway and…. and…

He is just so happy that the problem is clear, that he has the solution and that he can finally do something. All of a sudden he’s no longer the gloomy man who has been clenched to my bed for days but the energetic Diola medicine man who will sort that one out. After two hours he returns with a putty-like ball, the size of a baby’s pink nail. He takes half of it, stirrs it through a glass of water of which I am allowed to take one gulp. With radiant hopeful eyes he tells me to wait for five minutes. He quickly runs out to get a plate of food – his guest is now recovering after all – and takes his position next to my bed. I don’t notice a thing after five minutes. No change after ten minutes, half an hour or even after three quarters of an hour. I’ve already stopped believing in this miracle medicine and I’m not particularly looking forward to tomorrow. Europeans have a watch and Africans have time so Azou is just as full of hope as an hour before. Time seems a flexible concept. Five minutes for him equals an hour for us Dutch. After that 1 hour I have quite a busy night. I keep going from bed to bathroom and back, being watched cheerfully by Azou who is only a step away from encouraging me. The next morning I feel all cheered up again.

Miraculous healing
Ousenou is running errands in the village and apparently he informs everyone about the miraculous cure since there aren’t any visitors today. That is – Azou’s family does come by to check and families in Africa tend to be fairly large and in addition his best friends do need to know how the Dutch lady is really doing. So after this last group of visitors leave – the size of which that fits a small wedding – tranquillity returns in our home and in the village. Still for days I am being pursued by the cheerful question if I am really well again. When replying with an equally cheerful ‘yes’, people all answer with a meaningful smile: Medicin Africain, c’est bon n’est ce pas? There are no secrets in this community.


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