Chapters 26 to 28: Illness and medicine
It is a general belief among the Bubis that illness, especially serious and long-lasting illness, is never the result of natural causes, but rather is caused by the evil influence of wizards, charms, curses, or enchantments. Above all and before all, illness stems from the spirits of their grandparents who have been insulted or offended by the patient or his family.
Hence it is that they have so much horror and fear of curses, for the erroneous belief is that no one can possibly prevent or avoid their fearful and fatal effects. Hence, too, that they show so much solicitude in fostering favor with the spirits and, when things turn contrary, attempting to satisfy them with sacrifices, drinks, and funereal feasts.
In Bubi belief, natural agents lack power to create something so unpleasant as illness. In the first place, God does not send illnesses because, although it is certain that God created man, it is equally certain that once a man is created, God more or less loses interest in him.
The climate, atmospheric changes or disturbances, heat, cold, humidity, the sun and rain are all things created by God for the well-being and happiness of man; therefore, they cannot directly cause illness to someone. Furthermore, God, being the Supreme Being and creator of all and of all things on Earth, cannot be the cause of anything bad, either spiritually or physically. Even misfortunes coming from such random events as falling palm trees, snake bites, scorpion or other insect stings, are never considered accidents, but rather quite intentional deeds by some witch or wizard.
These ideas teach us the reason the Bubi have been so slow or negligent in obtaining or seeking out natural medicines. They have some, to be sure, and of that we will talk later; but they are so few and primitive that they demonstrate very clearly the little importance and scarce utility that they attribute to the use of medicines. Today they believe more in the effectiveness of the remedies of the foreigners; nevertheless, they never fail to first consult with the witch doctor for him to bless or pray for them.
Minor illnesses they give no importance, but when the situation turns serious, they transfer the patient to the rojia or rohia or chapel of the spirit protector known in their environs to be the most strong and powerful. There they hope the spirit will take the sick one under his tutelage and protection and free him from the curse to cure him.
If the symptoms worsen, they hang a countless number of amulets (roobo or roomo) on the walls. Other amulets are tied to the patient’s arms, waist, and legs or hung from his neck. In the entrance to the hut they raise an arch of reeds, from which they hang snail shells, feathers from chickens and other birds, tufts of hair from sheep, leaves from the sacred iko tree, and others that they think possess the virtue of frightening and driving away the malignant spirits, who bring all calamities to this vale of tears.
They consult with the most renowned witch doctor. He takes up his magical little calabash filled with small, very fine pieces of shells or shellfish and begins his sorcery: He evokes the spirits and asks them to reveal the illness, its cause, and the medicine most effective for its cure.
The Bubi call upon the spirits and assure that they answer. They call upon them and they talk to them through whistling. Ordinarily, none of the spectators understands the questions nor the responses during the evocation. The most important thing to the witch doctor is that no one present himself with empty hands, but that those consulting him offer gifts and presents, consisting in the present time of wads of tobacco and bottles of liquor, especially cognac.
The witch doctor, before responding to the spectators, asks them many questions. If they ask him about the cause of the illness, he asks if they had fulfilled all the duties that the living have for the dead, and, according to the answer, declares with great seriousness and aplomb that the cause is this or that spirit.
This happened in Basupú of the West in 1911. The eldest brother died, and after some months another individual from the same family became ill. As the state of the sick one worsened, they consulted with the witch doctor as to the cause of his deterioration. The witch doctor inquired if the family had forgotten to make a small memorial to the big brother’s soul and masterfully resolved that the sick one would get better when the altar was finished. The divination of the witch doctor proved false. The patient didn’t get better, but worsened, and at the end of a couple of weeks he was with the deceased of his family — but the witch doctor was doing very well with his bottles of cognac.
Other times the witch doctor claims that the cause of the illness is the soul of the patient’s father or another of his grandparents, which desires that he sacrifice some goats or chickens, etc. Therefore, if he truly desires to restore his health, the sacrifice is indispensable.
In regard to this, I am going to refer to something that happened to an infidel Bubi. In one of my frequent trips to the small settlements in the Batete heights, upon entering in one of them, I heard some strange whistles, very soft and continuous. The man with me said: Pale, ba ohas’a barimó. (“Father, they are worshipping the spirits.”) To better hear this, I entered the hut where we heard their whistles. I found the witch doctor, in fact, seated on a stool (eonda); at his back, a retable in the manner of an altar, from which hung goat skulls and different amulets (roobo).
The sorcerer had a small stick propped between his legs that he continuously moved with both hands while whistling and evoking the spirits. The spectators were seated on logs facing him. To one side, a fat tree fern stalk was driven in the ground and on top of it they had placed a large clay vessel that the Bubis filled at times with palm wine, other times with sea water, in honor of their spirit protectors. At that time it held tobacco leaves that were gifts the spectators offered the witch doctor.
I asked the man with me if he understood what the witch doctor was saying with his whistling. He answered that no one understood, because the witch doctor was not speaking in Batete dialect, nor that of Biapa, which among the Bubi is the official language for incantations or spirit evocations.
For a long time we listened to the whistles and contemplated the witch doctor’s actions. He did not lose his composure with my inopportune entrance, and continued evoking the spirits without noticing my presence.
At the end I interrupted him, saying to him: Mme o sahe Molubbela? (“What are you doing, Molubbela?”) He answered me with confidence: Mme ‘n sahe? Nk’ ohasa morimóñi. (“What am I doing? I am worshipping and invoking my spirit.) O ta ohasa o morimomoa? (“You don’t invoke your spirit?”)
Nchi añe nda lapea anch’ a barimó o ohía. (“No, I never invoke the spirits.”) Aleñi’, n’k’ ohasa a Potó mala a bahas’ a barimó bahá. (“I only adore God, who created all the spirits,”) I replied.
I said good-bye to the witch doctor Molubbela, who died unfaithful, as he had lived, the day of the Nativity in 1915.
Much later I visited the sick one called Sochí, for whom that day Molubbela was evoking the spirits. I asked him what resulted from the evocation to his family spirits.
“You already can suppose what it was,” he responded to me, “since you know enough of our things. I will tell you that the spirits of our ancestors are very angry with me and my family because all of my brothers and sisters live in the Catholic mission, and they tell me that it is not possible to appease them with sacrifice while my siblings won’t flee from the new and abandon the mission; and, thus, I am condemned to die.”
“Infallibly you will die,” I replied to him, “because the sickness that you suffer is serious and incurable, and although you might offer to the spirits of your grandparents all the goats and chickens in the world, you will die from it.” His reply was a very sad expression, with a smile indicating a most deep melancholy.
He did not at that time give credence to my reasons. The sickness followed its natural course until it put him on the threshold of death. In arriving at this sad last moment, he ordered me to call on him. With sincerity and touched by God’s grace he told me: "Father, you have assured me that all the spirits together, good and bad, cannot go against the effective will of God. Now I understand this truth. Therefore, I renounce in this supreme instant all the spirits and devils, and I pray to you give me the water of God (baptism). I want to die as a Christian and go where God is.”
He was slowly learning the truths of our faith. I gave him the healthy water he so yearned to receive, and after three days he passed from this world to the happy mansion of the fortunate. Much had the prayers of his daughter, who was already in heaven, contributed to the conversion of this man, who was the richest in the region. She had been the first of Batete who received Holy Baptism after the founding of that mission, in 1887.
27. Bubi Medicine
One of the most clear and evident proofs of the simplicity, integrity, and purity of ancient Bubi customs is the unfamiliarity and ignorance that they had of syphilitic or venereal disease. This disease, so common in longshoremen, the elder Bubis confess, was imported on the island by the bapoté or foreigners, especially by the Bakruma (1). They would unite with Bubi women who had fled their villages and taken refuge on the beach or in the cacao farms, infect them, and communicate this troublesome and shameful disease. Later, some of these sadly contaminated women, feeling the malaise and discomfort of the disease and having been abandoned by their perverse corrupters, returned to their besé, and some unwary Bubis caught the virile destroyer of humanity.
This explains the reason that, thus as the word mobata has come to be synonymous with dirty, lice-filled, and disgusting in body and dress, because the first Pamúes (2) who came to be laborers were usually carrying lice and were extremely sloven in their personal and domestic cleanliness, in the same way the word mokrumanari is translated in Bubi as a worldly woman given to bad living.
Nonetheless, Bubi customs today have degenerated in some island districts. One can no longer see in them primitive simplicity and purity. It is quite the contrary: they are quite free and bold in their actions and words. This slackening in the customs came, in a notable way, during the years 1906 and 1907 (after the final rule of Bubi supreme kings).
Original Bubi medicines are very scarce, as we have already noted, and so primitive and ordinary that they clearly demonstrate the false concept that they had of the source and cause of corporal pain. From this we understand what little study, or, better, the very great neglect they had in seeking any appropriate remedy for each disease. The remedies they ordinarily used to recover health were simply baths or washing with cold or hot water, palm oil unctions or unctions of almonds and pomade of ndola, plasters of ordinary and very well-known herbs, potions of palm wine mixed with spices or peppers, and of sea water, and they frequently made punctures and incisions with a jackknife.
A simple fever, without complications, they cured with rigorous diet and cold baths. If it began with chills, they used the diet with a hot bath.
Migraines and headaches they treated with cold baths, a stream of water running directly over the painful part, or with a plaster made of leaves of the shrub bentanópolo (N), boboma (S), and ground grains of pepper (pomma (N), sókola (S)). If the pain continued they would bleed the highest part of the forehead.
To calm colic and stomach pains they used to drink sea water mixed with a pepper called besolo. For indigestion they also drank sea water, pure or mixed with juice extracted from the tender leaves of the shrub bojojohó (N), mopoto (S). These leaves, boiled into a tea, are an excellent laxative. To combat diarrhea and dysentery they ate dried foods, such as roasted green plantains, and small grains of ground besolo, prepared with sea water or with palm wine. They also used an unpalatable concoction extracted from the tender leaves of the shrub rihúa.
For diseases of the respiratory passages, such as bronchitis, pleurisy, pneumonia, etc., they gave strong and repeated rubdowns with hot water or put a plaster made of leaves of biruru or biolole and crushed peppers over the most painful part.
They treated rheumatic pain with applications of hot baths and with eating aromatic herbs, and when the pains did not diminish, they made deep cuts in the aching part, from which blood flowed heavily.
When the goal was to extirpate parasitic diseases such as scabies, ringworm, herpes, and a class of leprosy that all, generally, suffer in infancy, they performed hot-water rubdowns until the vesicles flowed flood; later placing a plaster of bojojohó (N), mpóto (S) leaves and pepper over it, covering it with ntóla (N), ndola (S). Here they already knew the lemon’s virtues, and they sprinkled its juice over the wound.
For those suffering from ringworm, before applying medicine they shaved or cropped the head with a piece of glass or a jackknife. If a person had herpes, to prevent the illness spreading to other parts of the body, they made small cuts around the vesicles.
For swelling, first they washed the area with hot water and later made deep incisions, trying to let out the bad blood. They did the same thing for bites from poisonous snakes or bugs, tying off both sides of the bite and sucking the wound to extract venom.
To treat burns they used, in the north, a half-rotten rind from a banana skin, passing it over a fire for a few moments and later, when cool, applying it to the wound. In the south they made use of tissue from the membrane of flying squirrels, applying it to the wound, taking care to replace it daily until the burn was completely cured.
Calluses were exterminated with a slow fire made from the dry skin of palm olives, which burns as tinder without producing flames.
Gangrenous ulcers were washed with hot water. Once washed, they cut the bad meat away with the point of a jackknife until living tissue was visible. Then the wound was anointed with oil or ndola and a crooked hollow wine gourd (ebasa) tied on to protect it from bumps, unpleasant rubs, or fly bites.
Tumors are made to ripen beforehand with unguents of almond oil and ndola. When half-ripe, they open them with the jackknife until the roots pull out. They suffer most frequently from some tumors that they called batètè or matètè, that at times cover an entire arm or leg or all of the back. They are difficult to cure, causing great malaise that forces the patient to his bed. Ordinarily, these tumors won’t ripen. They open them with the point of a jackknife, one by one, making blood flow in abundance.
The only tumor they don’t lance, but let suppurate, is the bojaja (N), mookó (S). They cure it with plasters of an herb called, in the north, “mouse ear,” and in the south, sokapetaeonda. On top of that they place another plaster of boiled Bubi malanga.
There exists an illness peculiar to the Bubis, which they give the name bajaba (N) and majama (S), as if to say illness of grease or fat. It causes intense pain, and in order to free one from it they make a deep incision in the painful part, which at times produces not one drop of blood, and in the bottom one sees a white tissue similar to bacon. They claim that this disease has no other cure without lancing, and that if they are not opened, they turn into an incurable wound. All incisions are cured with palm oil.
For those struck by tetanus (loiko), they blow on the forehead to scare bad spirits that they believe have seized the patient, and later they rub the infected area with the tender leaves of the bush biolole.
For epilepsy and hysteria, they have no medicine. First of all, they flee from the sick one during an episode because they believe him possessed by the devil, and that the screams he gives and grimaces and contortions he makes are not from the sick person, but of the demon inside him. They call this illness eloppa in the north, and sinda in the south.
Some Bubi healers exhibit great skill in healing dislocations and bone fractures. I have seen difficult and risky cures performed, such as the treatment of a broken thighbone of a woman of thirty-six years, and the leg of a young male of sixteen years, which was broken in two places, the bone splintered on one side. The healer, with his touch, sought the splinters and placed them in their respective places. In fifty days, both the woman and boy were able to go out and walk on the street, although one noted something of a limp in the woman.
28. Death and interment
When the state of a sick person worsens and all hope for life is lost, they consult the vicinity’s most notable and renown witch doctor. He begins his sorcery with the divinatory small calabash, seating himself on a stool with pompous ostentation and, taking two very round and smooth stones, begins by placing one over the other. According to his interpretation, the stones become either a certain sign that the sick one will recover, or, to the contrary, an infallible indication that the patient will die.
Who cannot see how arbitrary and uncertain these results are and how this exposes serious deceit? Well, in spite of it, the Bubi savage believed it with blind and foolish faith.
When the dying person enters his agony, all the relatives and friends seat themselves around him, observing rigorous silence. When he gives his last sigh, the women leave the house in a tumult, bursting forth with howls, screams, and desperate cries. The outward displays of pain and sensitivity for the family of the dead one are manifestly notable, but ordinarily they are not very genuine and sincere. In this point the men manifest more sincerity.
As soon as he has expired, some people remain in the house to wash the cadaver and paint it with ndola. Then they lay the body out on top of a table. Others depart for the cemetery to dig the grave, and others head out to advise his relatives living in distant places.
The Bubi, in general, inter their dead as soon as possible; in a way that, at times, the cadaver remains in the house but a few brief hours.
When removing the cadaver to carry it to the cemetery, it is illegal to take it out of the house by the door, or to carry it along a public road. Nor may it be taken under the arches placed in the entrance of the village and found on some roads. To remove it from the house, they make an opening in one of the walls, extracting it from there and then taking it to burial along private, abandoned roads. Some of the funeral escorts make continuous sounds with wooden bells until the end of the interment, the intent to frighten the soul of the deceased, which incessantly follows its body. These bells are given the name beoleole, which is to say, agitators.
They used to believe that the soul follows the body until its burial. It is from this belief that in some places when the cadaver was carried to burial by way of roads used by the general population, people closed the doors and windows of their homes when the funeral procession passed by. The body buried, the soul continued roaming near the places where the dead person had lived, bothering the individuals of his family and inhabitants of the settlement. This is the reason for taking the cadaver out not by the door, but through an opening made in the wall of the house, and for carrying it along foreign roads with the beoleole or agitators. The idea is to frighten and disorient the soul, so that it will not return to the village. This is also the reason for removing or destroying the house where a noteworthy person had died and moving the entire settlement to other place when its chief died.
The ancient Bubis dug round and oval graves, not rectangular, in which they placed the cadaver in this position: laid out facing west, knees doubled over the abdomen, head inclined over the chest, and the arms crossed or stretched and put around the thighs. They say that the same posture that guards the human body in the maternal womb must guard it in the womb of the earth.
On top of the grave they plant a living tree, preferably the iko, that has the virtue of driving away souls of the dead (barimó), and they encircle the grave with stones and sticks. Some days later, the heads of the family go to the witch doctor to ask who killed or caused the death of their relative, where he is, and if he is happy or displeased. The witch doctor answers that Fulano, naming him, killed him, because he was the personal enemy of the dead person and of his family. This explains the inflamed hatred that exists between families.
If he had no enemies, he names some of his women, or may claim that the cause was some of his ancestors because he did not offer the required sacrifices.
To the questions “where is he?” he ordinarily answers that he can be found with the individuals of the family who died earlier, and that he is happy with them. Some respond that they can be found among the densest darkness; others, that they are down head-first and that they suffer atrocious torments that cannot be explained. Some Bubis have assured me that when the dead answers for the medium or witch doctor, it does so with his own, natural voice that he had when he lived.
Once they know the place where the soul of the dead (morimó) can be found, and who has taken his life, the family reunites and the eldest male makes brief commemoration of the deceased person. He praises and ponders his good qualities and remembers the most outstanding deeds of his life. He declares his last wish and distributes the furnishings and possessions that he left among the survivors of the family, excluding in the distribution the women and minor children of the deceased person. Finally, he expresses desire to avenge this death, and begins planning the vengeance.
The cemeteries of adult nobles (baita) are usually far from the village, divided into different sections, according to their social category. This was done mainly in southern districts. In one they would inter the chiefs (botuku), in another, nobles (baita), and in another the common people (babala). Among the common people they separated the winemakers (rieba), the hunters (babema), and the fishermen (boome). The Bubis had much fear in visiting graves and in clearing or cleaning cemeteries. They were of the conviction that clearing a cemetery would cause a great number of deaths in the village.
Proof of this comes from something that happened in Batete in 1898. A sick little girl came from the school of the Mothers of Saint Isabel to the mission of Maria Cristina in search of better health. Her parents lived in Ruiché, a village in the Batete heights. Upon finding out that the girl had left school and was in the mission with some of her family, the mother went below to see her and, as she found her condition grave and believed that in the besé she would be better, she carried her daughter off without the Father Superior knowing it. She went with her up the mountain, but in arriving near the village she suffered the realization that she was not carrying her living daughter, but her cadaver. Without delay, they buried her in the cemetery of the children, conforming to their practices and customs.
Informed of this terrible misfortune, I climbed to the besé with the aim of blessing the grave. I asked the father of the girl to show me the place where she was buried, but the good man declined resolutely, alleging the impossibility of returning to see the grave of his daughter.
After a brief dispute, he got up, melancholy, and, as if in despair, said to me dryly: Sa nenna (“Follow me”). The man took a course so rushed that I could hardly follow him. We moved inland into a thick palm grove, almost to the outskirts of Oetondo de Bokoko, and upon arriving at some twenty meters from the grave he stopped dead and said to me: Halé halei é élehomí: “There is the grave.” I approached the place designated and noticed that there were three recent graves close together. Not being able to distinguish which of the three was hers, I begged him to be more explicit. He made a gesture of displeasure, became outraged, and gave a strong kick in the direction of one of the three graves, saying: Hano hanoi a chinerò: “Here she is buried,” then he turned and ran as if his soul were chased by the devil.
(1) Bakruma is the Bubi name for Kru-speaking tribes from southwest Cote d’Ivoire and southeastern Liberia. --Trans.
(2) The Pamue (Spanish for Fang) are from a tribe located along the western African coast, primarily along today’s mainland Equatorial Guinea.