The Big Issue : Edition 470
THEBIGISSUE24OCT–6NOV2014 21 It wasn’t possible to identify any of them, and no words were spoken, yet I felt no fear in their company. After some time they all rose as if by common consent, and we moved off through the forest. A tribesman of the highlands, when travelling purposefully, adopts a long loping stride between a trot and a run, enabling him to travel fast and far over rough ground without tiring. But at an altitude of 2700m, the air was thin and I was soon breathless. I wanted to rest but my escort had no intention of stopping or leaving me behind. I was still unable to see ahead due to the darkness, yet our little band moved forward confidently, propelling me along. Now, whenever I think of that flight from unknown terror, I always think of hands. Hands forcing me along at a gruelling pace, guiding me around unseen obstacles, sometimes pushing, sometimes pulling, steering me through the night, supporting me and carrying me along. Often I almost fell, but always these hands were there to catch me. Insistent, coaxing, encouraging, helping hands. After travelling many miles, the pace slackened, the trees thinned and we were out of the forest. At first I could not comprehend where we were. My escort had already disappeared, fading quickly back into the forest. Gasping and sobbing with relief and exhaustion, I blinked at the floodlights illuminating the barbed wire perimeter of the police post. I staggered on and collapsed into the arms of the gentry. At first I was incapable of speech, my teeth chattering with shock while tears poured down my face. The askaris (local soldiers) were wonderful. They laid me on a camp bed and brought me a mug of sweet tea. The old African sergeant knelt down and spooned it into my mouth. I could not have drunk it without his help. He talked softly, as though reassuring a frightened child, and soon I was able to talk of what had occurred. The inspector ordered a radio message be sent to the army unit, asking for a patrol to go to the dispensary immediately. He promised I would be informed as soon as there was any news and advised me to get some sleep. I was sure that was impossible, but in spite of the clatter of a typewriter in the next room and the voice of the transmitter snarling away in the corner, I slept deeply. It was after dawn when they woke me. Our dispensary had been attacked: there were five dead and some wounded. The inspector hoped I could return and help with identification. Although stiff and bruised, I was now able to travel. The battle must have been fierce. The patrol had arrived when the fighting was at its height, and had come under attack from spears and gunfire. They had opened up in reply. The dead lay where they had fallen. Two were strangers to me and one a cattle farmer from our village. The final two casualties – Thomas the orderly and Marotein the old witchdoctor – lay together just in front of the bungalow. Each still held the symbols of their power. Marotein had fallen in an untidy heap like a scrawny scarecrow, the tools of his trade spilled out around him: a few smooth stones, some bones from a small animal and little packets of herbs, dried leaves and powders wrapped carefully in leaves. Thomas lay curled on his side, tenderly cradling the little metal box that held my hypodermic syringes. When I first came, he had begged me to teach him how to give a shindano (injection) and I had been delighted to encourage his enthusiasm. I had not known that the knowledge would give him great prestige and power among his fellows. The shindano was looked on as the most powerful medicine of all. The tribesmen thought it could cure all ills, make old men virile and youthful, cause barren women to bring forth sons. By its prick all things were possible. Often an old mzee would come to me and plead to be given the magic needle. “If only you will give me a shindano, Memsahib. It will make me strong again and perhaps I could take another wife.” I usually gave them a vitamin injection to boost their general condition – keep them happy. I know that Thomas was asked to give the ‘magic treatment’ when I was not around. Whether he did so for monetary gain or added kudos I do not know. He had always been a very likeable rogue and I suspect he used the old trick of giving sterile water and relying on the recipient’s faith to do the rest. All this must have had an adverse effect on Marotein, the witchdoctor. As the queues outside the dispensary grew longer, he would watch on as his power waned. Sometimes he would harangue the queue, or he would squat down and softly croon an incantation, keeping time by waving a handkerchief backwards and forwards. Mostly he would stand still, leaning on his long staff, eyeing them balefully. The tribespeople would shuffle their feet awkwardly but stubbornly keep to their places, while making sure his shadow did not touch them, or that they did not catch his eye. It was this situation, this rivalry, that led to the fatal night. How Thomas had got wind of the impending attack and why he had not warned me, I do not know. Perhaps it was a very personal feud involving tribal honour. I looked down sadly at Thomas and Marotein. Both had been given the title of Maganga (Doctor) by the tribespeople, and in their eyes both had powerful magic. One with expert psychology and herbalism, the other with modern expertise and drugs. One old, one new. Both gave their patients faith. If, over the next few days, I treated more than the usual number of knife cuts and panga (machete) wounds, I made no comment. I liked to think that these were my friends and defenders. I missed Thomas very much. He had been good company, with a sly sense of humour. Among all these people, I lived a rather lonely existence. I wrote to the Mission hospital and asked for a new orderly. Soon, a smart young African in a white shirt and shorts would appear at my door and stand deferentially while I read his references – an unnecessary formality, as I knew he would be the best they had. In much the same way, word had probably gone out that there was a good practice going for an up-and-coming witchdoctor. For a time there was room for both. Once again, people would have their choice of two doctors. » Norah Scott-Norman is now 91, making her The Big Issue’s oldest contributor. She is also the mother of Fiona Scott-Norman, our Culture Policeperson (see p29).