Pay after the job is done

Sticking to my routine of reading the newspaper in the mornings, I was excited to see the other day that ‘The Nation’ also featured very interesting small ads some pages behind their obligatory Cashgate coverage – a discovery which made me wake up over breakfast from then on with a smile rather than disbelief that the sum of the embezzled money has been found once again to be higher than expected.

Just to quote a couple of highlights from listings under the section ‘Medicine’: a doctor promises with ‘100% guarantee same day results, Love matters, enlargement of male organ […] court cases, job promotions’, while another lady extends her services to ‘get lover of your choice (same day) […],man power in bed, bring back lost lover (same day) […], asthma, BP, […]cancer, sugar’.

Unfortunately, the listings don’t quote any prices. When I talked about my discoveries my local colleague shared my amusement about these particular advertisings, because both of us suspected that these people were just after one’s money. But the joyful mood quickly faded and turned into contemplative silence when I imprudently stepped over one invisible line. I hinted at the fact that some of the above listed problems probably won’t find a cure with any traditional healer. With this comment I exposed my glaring ignorance of the rumors that circulated around the powers of genuine traditional healers, which had over time become rooted in large parts of the Malawian society. He told me three short stories and I try my best to accurately reproduce them here.

The first one was about a robbery. Coming home from work a man was shocked to realize how his entire furniture and valuables had been stolen during the day. He consulted a traditional healer, who mixed a medicine and took a goat’s stomach and blew it up like a balloon. The bellies of the robbers started to inflate with every breath the healer released into the stomach. The pain became unbearable after some time so that the thieves decided to bring back all their pickings to the rightful owner in order to make be spared further agony. And indeed, once everything stolen was given back the pain stopped.

The second account was about a middle manager at the post office in Malawi’s largest city. This guy was widely believed to have used some shady tactics to raise the ranks since his qualifications were hardly sufficient for him to attain his current position. Nobody knew what he had done. What increased his colleague’s irritation was that this clerk never went on holiday, but rather piled up work as an excuse to stay in the office when he was supposed to take time off. This practice continued until a new boss forced him to go on holidays for the first time. In his absence, a python which apparently was fed every day by this guy in his office (though no one of his colleagues believed it at that time), forced its way through the locked door and trailed through the post office. The frightened colleagues finally managed to kill it with a series of blows with wooden sticks after it had caused a general uproar in the entire building. Once back from his holidays, the post office clerk searched in vain for the snake. One week later his name topped the list of his supervisor of workers who were terminated because of a general restructuring.

Thirdly, a school friend of my colleague was reported to have bursted into the classroom one day proudly proclaiming that he went to a traditional healer, who spelled a charm on his secret love. Unattainable for him before, he never believed that he would date this girl one day. The healer’s charm though helped him to walk over to her this morning and take her as his girlfriend. The powers of the healer had made her change her mind about him.

I was captivated listening to my colleague recalling these events and recapitulating the stories he had heard. It was as if some magical trance had engulfed me and the spell of his words drew me into this world where such things were possible, where there was a connection between these strange occurrences and the powers of the healers. But it did not take hold of me entirely; I was not truly convinced.

My mind looks at the world through a scientific-rational lens. It makes sense of things that appear to occur as a consequence of logical, preferably observable sequences of events. These stories didn’t comply with any of these requirements – they defied all of these conventions. In case of the robbery the thieves presumably had heard about the angry owner consulting the traditional healer. Deeply afraid of getting cursed by him they must have quickly returned the stolen property and wished to be spared any punishment through telling that their bodies had already suffered from the healer’s actions. The post office clerk might have never had a snake in his office. Rather, the python that was killed was only in retrospect brought into relation with him when his colleagues attempted to explain to themselves why this person was fired under such mysterious circumstances. And lastly, the school friend might have believed so strongly into the powers of the healer that his confidence surged and he felt emboldened to make the initial first step to win the girl’s heart.

I perfectly rationalized everything I had heard and now shared my theories with my colleague. He only smiled knowingly when he listened to me.

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