Magic or Medicine (Aeon Magazine)
It was late February when I heard the story of a young seamstress whose baby girl had died from an unknown illness. The mother, Evelyn Bonabone, lived with her grandmother about an hour outside Mbarara, a compact, hectic city in western Uganda with a medical school and one of the country’s better hospitals – although that’s not saying much. Rather than visit this hospital with her child for treatment, Evelyn had been to a traditional healer named Nahayo, an old widow across the valley.
Early one morning, I joined a health worker and we drove out of the city, beyond the trading post where the men ride in from the hills with improbably large bunches of bananas strapped to their rusty bicycles. We turned into the countryside and passed a soccer pitch, a health centre, and endless plantations of bananas. Our battered vehicle creaked and groaned as we began our ascent. Eventually, we pulled into a smaller track, carved into a loamy ledge overlooking an isolated valley, and stopped in front of a single-story home on the hillside. A couple of shirtless men were chopping down what appeared to be the very last tree on the property.
Evelyn emerged in a worn tank top, her hair tucked under a vibrant head wrap, and a silver cross dangling from green beads around her neck. She brought us inside the living room, where a few plastic chairs were arranged against the walls. In one corner sat an immaculate old black Singer sewing machine and a battery-powered radio.
Evelyn told us that she had been shattered by the death of her baby. She quit sewing and working in the fields, and slept for a week straight, wrapped in a sheet on the concrete floor of her bedroom. Her eyes grew watery as she thought back to her daughter’s birth one year earlier, helped by her mother’s mother. After a trip to Mbarara on the back of a motorcycle, the baby girl had trouble breathing and was crying excessively. The old women in her village gave her herbs to rub on the baby’s gums. After three days, they told her the baby might have ‘false teeth’: if these were not removed, a maggot could emerge and the baby would die. If the child had this disease, they informed her, it should not be taken to the hospital. They insisted that she visit the tooth extractor, Nahayo. She felt she had no choice but to obey.