MY COLLEAGUES, THE WITCH DOCTURS

SIDNEY KATZ November 16 1963

MY COLLEAGUES, THE WITCH DOCTURS

SIDNEY KATZ November 16 1963

MY U UIIEAD UE S, THE WITU H 11 U UTURS

A Canadian psychiatrist's African journal

Among the Yoruba tribesmen of Nigeria, native medicine men attack mental ailments with sorcery, sacrifice and common sense. Dr. Raymond Prince of McGill spent four years watching 'these doctors. Here's why he's convinced many of their techniques are superior to ours

SIDNEY KATZ

A COMMONLY HELD BELIEF about primitive people is that they are carefree folk who escape the various psychic malaises which afflict Westerners in our fast-paced and complex urban society. A companion belief is that should an occasional native succumb to mental illness, little can be done for him because of the absence of modern psychiatric therapy.

Both these notions have been sharply dispelled by Dr. Raymond Prince, a thirtyseven-year-old McGill University psychiatrist. who, for several years, was in a unique position to delve into the secrets of native psychiatric medicine. In 1957, he was working as a psychiatrist in a mental hospital in London, Ontario, when his curiosity was piqued by an advertisement for a job vacancy in the Aro psychiatric clinic, operated by the Nigerian government in Abeokuta, a mud-house city of eighty thousand souls. After a two-year stint in this position, he spent two years, sponsored by the Human Ecology Fund of New York, traveling the country, meeting and living with native witch doctors who specialized in mental ill-

ness, including the one who displayed a sign which read, “We Cure Mad Fellows in Twenty-One Days.” Prince was initiated into the secrets of witchcraft, sorcery, sacrifice and exotic curative drugs. As a result of his extensive observations, he has come to two principal conclusions. The first is that neuroses and psychoses are as common in Nigeria as in, say, Montreal or New York; and second, that the treatment of mental illnesses by magic is highly effective. “1 can’t honestly say,” he has remarked, “that our Western psychiatric techniques are superior to those employed by witch doctors.” Prince made a careful study of one hundred and one mental patients treated by native medicine. Of these, eighty-three “improved significantly”; fifty-eight of them made a full social recovery and returned to their homes. Judged by Western standards, these arc highly satisfactory results.

In his first few weeks as government psychiatrist to the Yoruba people in Abeokuta, Prince began to identify great differences between his Nigerian and Canadian patients. In our society, it is generally held that most emotional disturbances have their origin in an unhappy childhood; conflicts are stored in the unconscious and, later, result in erratic and bizarre behavior. Psychotherapy is a frequent method of treatment: by personal interviews the doctor helps the patient understand himself and his conflicts. Alternate methods of treatment are tranquilizing and energizing drugs, electric-shock therapy, and in some cases, brain surgery.

This Western explanation of the origins of mental illness makes little sense to the Yoruba people, who number some six million. To them, neuroses and psychoses are caused by the anger of the gods, or, more frequently, by the spells and curses of

powerful elders or witches. Even if the witches do not cause a particular case of mental illness, they can block a cure. As one healer told Dr. Prince, “All the medicine in the world can be stopped by them. They are the rulers of the world.” As for the gods, three or four deities are held responsible for emotional disorders, the most important being Sopono, the god of smallpox. One witch doctor explained, “When Sopono wants to trouble a man, he doesn’t give him the usual skin eruptions of smallpox. Instead, the god will run into his brain and make him insane. The god works like a whirlwind and can attack anyone.” Thus, Yoruba therapy consists of a series of techniques — sacrifices, incantations, rituals, medicines — which serve to placate the irate gods and the malevolent witches.

These, then, were the kind of people who took their troubles to Dr. Prince at the Aro clinic in Abeokuta. To the Yoruba, he was another kind of witch doctor. They named the small rectangular box used to give electric-convulsive therapy “the magic box.” Patients were usually brought to the clinic bound in chains and ropes, by a half dozen relatives. A fourteen-ycar-old boy, thus presented for treatment, said that his mother, a witch, had “sucked” his blood and made him ill. A thirty-five-year-old cocoa farmer who had been convicted of decapitating a woman with a machete, complained that witches had been troubling him night and day. He could hear them talking. “It’s done . . . we’ve killed him . . . Now we’ll kill his brother.” In a dream the same witch emasculated him. The patient believed he knew the witch’s identity, and hacked her to death. Three other patients died after biting off their tongues. They were not epileptics, they did not die from loss of blood continued on page 75

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How the pressures of polygamy can lead to mental breakdowns

or any other observable cause. “Their deaths were due to psychological, not physical reasons,” Prince says. From what he could learn, all three patients had insulted their elders, and. as a consequence, were cursed w ith the terrible words, “You will bite off your tongue and never speak again.”

When he first arrived in Nigeria, Prince had planned to use psychotherapy with his patients. Doctor and patient together, he hopeo, would spend hours exploring the patient's innermost feelings. “After a few' months I had to admit complete failure.” says Prince. "1 couldn't get inside my patients. Either the Yoruba have no inner life or they cannot be induced to talk about it." A boy of fifteen, having difficulties w'ith his father, w'as asked, “How do you get along with your father?”

“He w'as my father. 1 was his son.” “Yes — but were you friendly together or did you quarrel?”

“We got along like father and son.” Because children under twelve are often unable to talk about their difficulties, a common Western diagnostic technique is to ask them to draw pictures and then search these for clues to the sources of their trouble. Yoruba children responded by presenting Dr. Prince with compositions void of personal content. “Most of them.” he said, “would draw neat sketches of the scientific equipment they were using in the school lab." A man of thirty-five came to the clinic complaining of impotence — a common condition among the Yoruba. "I want you to examine my muscles, my heart and my nerves and make sure Em physically all right," he told Dr. Prince. The doctor pronounced him in good physical shape and suggested that the source of the difficulty might lie in his mind — a great unhappiness. “No. no,” the man said, “I have been cursed. I will now consult the native doctor and get to the root of the trouble.”

Dr. Prince made no headway in promoting the Western idea that neuroses and psychoses are often linked with personal conflict and maladjustment. Once, he gave a simplified explanation of Freudian psychology to a friend of his, a powerful witch doctor. “This great European doctor said that if parents treat their children unkindly over the years, it can lead to mental illness.” said Prince. The witch doctor whistled in amazement. “You are wrong,” he said. “It is w'ell known that insanity is caused by witches.”

“But w'e don't have witches in North America and Europe and we still have a lot of mental illness,” said Prince.

“No witches in your country?” “No. We burnt them all several hundred years ago.”

"Ah yes,” replied the witch doctor, with an understanding smile. "You may have burnt them, but their children are still among you. They must be — you still have mental illness.”

Why should there be as much mental disturbance among the Yoruba as there is among Canadians and Americans? The pressures usually associated with mental breakdowns — the “rat race.” the drive to keep up with the Joneses, traffic. TV. telephones and the rest — are no part of the lives of the Yoruba. According to Dr. Prince, the explanation is to be found in the pressures arising in the personal lives of the Yoruba. Despite the leisurely environment, the Yoruba

arc not immune from the corrosive effects of hate, jealousy, envy and conflict. Many of these destructive emotions stem from the system of polygamous marriage. When a man takes a second wife, the first wife is eaten by jealousy. Often she becomes neurotic. If a first wife is barren and the second wife is fertile, the first wife frequently mistreats the children so severely that they require psychiatric care. A barren woman, in Nigeria. is so looked down on that it

sometimes leads to severe mental depression. With the gradual introduction of free education, there’s a growing rift between parents and children. The young don’t respect their elders. The latter, to keep them in line, curse them — a serious matter for the believing Yoruba child. Again, because of Western influences, women are becoming more independent and sometimes run away with another man. The husband will then have a curse put on his wife and perhaps her lover

too, which, in time, might lead them both to the point of mental collapse. And finally, as in our own society, many Yoruba people constantly endure the stress of economic insecurity.

By the time Prince returned from his two-year stint as a government psychiatrist in Nigeria in 1959 to take up a post at McGill University, he was thoroughly intrigued by Yoruba medicine. In January. 1961, he was sent back to Nigeria by the Human Ecology Fund of New York to seek the secrets of Yoruba “psychiatry.” During the following two years he traveled the country, accompanied by an interpreter, observing some fortysix witch doctors at work and, in some instances, living with them for various periods of time.

One of the healers he got to know best was Adetona, of the village of Okun-Owa, a prominent specialist in mental diseases. Adetona was a power-

ful, tall, massive figure, of the fifth generation in his family to practise healing. Dr. Prince spent three weeks as part of Adetona’s household — a three-story mud house surrounded by several small huts for patients. In a country where mental hospitals are rare, it's I he custom for the mental patient to live with his doctor. Because of his wide reputation, Adetona had some forty patients undergoing treatment at the time of Prince's visit.

At first Adetona was highly suspicious of his Western visitor, who spouted strange theories about brain disease. "He was obviously uneasy the first night I stayed with him,” says Dr. Prince. About three in the morning. Prince was rudely awakened by the blast of a shotgun. Looking out the window below him, he saw Adetona pointing his gun skyward. “This is to scare away evil spirits who might have entered my house today,” he explain-

ed, a not-too-oblique reference to the potential malevolence of the white pagan. The same procedure was repeated for three nights. At the end of that time. Dr. Prince was accepted as a member of the household.

Adetona’s establishment was a beehive of activity. His eight wives were always busy cooking, peeling kola nuts, pounding garri and grinding medicines. In the “pharmacy,” a small building with three fires going, numerous medicines were brewing in iron pots. Relatives and friends of patients were constantly coming and going. Occasionally a new patient, bound in ropes and chains, would be brought in by a throng of relatives. These precautions arc necessary because the psychotic Yoruba tends to run suddenly amok. “He gets sick faster and recovers faster than we do,” explains Dr. Prince.

Treatment of new patients begins at

once. Adetona and his assistants use a special bit of magic to subdue an agitated patien* — a human skull with cord wrapped around it. An incantation invokes the spirit of the dead man to “bind up” the maniac. Once pacified, the patient is undressed. His head is shaved. Shackles are put on his feet. To incantations, he is washed down with snail water — a clear, soft liquid found in the cone of the giant land snail. (The explanation; “A snail has never been known to run mad; a snail will never hang himself.”)

Next comes external application of dozens of medicaments. “The Yoruba doctor is no therapeutic nihilist,” says Prince. The patient's head is shampooed with a gruel made up of palm oil, nut butter and bananas, then washed off by the juices of leafy plants. Shallow razor cuts are made across his scalp in the form of a cross, and rubbed into the cross is a medicine compounded from roots, a powdered human tooth and a small quantity of fluid collected from a human corpse. The theory behind this course of treatment: the oil mixture soothes the patient’s agitation; the shampoo cools his overheated brain; the medicine applied to the cuts in the scalp fights “the curse” lodged in the body and expels it.

Lime juice and pig’s blood

During admission — and twice daily thereafter — the patient is given a dark brown liquid concoction, a powerful sedative. The active ingredient is the root of the Rauwolfia tree, which grows locally. Rauwolfia has been used by the people of Africa and Asia for centuries, but was introduced into Western medicine only in 1949. Today, in its synthesized form, reserpine, it is an effective and widely used tranquilizer. Rauwolfia is not the only healing agent employed by the witch doctor. He makes liberal use of various dried leaves, roots, plants and minerals. Other popular ingredients arc lime juice, hen’s eggs, human feces, pig’s blood, pig and gorilla heads, baboon hands and desiccated vultures. A combination of dried fish and rat is frequently prescribed. (“Even as a fish finds its way in the water and a rat through the bush, so shall you find your way through the world.”) The most expensive and powerful nostrums, known as “strong man medicines,” are compounded from human parts; the placenta, head, hands and intestines are regarded as the most potent. “This probably accounts for the frequent reports of mutilated bodies found in lonely places,” says Dr. Prince. New remedies are constantly added to the Yoruba pharmacopoeia. A witch doctor explained, “Our deceased fathers and grandfathers appear to us in our dreams and reveal to us powerful new medicines.”

If the patient fails to respond to these wonderful nostrums, the witch doctor sometimes seeks guidance from an outside consultant, a diviner or a witch, who may suggest the sacrifice of a pig. goat or hen. Indeed, sacrifices can and are used at any stage of treatment. The sacrifice of a living thing, it is believed, appeases the witches and placates the gods. “There’s the feeling that the patient’s bad luck

and illness have been transferred to the dead animal,” says Dr. Prince. When a mental patient is finally discharged. an elaborate ritual is performed featuring the sacrifice of several doves. The dove is the symbol of peace, and mingling the blood of the dove with that of the patient is believed to bring tranquility.

It takes specialists like Adetona about three months to cure cases of mental illness. The total charge, including drugs, can be anywhere from sixty to three hundred dollars. Like doctors elsewhere, the witch doctors complain bitterly about patients who don't pay their bills. “When w'e're sure of being paid we can do a faster and more complete healing job." they explained to Dr. Prince. The witch doctor uses strict measures to collect his fees. Even if he has recovered, the patient is placed in foot shackles and kept that way until his relatives fork over. “I saw one recovered patient in shackles for four years because of non-payment,” says Dr. Prince.

There are also several desirable features oí Yoruba psychiatric treatment, and these should not be overlooked. Patients are cared for in the personal, warm surroundings of a home, rather than in large, impersonal institutions. They are accompanied by at least one relative w'ho becomes a nurse. As the condition improves, the foot shackles are removed and convalescents can move about freely. Indeed, some patients spend part of each day working on nearby farms. Yoruba psychiatry is permeated by faith, cheer and hope. The patient believes in his doctor, w'ho is “the father of mysteries" in intimate touch with the spirits. The witch doctor constantly emphasizes that the patient can be cured by the right medicine, the right sacrifice and the right magic words. Dr. Prince compares this up-beat approach with that of a Canadian psychiatrist asked about the outlook for a schizophrenic. "The doctor believes the case is largely hopeless and, in time, the patient, relatives, friends and nursing staff share his view. It creates an attitude which militates against successful treatment.”

Dr. Prince's intimate contact with the "clinical” problems of the Yoruba witch doctors gave him a new appreciation of the awesome role played by witches. There is. apparently, nothing a witch can't do: drive you suddenly insane, suck your blood or strike you dead. She prolongs her life by drinking the blood of others, particularly children. Thus, pregnant women try to keep their condition secret from the old women of the village just to play safe, and young mothers give appropriate warnings to their youngsters. The natives Prince met were so terrified that they wouldn't even utter aloud the word Aje (the Yoruba term for witch, which literally means “mother eat”). Prince was assured that a witch can turn her malignancy on anyone for the slenderest reason — impoliteness, because a person publicly accuses her of witchcraft, because a person is rising too high in the world, or for no other reason than “just because she is an evil old woman.”

What makes the witch particularly menacing is that she can operate over a wide territory. During sleep, she transforms her heart and soul into a

bird which flies to a tree near the house of her victim and performs her dirty work. Some nonconformist witches appear in the form of a cat. owl. rat or some other nocturnal animal. The choicest witching hours are between midnight and three in the morning. If the witch's nocturnal alter ego is killed, the witch dies.

Dr. Prince was anxious to meet a witch in person, but found that witches conceal their identity through fear of being destroyed by the people who

suffer so much at their hands. Finally, however. Prince persuaded a friendly healer to arrange a meeting with a sorceress in Ibadan. Before she would consent to see him. he had to send her a tribute of a bottle of palm oil. some eggs and a goat.

The visit took place in her hut on a back street of Ibadan. Although the room was dark, he could make her out to be an elderly woman of seventy-five. with many tattoos. She was suspicious of her visitor and swore

him to secrecy. “What kind of pow'er do you want?” she asked Prince. “Advancement in your career? The begetting of more children? Great wealth? The power to destroy your enemies?” Prince said he was interested in getting more money. The witch thereupon said that before she could proceed further, there would be a onc-hundred-dollar initiation fee. "She told me that as a start she would give me a soap to rub myself with, which would enable me to recognize w itches

anywhere in the world, even in '"añada. I would also be entitled to attend the secret meetings held by the local chapter of witches." The witch also suggested that he would be expected to cat human flesh and take a visionproducing drug, probably Datura, a native plant.

As Prince stood up to leave, the witch seized his hand and pulled him towards a mattress in the corner of the room. Her intentions were unmistakable. "At the time,” says Prince. “I thought her enthusiasm might he partly attributed to my personal charm. I was later disabused of this notion by a healer who told me ‘1 no longer consult with witches about my patients. No matter how old they are they want sexual relations. I find that extremely unpleasant.’ ”

There was a postscript to Prince's encounter with the witch. A few weeks later, he broke his vow of secrecy by describing his meeting to a visiting anthropologist from Europe. That night he was awakened by the chattering of a bird in a tree outside his window. When he got up in the morning his neck was so stiff he could hardly move it — a condition that persisted for two months. "My condition was probably due to apprehension and deep-seated guilt,” he speculates. The interpreter who had accompanied him was laid low with a painful, sore back for three months.

Although he was too busy to join the Ibadan chapter of sorceresses. Prince, with the help of witch doctor friends, was able to gather additional bits and pieces of information about the witches. They arc able, it is claimed, to render a woman barren and a man impotent. They can cause an automobile accident by temporarily clouding the vision of the driver. Indeed, the recent death of a politically prominent Nigerian was attributed to a witch. He was irreverent enough to turn out of his house an old lady who had been living with him for some time. The old lady, in reality a witch, caused him to be killed in a car crash on a road near Ijebu Odi, a town renowned for its "powerful medicines.”

Against the black magic of witches there are at least three lines of defense. The most important is the intervention of a witch doctor versed in protective incantations, invocations and "medicines.” Smearing the body with black soap is regarded as a particularly effective technique. ("No one, not even a witch, eats soap; therefore no one, not even a witch, will eat me.”) Faced by a stubborn case, the witch doctor will sometimes secretly consult a witch. Her co-operation is usually forthcoming provided sacrifices are brought in to her — oil. food, fowl, goats and pigs. "At times, I had the impression that the witches were practising a kind of extortion racket like the Mafia,” says Dr. Prince.

A second line of defense is for the afflicted or frightened victim to become an initiate in a cult dedicated to the appeasement of a specific deity. One of the prominent cults is the Gelede, with a membership made up largely of men who are impotent or whose wives are barren. At the annual Gelede festivals, the men dress as women and flaunt bullet-like breasts and protruding buttocks carved of

wood Some stuff their clothing to mimic pregnancy: others carry wooden carvings of children on their backs. “The witches cannot harm anyone within our society,” one of the members told Dr. Prince.

The “witch hunt" is the third principal defensive measure. A band of diviners travels from village to village and in each community assemble the townspeople. Then, after going through an elaborate ritual, they claim they arc able to identify the malevolent sisters. If the witches don't confess they are roughly handled, in some cases beaten to death. For the past ten years, witch hunts have been outlawed by the government.

The witch doctors arc now busily engaged in forming societies much like our own medical associations. A notable feature of their meetings is that treatment methods and procedures are never discussed. "They’re all afraid the other fellow will steal their secrets,” says Dr. Prince. There’s apparently no shortage of non-medical subjects to put on the agenda. At a recent national meeting attended by Dr. Prince, hours of blistering oratory were devoted to the castigation of certain healers who had shirked paying their share of the costs of a temple erected in honor of the first healer in the town of Ile-Ife. Another target of abuse was the present-day descendant of the first healer, who was cleaning up a tidy fortune by selling handsome diplomas of accreditation to other healers. Great struggles for power go on within the district societies: everybody aspires to office. "To keep the peace, even small societies elect as many as twenty officers,” says Dr. Prince.

The future position of the Yoruba witch doctors who specialize in mental illnesses appears to be secure. Secrets of the profession arc carefully handed down from father to son. The practitioners are held in high esteem. At the same time, alternative mental health services are not available. There aren’t half a dozen Westerntrained psychiatrists in the entire country. “But most important,” says Dr. Prince, “Western psychiatric techniques are not demonstrably superior to many of the practices of the Yoruba.” ★