June 23, 2009

“She turned me into a newt.”

The story I told recently about the young man who burned down the shack of one of our staff members because he thought she was a witch and had cast a spell on his girlfriend got me thinking about witches and witchcraft. We dismiss that sort of thing in the rich world but, as this incident shows, it is a very real and salient consideration in places like Itipini. I started asking around among my cultural interpreters and here’s some of what I learned.

One cultural interpreter sighed when I asked her about the situation and explained that young men are always blaming old women for their problems and doing so with the language of witchcraft. One other young man in Itipini who suffers from severe alcohol- and drug-induced dementia even blames his mother for his troubles but has said he won’t harm her because he loves her.

In my limited knowledge of witchcraft, which, as the title of this post indicates, stems mainly from one scene in a Monty Python movie, it seems that it is always the old women who get the blame so this news didn’t strike me as unusual. What was interesting is that it is the young men in Itipini making the accusations. I wonder if this has anything to do with how relatively powerless the young men are. They can’t find steady jobs, they can’t get married, and they aren’t educated so they can’t get positions of (legal) power in society. In contrast, the women, especially the older women, are doing all the work that keeps society functioning - raising the grandchildren and great-grandchildren produced by these young men, working long hours at informal jobs to keep the young men fed so they can spend their money on alcohol, and so much else that keeps everything ticking along. It struck me as one more indicator that a major need in South Africa is a re-conceptualization of masculinity and what it means to be a man. (As I’ve noted before, that’s not my job.)

One cultural interpreter explained that she believed that a person could acquire HIV in their sleep, independent of sex or bodily-fluid transmission, if someone else cast a spell on them. This woman is otherwise well-spoken, intelligent, and well-educated on HIV, which she has. She is also devoutly Christian and saw no apparent contradiction in her beliefs. When I mentioned this conversation to another friend in Mthatha, he noted that it is another reminder that HIV is not just a medical condition but also a spiritual one. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before.

What was most stunning to me, however, was what I learned about how beliefs in witchcraft affect our work in Itipini. Two of our staff are responsible for what is loosely called “home-based care.” When people live alone and are too sick to take care of themselves, these two older women bring them food to help them back to health. This seems like a perfectly harmless and uncontroversial thing. Two jobs are created and sick people get the nutritional assistance they need. That is about the amount of intellectual energy I’ve put into thinking about this program.

So it came as something of a shock to me when, in conversation about witches, one of my cultural interpreters said, “You know, people don’t like it when Elsie and Mrs. Nani [our two staff] bring them food. They think it is doctored and they don’t want to eat it because they think it is making them sick.” She stressed that not everyone thought this way but even if some people think like that, it is a major obstacle to the success of home-based care. Sick people need the food so the medicine for say, HIV or TB, can be effective. Whatever the reason, if they won’t eat it then that’s a problem.

But how do you solve it? Is it the fault of our two staff members that they are looked upon with suspicion? Should we take a job away from two responsible and hard-working staff because of the effect they have on the success of the program? How do we convince sick people to eat the food they need, regardless of where it comes from?

I often talk about the obstacles posed by cultural differences but I realize I don’t always specify what I mean by the phrase. This is one of many examples of the obstacles that are a constant in cross-cultural work.