Curse of the white camel

On March 26, 2014 by ali heller


Lahiya’s story was difficult to follow, her narrative bounced between decades, husbands, and biomedical and supernatural understandings of the world. Frequently she would stop midsentence, eyeing my research assistant or pinching my biceps or belly, “You two are too thin. Aren’t you hungry? You should eat something”, she’d exhort, reminding me more than a little of my own grandmother. Lahiya spoke quickly, jumping into her story as soon as we sat down. She was sixty, or maybe forty, “we villagers don’t have a good sense of time” she shrugged. Unlike the majority of women I had met at the centers, women who would fastidiously tuck hair behind hijabs, embodying a sense of piety and propriety, Lahiya, wore no head cover, and although she identified as a Muslim, she clung tightly to the mysteries of the spirit realm.

Lahiya was married at the age of 20, and had gone through twelve pregnancies, twelve deliveries or miscarriages, and had mourned the deaths of all twelve babies. After seventeen years with her first husband, a maternal cousin, and only seven small bodies buried next to her home to show for those years gone by, she left him. “People would gossip about me. Once people saw that I was pregnant, they would begin to say that I would miscarry”.

Lahiya believed that her inability to birth a healthy baby was due to a curse placed upon her many years before. “When I was young, I had a suitor, but I rejected him. So, he went to sorcerers and sent a curse so that I couldn’t have children”. Lahiya explained that she tried to break the curse through every means possible, but that the amulets with which the curse was executed were hidden – she believed that one was thrown into the hole in the trunk of an old baobab tree while the other was at the bottom of a well. Her first husband spent all of his money trying to break the curse which rendered his young wife’s womb barren.

“The man was my cousin. We had the same grandparents. He didn’t tell me that he loved me until my marriage was already planned. I never said that I didn’t love him; I only said that it was too late. My father refused to break off the engagement because the bridewealth was already paid. He was very angry, he said that I could marry, but that I would never have children. He placed a curse on me”.

Lahiya explained that her first husband had never stopped loving her, nor had he given up on trying to win her back. “My [first] husband still loves me. He is still waiting for me! He has come more than four times to bring me back to his house, but each time I refuse. Even if I called him now, he would come to get me… But, you can’t love someone you don’t live with. So, I love the man I’m with”.

After leaving her first husband, she married three other men, “My second husband was a thief, my third husband died, and now I am with my fourth husband”. With her third husband, Lahiya found herself again with child. But, “when the man heard that I was pregnant, he made another curse, he said that I wouldn’t ever give birth – he said that the baby would stay inside my stomach and never come out”. When Lahiya and her husband heard word of this new curse, her husband consoled her, explaining that after one year, they would go to the nearest hospital for a C-Section. “But, soon after I became pregnant, my husband died. So, I didn’t go and the pregnancy lasted ten years”.

Throughout the pregnancy, Lahiya continued to see her periods, but she knew that the baby was inside of her, “I could feel her moving from one side to another, constantly shifting positions inside of my belly”.

Lahiya looked for treatment everywhere. In Maradi, she went to the home of a well-known marabou. There were many other women there with the same problem. “There, they gave me something to drink, a medicine, and something came out of me that night.” After Lahiya was given the medicine, she and the other women were told to spend the night in the courtyard of the religious leader’s home, and each woman was instructed to urinate is a special gourd. “In the morning, he came and one-by-one looked into our calabashes. He stirred the urine around, and in my calabash he saw something. It looked like a small frog. He said, ‘look, it is your daughter’”. Nevertheless, Lahiya was skeptical. She still felt the baby.

Finally, after many years had passed, Lahiya couldn’t stand it anymore, and went to the hospital for a C-Section. “I told them that my pregnancy had lasted ten years, and they asked me so many questions. Questions and more questions!” But, eventually (after, what I imagine was a frustrating conversation between Lahiya and the clinicians, reflecting an irreconcilable discord between biomedical and supernatural understandings of the body), Lahiya was operated on by C-Section.

“It was a girl; the doctor said I was lucky that I survived at all. What they took out of me could fill a large basin. The child was big, as big as your torso, but it had no forearms and no legs under the knee”. Lahiya crawled over to a large cement bag filled with clothing that was pushed into the corner of the room, “this is the size of what they took out of me,” she insisted. “People told me that if they hadn’t taken it out, it would have continued to grow inside of me; it would have killed me”.

Following her C-Section, Lahiya was told to return to the hospital for a follow-up consultation. One week after her return, she had a dream. “There was a beautiful white camel above me, and it was about to fall on me. I was afraid, and I woke myself up quickly. The next day, the fistula started”. Lahiya consulted three Bori spirits, and was told that a bad spirit (doguwa) had been sent to her. She was cursed. “The doguwa transformed itself into the camel in my dream. If I had not moved and woken myself up, I am sure that I would have died”. Then next morning, she went to a clinic and the midwife push on her abdomen and “the urine, it flowed out!”

The next week, Lahiya was with one of her sisters. “My sister then had a dream and was told to ‘kill and bury’, but it was in Zarma, and my sister didn’t understand Zarma. We went to a nurse and asked her what the words meant, and the nurse translated for us. At this point, we knew that it was about me. We knew that it wasn’t the C-Section that caused the fistula. It was caused by a curse – someone sent the bad spirit to me”. Lahiya adamantly continued, stressing that she didn’t “want anyone to accuse the doctor of doing bad work… Fistula is caused by spirits. All are due to sorcery. I am sure of it… In the days of the ancestors there were no fistula, but times are changing now. There are so many spirits among us”.

At the hospital, she was given a catheter and two boxes of pills. She was told to return in a month. “It didn’t help, and the urine still ran”, she recalled. Her sister, deeply skeptical of biomedicine, told her that the hospital and the pills would make her condition worse. So, Lahiya and her sister removed the catheter themselves, taking it (along with the pills she’d be prescribed) into the bush, where they ceremoniously burned it. She went to see local healers (boka) and Bori practitioners, hoping to find a cure for the most recent curse which afflicted her body. But, more than 30,000 fcfa later (approximately $60 USD), only her finances dried up, while her fistula leaked more intensely than before.

Three months ago, Lahiya was sent to the center. They put in another catheter, she told us, raising her blouse and exposing the tube she had tucked into her wrapper. Lahiya lifted her wrapper, following the tubing until it connected to a small black plastic bag which she’d attached to the end of the tube. “It doesn’t work well, only some of the urine goes into the bag”, she admitted.

I asked Lahiya if people gossiped about her condition. “Yes, they insult me. People say that now that I have fistula, I can’t stay with people”. Lahiya admitted that she didn’t go out much anymore, restricting herself to her house. “Everyone who has ears knows that I have it”. Her husband told everyone about her fistula, because he needed to recruit more women in the household to help her with her daily work. Yet, her husband was kind and loving, making for her a wooden platform to sleep on with openings that would allow the urine to flow through and fill a small hole in the ground that he’d dug. Although they were no longer physically intimate, he would come to her room every morning at dawn to see how she felt. “I got fistula in his house, so he can’t be too angry”.

Lahiya had problems with her co-wife, who she believed was jealous of her. “Even before the fistula, when my husband would sleep in my room, in the morning, she was always angry.” Because of her fistula, her husband had spent the entire previous year in the room of her co-wife, which, Lahiya believed, her co-wife was very happy about. “She is a difficult woman. She goes to the healer and does bori trying to chase away other women. I am the only other wife that stayed. She doesn’t want me to be healed so that our husband will always be all hers”. Lahiya’s co-wife frequently supplicated their husband to divorce her. “Now that I am here, one day he might agree. Because of the illness we have grown far apart… But, he just came to give me 10,000 fcfa (approximately $20 USD). Also, I do all of the work in the house, and every year I work with him in the field. My brother-in-law says that I work very hard, as hard as a man in the fields. So, I don’t think he will divorce me”.

“Women the same age as me no longer wash [see their periods], many have more than ten children. My sister-in-law was married the same time as me, now she has 14 children. But I have none. One of my sisters says that I am not a woman because I don’t have even a single child”, Lahiya stated as she stood up, signaling that the interview was over and it was finally time to eat something.

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