One of the more conspicuous aspects of psychiatric work is that we deal with syndromes and diseases whose defining elements are often invisible. You can’t see a “depressive or anxiety disorder” in any definitive way, and would usually have no way of telling whether the person beside you on the bus or at the market has schizophrenia. You could say this for so many ailments, but few medical disciplines so completely lack genetic or physical markers, biochemical tests or imaging technologies that we can deploy to confirm or deny our suspicions. We listen, ask questions, and listen some more, and eventually fashion a clinical story that makes sense. And this brings us to Farchana camp, a veritable village of 20,000 Sudanese refugees who have for generations relied on “marabous” as the healers and vessels of a long history of orally transmitted knowledge. A marabou, of course, has his or her their own way of taking these empirical facts such as “feelings of sadness,” “decreased appetite,” “nightmares,” or “confusion” and making sense of them. About four or five years ago, when hundreds of thousands of Sudanese herders, farmers and nomads fled Darfur, they brought their practitioners and practices with them. Along came MSF, shortly there after, and the two healing systems have worked side-by-side, in a way, but with almost no contact. You gotta wonder, who are these people? What do they do and why? And what do they think of us? So I decided to ask.
After over a month of planning and a broad invitation, we received this week about 20 “healing” marabous to our mental health services. “Marabou” is the term given to Sudanese traditional healers, and could be translated into “teacher” in English, or maybe more accurately into the way the Japanese use the term “sensei.” It refers to someone who has attained mastery in a field, and uses that mastery to guide others. I wrote previously about three subtypes of marabous: 1) Imams, or scholarly religious leaders; 2) Faux marabous who have no real training, and practice their charlatanism on the credulous; and 3) Healing marabous, who have apprenticed in the therapeutic use of Koranic verse, botanicals, insects, small animals and their by-products for ingestion or ritual practices. When asking around, I found that these healing marabous are usually venerated by the Sudanese, although some scoff at them as well. Either way, well over half of our patients see marabous for the same symptoms for which they come to our mental health services, sometimes in parallel and sometimes after one or the other system has “failed” to meet expectations. Marabous were in this Sahelian region of sub-Saharan Africa well before MSF showed up, and’ll be here long after we’re gone so I figured that it would be clinically useful to sit around a table, munch on nuts, drink sugar-tea and start a dialogue. And, yeah, I thought it could be kinda trippy, too. This is what happened.
Pretty much everyone arrived at once, and I was giddy to have the opportunity to meet them. After some introductions and polities, they were informed of our “rule” in mental health services, that “anyone can say pretty much anything at any time, and nobody needs to put up a hand to request to talk... if people talk at the same time or disagree, it is like family.” For some reason, this seems to set the right tone here.
Who do you feel is best treated by marabous?
The room was silent for about ten seconds, which seemed like a long time. Most of the group, which consisted of men in white Jalabias (long shirts over a fair of pants), and one woman wearing a bright orange stole, were studiously avoiding eye contact; there was no “predetermined leader” here. I was going to paraphrase when one fellow in the corner promptly said that for every person that comes to him for treatment, he sends them to MSF’s Health Center for a first-pass assessment. And only if MSF’s shot at things is found ineffective, the marabou will then offer treatment. I double-checked to make sure that I’d heard correctly, and then polled the room to see if this was standard practice or a one-off thing. No dissent… nodding heads and few more statements indicated that this was the norm. Wow. It’s possible that we had a biased sample of marabous, and the ones who were less enthralled with our services did not stop by for tea, but again the group said that this was not the case; they liked the fact that we were there, and trusted our services. Marabous come to MSF all the time, they said, we’re “good for some things.”
What ailments are the most common for which people seek their services?
“For invisible things” was the answer. The list includes joint pain, back pain, change in eyesight, bone pain, infertility, head-ache, insomnia, stomach troubles, malaise, and fast heart-rate (what I assume meant palpitations). This is basically a list of non-specific and chronic symptoms for which there is often no good diagnosis nor treatment in the allopathic Western medical system (e.g., a Canadian hospital). One fellow added that for “nightmares” he’ll just jump straight in and forego the “referral” to MSF.
So what does a marabou offer?
The first and by far most commonly used treatment is translated as “black water” or “sacred water.” A small object shaped like a star is placed in the Koran at a random page, and when the verse that it touches is read, it hints at both the diagnosis and treatment. On a wooden board, this verse is written alone or with a few others. The ink used to write the words is scraped off and put into some water, and mixed with a specially made concoction of herbal, animal or mineral elements, and is then drunk by the patient. The most common examples given were roots and ground-up insects, but the phrase “it’s complicated” came up a few times. The marabous wait two days and then adjust the concoction depending on the result of the first trial. One marabou suggested that if two trials do not work, or if the symptoms change, then the person is sent back to MSF, but others had a few other possibilities for treatment: A beaded necklace could be used to direct the prayers of many Imams, if need be; or concoctions could also be applied to various body parts, although I could not really understand which ailments routinely called for this approach. There is also another ritual whereby the tip of a ram’s horn is inserted under the skin of the chest of a man who has heart troubles, and some “bad blood” is removed. A specific ointment may be placed on the skin, and the quality of the scar indicates the success of the treatment and an indication of the quality of the remaining malady. These were some of the examples given, but there was not enough time to explore much more into their local significance, unfortunately.
What happens if the service is ineffective?
Success, I was told, is guaranteed or you get your money back. Initial payment can be cash, some food, or, if it’s a complicated ritual, a goat. One question that I’m still very interested in asking at a subsequent meeting is “what counts as a positive outcome?” But we were running out of time.
We finished the tea and nuts and asked at the end if there were any comments or questions that the marabous had for us at MSF. The only one that came was “how can you afford to do this?” MSF runs a big operation in Farchana. We have seven ex-pats, over 50 national staff, and over a hundred Sudanese employees (like the counselors and community health workers with whom I work most closely). Apart from the health center, there is a busy maternity center and nutritional center, and, of course, our mental health services, which has about 500 “patient visits” per month. Over 85% of all the births in the camp happen in our centers, which run 24 hours a day. And if the job is too big for us (we don’t do surgery here, for example), then ambulances are available at all hours to take patients to a nearby town where there is an MSF team with surgical services. And, of course, all of this is free. So how we pay for this is a fair question, but it still came as a surprise. I’m Canadian, and free health care is what we do... the idea of anyone paying for health care seems distasteful. But it’s not taxes that have subsidized the exporting of socialized medicine to the eastern border of Chad, and since I don’t know how to say “good will” in French, I told him the other commonly-used phrase in our mental health clinic: “we’re all in this together.”