LAUGHTER AND PAIN
The sun is about to rise in Molepolole, a town of rondavels and wood posts, storefronts and dirt paths set in the reddish, loamy earth of the southern Kalahari in eastern Botswana. It is mid July 1905. As the first light of the morning dims the glow of smoky fireplaces, a small group of people gathers in front of a mud and thatch house, square-cornered and trimmed with greying bricks at the doorjamb. This is the medical dispensary of Haydon Lewis, the missionary to the Kwena kingdom. Some women sit on the ground, and a few men sit on a wooden bench behind the open gate to the yard. A cock squawks suddenly, close by.
After a while, the Reverend Lewis appears at the rear of the yard, freshly breakfasted and walking briskly from his own brick home. He is a portly and mustached man. Lewis takes a few moments to greet everyone, some by name, and then he proceeds to business. He turns towards the dispensary and opens its door. The air inside it, cooled by the winter night, flows outward, pungent 'with the odour of medicines'.(1)
Working in the long shadows of the early morning, Lewis takes a few tools from the medicinal house and moves toward the Tswana men and women sitting on the bench. There is discussion, perhaps soothing words. Perhaps not. Taking his first patient according to some rough order, he bends over an open mouth. Lewis's fingers touch lips and gums, the most intimate contact he will ever have with an African. He locates the offending tooth: 'Fa? Mo teng?' 'Aeh, ke gone.' There is no anaesthetic: chloroform is reserved for more serious matters. Does Lewis brace his hand on his patient? He secures the tooth in his tongs, and works it free. Perhaps the act needs to be repeated: perhaps there is a cry of pain. The rest of the patients, and other bystanders 'convulsed with laughter'.(2)
How is one to understand such a scene?
Lewis was like many missionaries who lived away from large 'stations'. He doctored Africans on a regular basis, and he argued that it was his patients who kept him at the work: they who made him palpate the lame, lance boils and offer phials to the sick. Missionaries said that their medical activities were not wholly voluntary. Africans pressed them for medicines, and they usually complied, unless the request was for medicine to help in understanding the Bible.(3) Much of what missionaries could or could not do was pegged to expectations securely set within venerable matrices of social life. In Molepolole, being a healer was being a ngaka. Being a ngaka was a situational proposition; the more one was able to specialize in healing, the higher one's status. The root of ngaka is common to most southern African languages, and the terms ngaka, nganga, inyanga were often applied to missionaries in the early years of their African encounters.
Missionaries and African healers both made sustained efforts to present bodily mortality and decay as manageable experiences. When missionaries carried medical bags, their identity was strengthened. Dr. Livingstone, for one, was commonly known as 'Ngaka'.(4) As missionaries spoke of 'everlasting life', in many southern Bantu languages the word for 'life' also signified 'health'. When missionaries connected healing with salvation, people seemed to understand them. Local words and concepts lay close at hand to do the work of translation in both directions.(5)
Translation, however, is change. Translators try to erase difference, and when they live among their textual subjects, real people experience their elisions. New denotata emerged from colonial interactions and were applied to old usages; and usages metamorphosed to fit new social grammars.(6) For instance, ngaka and related terms moved away from what was meant by 'missionary' (moruti, Morena, Umfundisi, etc.) without completely letting go of it; diverse people came to share the same sorts of expressions in registering unease or pain; and very different kinds of therapies became translatable as 'doctoring" whether genuine or false was another matter.
The similarity of priest-healers and missionaries must therefore be juxtaposed with their equally salient differences. Once they got to know one another, such differences emerged starkly. Below, I argue that priest-healers, occasional and 'professional', immersed themselves in those experiential relationships that, epitomized by the ancestors, defined and united persons within their community.(7) In contrast, I will argue, missionaries' therapeutic practice tended to disrupt this prior community and substitute for it the idea of the individual as enclosing the relevant field of sickness/wellness. The difference illuminates an important level of meaning in colonial 'penetration'. I will go on to suggest how missionaries' evangelism shared biomedicine's essential discursive strategy, in the way it encountered and re-imagined Africans' Selves. Finally, I will suggest how such a strategy worked. These are abstract questions, however, and so this essay will pursue them by considering the most plangent of bodily experiences: being cut upon and having one's teeth out. The core of my material refers to the involvement of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in Botswana.
PRIEST-HEALERS AND MISSIONARIES
In the nineteenth century, southern African healers conceived their 'therapies' as working along many different sorts of boundaries. The highest priest-healers, the 'professionals', surrounded the most senior men; the king was often one of their own. Rain, cattle and environmental fertility were their critical concerns. One top specialist 'herded' rain clouds and used various mimetic techniques to urge their formation. He and his aids tried to reveal, and then disperse, blockages to the proper continuity of seasonal life. Top healers looked for reproductive and agricultural abnormalities, and at the same time, social and political tensions. No clear divide separated the two fields of enquiry. Healers ensured rain and prepared for drought as one and the same activity.(8)
Operating below this level of total community responsibility, middle-ranking and 'occasional' priest-healers still saw their arena of practical intervention as enveloping patients, neighbors and kinspeople, with their social relationships. They specialized in prophylaxes that worked along spatial and personal borders. In descending order of magnitude, they marked the edges of villages and fields to close them against sorcery; placed special substances in house thresholds; and scratched medicines on interstitial, vulnerable areas of the body.(9) Their diagnoses usually involved patients in ploys to attribute special sensitivities to them; trust was an aspect of healing. Call-and-response divination, and the casting and interpretation of the microcosmic signs in 'bones', dramatized healing in a 'theatre' and granted recognition to the healer's virtuosity. His or her abilities always implicated larger forces of social authority: an elder with a knowledge of herbs was closer to the world of the ancestors within her knowledge. As the ngaka channelled the ancestors' power, s/he legitimated both him/herself and the community that formed beneath the ancestors.(10) In sum, the therapies offered by African healers greatly differed from missionaries', both in scope and in aim.
Beyond paradigmatic differences, however, were missionaries' therapies more effective than Africans'? Not for the longest time. Nineteenth-century missionaries had no ready treatments for venereal diseases, the Spanish flu, TB, yaws or many of the other illnesses that afflicted African people. The techniques of their dispensaries lagged behind contemporary advances in European medicine by about twenty years. Some missionaries asked African healers for herbal emetics or purgatives.(11) In most quarters, up to about 1930, efficacy did not stand missionary medicine apart, despite important advances in such matters as antisepsis and germ theory.(12) And if visiting nineteenth-century southern Africa were possible, Western time-travellers would certainly be best advised to go to priest-healers for common complaints.
Nor were missionaries more 'rational' than African healers, or rather, it means little to say so. Some scholars have argued reassuringly that 'pre-colonial' southern Africans were similar to Europeans in that they shared the notion of a 'natural' realm of illnesses, divided from the 'supernatural'. This argument is weak. It presumes that 'the natural' is a universal construct and that it is hidden among peoples in the same measure that they seem to violate it!(13) Instead of a duality between the natural and the supernatural, there was a scale of seriousness. People constructed suspicion out of their positions: was or was not a misfortune/illness somehow tied to currents of hostility, jealousy or household fragmentation in the community? The graver a problem was, the more likely the sufferer would want to ask such questions.(14) If missionaries used the idea of 'rationality' to attack such an attitude, they themselves never rejected the idea of action-at-a-distance either. Long after 1900, missionaries accepted non-physical or 'moral' causes for both individual and epidemic illnesses and advocated non-proximate therapies. What else was prayer?(15)
We are closer to understanding missionaries' antipathy to African healers if we recognise that they occupied congruent social stations: the priest-healer had to disappear if the ways of God were to be heard, just as wise men and cunning women were silenced by the clergy in Early Modern Europe. Indeed, the ngaka resembled such 'specialists' in rural parishes even in Britain's recent past. In the Scots highlands into the nineteenth century, people drew imaginary circles around houses and placed knives in their walls. For missionaries, the propinquity of the ngaka here was disquieting.(16) The aspects of African festivals that missionaries stigmatized as 'magic' were woven into the production and reproduction of the African community, just as harvest celebrations had been bound up in the communal life of European villages. Yet missionaries' attitudes to African arcadia were mixed. John Mackenzie, the well-known 'missionary imperialist' in Botswana, compared his own youth's 'Baal's Fire Day' to African rites with ambiguous overtones.(17) Missionaries revered their lost plowman's England, even when, finding communal health explicitly bound to the land in Africa, they tried to unbind it. They pined for what they were trying to wreck.(18) Such tangled motivations prevented missionaries from fully articulating their ideals. But such tensions within the evangelical enterprise were a source of resilience, as they allowed divergent motives to be harnessed together. …