The Banyang people of Cameroon, West Africa, have a strong physical connection to the physical world and the underworld. The Banyang are not exactly animistic; they do not ascribe sentience to natural phenomena.
But they believe that natural phenomena are the abode of spirits. Lakes and rivers, hills and forests are inhabited by spirits that offer protection, fertility, creativity, health, and wealth as well as spirits that cause disease, destruction, and death. Much like in Taoism, the Banyang believe that individuals cannot be isolated from the matrix of relationships, which extends beyond those of humanity and the animal realm, but must be seen as existing in a web of influences, of natural cycles of the day, season, and phase of life, which cannot be ignored. This is a fundamental principle of Banyang medicine, which sees disease primarily as a disorder or misalignment of the internal and external milieu of a person. The primary role of the Banyang medicine man is to realign the patient with the matrix of influences.
The medicine man is the most fascinating personality to have emerged from the Banyang civilization. His role within the society is so central that it is said that as the medicine man goes, so does the society. The term mmunjoh, which in the Kenyang language means “medicine man,” is a blanket term loosely used to describe anyone who practices any form of traditional medicine as well as anyone who possesses supernatural powers, such as herbalists, magicians, voodooists, charmers, conjurers, and witches.
More precisely, the term refers to the traditional doctor. The medicine man is the divine healer who practices traditional medicine—the approaches, practices, knowledge, and beliefs—while incorporating plants, animals, and minerals; spiritual therapy; exercises; and hands-on techniques to prevent, diagnose, and treat illnesses. Among Banyang, the medicine man is seen as the reincarnation of a spirit or as a priest through whom the gods maintain their connection to the world of men.
The medicine man’s duties are as varied as his talents. First, as the defender of the society, he must purge witches, detect sorcery, and remove failure from hunting and farming. He is a healer. The gods remove disease through the medicine man. The gods invest him with knowledge that gives him power and prophecy, which strengthens his soul. He is an expert in dietary therapy, psychotherapy, surgery, and in addition to the traditional format of questioning, observing, and touching, he may perform exorcisms, rituals, and sacrifices; he interprets dreams, thanks to his ability to divine the hidden, and he can stop the rain from interrupting outdoor festivities because he has the power to control the weather.
Traditional Versus Western Medicine
Western medicine was introduced to the Banyang people as a consequence of colonial occupation. The colonialists, in their civilizing mission, considered everything African to be primitive and inferior. African history, cultures, and traditions as well as African medicine had to be discarded in order to make way for Western enlightenment. Traditional doctors were dismissed as charlatans. Hospitals were built in the urban centers, where traditional medicine all but disappeared.
Traditional medicine not only survived Western invasion, it flourished. Today, a wealth of medicinal and aromatic plants continues to ensure the primary health care of the poor in sub-Saharan Africa. Of the close to 6,400 plant species used in tropical Africa, more than 4,000 have medicinal value. It is estimated that up to 80% of the population relies on these traditional medicines. The primary reason for the survival of traditional medicine had to do with its affordability. Urban Africans often without insurance found traditional medicine to be as effective as the more expensive Western medicine. Hospitals were also found to be unable to deal with the religious etiology of illnesses. Africans continue to see illness as a religious experience: Illnesses are caused by spirits or by other people or could be punishment from the gods. Mental disease is caused by witchcraft. As the custodian of sacred ancestral traditions and of the theories of healing, the medicine man is seen as the only hope for his society.
Doubts regarding the efficacy of traditional African medicine persist, but like ethnic Chinese medicine, it is gaining acceptance and respect in Western cultures. Traditional doctors have been recognized for having varied and valuable experience in treating AIDS-related illnesses, and their knowledge of herbs has been fundamental in the development of ethnobotany.
The fusion of traditional and Western medicine is on the increase in the example of Dr. Eric Gbodossu, a Western-trained medical practitioner who also uses traditional medicine, and Dr. Sekagya Yahaya Hills, a modern dentist and traditional healer. Both men have concluded that the two cultures are not exclusive; instead, they reinforce each other.
Attitudes toward traditional medicine have been slow to change among educated Africans who continue to regard traditional medicine as the domain of the uneducated. Among the Banyang, there is a rigid dichotomy between Western and traditional medicine, which is that of the civilized versus the uncivilized and of enlightenment versus witchcraft. Still, there are more educated Banyang people consulting medicine men than one might expect. These include patients who suspect their illnesses may be caused by witchcraft, and people seeking protection, such as public servants and politicians, who suspect their subordinates covet their positions and would not hesitate to usurp them by witchcraft.
Religion and Traditional Medicine
The Christian missionaries who came to Africa saw traditional medicine as one of several arcane heathen practices that held the souls of Africans in thrall. Spiritualism, which is a necessary aspect of the traditional healing process, is antithetical with Christian teaching on diabolism. Protective amulets, good-luck charms, and other fetishes dispensed by medicine men are considered evil and proscribed from Christian homes. Though the Banyang people accepted the teachings of Christianity and conceded to be baptized, they did not agree with Christianity’s assumption that they were an inherently evil people to whom God had never revealed himself until the coming of Christianity. The Banyang have been a religious people with a keen sense of good and evil. Before the coming of Christianity, the Banyang viewed the underworld as inhabited by both good and evil spirits—good spirits, whose favors had to be courted constantly, and evil spirits, which have to be shunned. Christianity did not include the benevolent gods into its horde of saints. All gods were demonic and were cast into hell.
The Christian doctrine of exclusion and prohibition did not result in the complete repudiation of the Banyang gods among Banyang Christians. These gods were too real to be ignored. Many Banyang people accepted Christ but kept their protective amulets just in case. Banyang Christians believe that Christianity and traditional medicine can complement each other in the fight against evil.
When illness strikes, it is not uncommon for the Banyang to consult a medicine man first to ascertain the source of the illness. If the illness is divined to be of natural causes, then they can trust the hospital to treat it. Many Banyang people today continue to be active in both the church and in traditional sacred societies, which they see as important social institutions. Almost every festivity includes an invocation and a libation.
Ironically, it was long-held Banyang traditional beliefs and practices that made the message of Christianity easy to assimilate. The Banyang could easily relate to the resurrection of Christ, for they had been living with ghosts all their lives. They could draw a parallel between Joseph’s interpretation of dreams in the Bible and their time-honored practice of having their dreams interpreted by soothsayers.
The Medicine Man’s Exclusive Preserve
Among the Banyang, there are illnesses that only the medicine man can handle. Some of these illnesses are as follows.
Nsok: The word in Kenyang means “elephant.” The elephant is a symbol of invincible strength among the Banyang people. In the distant past, when Banyang indigenous technology was almost powerless before the mighty elephant, some natives chose to invest their souls in the elephant for safekeeping. These people are said to have gained elephantine strength in the process.
Nsok is familiarly used to refer to a mysterious illness, which results when an elephant in which someone has invested his soul is shot. Nsok cannot be treated by Western medicine. A competent medicine man must intervene quickly to retrieve the victim’s soul from the elephant before the elephant dies, lest the man will die. The most common symptom of Nsok is the smell of gunpowder on the breath of the victim.
Nya-nyen: Nya-nyen literally means “river animal.” It refers to the incident of a mermaid or merman being born to human parents. Like the sea creature, the nya-nyen child’s upper body is completely human, but the lower body is that of a fish, in function if not in appearance. The child’s “legs” are not designed for walking. The clairvoyant actually sees a tail fin where the ordinary people see legs. When the medicine man determines that a child is a nya-nyen, the only solution is to return the child to the river where it belongs. A series of rituals are performed, then the child (with all his belongings tied up in a bundle) is escorted to the river. The medicine man drops off the child at the riverbank, then retreats to a hideout location, usually atop a tree from which he can watch what happens next. The nya-nyen child has to be sure it is alone, before taking the plunge. This it does by letting out a loud and sustained wail. If no one comes to pick it up, the child knows it is alone. It then pushes its bundle into the river, dives in, and vanishes.
Eko: Eko is the child that must be pampered incessantly. The Eko child is a pretty common occurrence among the riverine people. When women bathe in the river, the spirits of the river may come into them and be born as humans. The spirit that is born as Eko comes from the river royalty and must be treated with excessive attention. The Eko child is beautiful, sensitive, and emotional and manifests suicidal tendencies. The child can die from a simple instance of ill treatment. The medicine man must mark the child so the entire community will know that it is an Eko child and accommodate its constant need for attention.
Esame: Esame means “cast away.” Esame is a rare occurrence. It denotes a child who is born and dies in its infancy and is reborn several times over in the same body. The Esame child does not come to stay. It is a spirit that envies the love and affection that babies get and decides to come into a woman and be born. When the child senses that it is no longer the center of attention, it dies, only to be born again. Any woman who mysteriously loses a healthy child in its infancy consults a medicine man. If it is found out that the child is an Esame, the next child born to the woman is marked. Deep lines are etched into the child’s cheek to make a lasting mark in one of several rituals designed to break the spirit’s cycle. Occasionally, Esame children are born bearing the mark from their previous lives. This happens when the medicine man does not completely exorcise the Esame spirit from the human body. The procedure must be repeated preferably by a more competent medicine man.
Nnem-nor: Nnem-nor is commonly referred to as “slow poison.” It results from stepping on a fetish/ poison. The poison eats up the flesh on the foot down to the bone and steadily moves up to the leg. If nnem-nor is not arrested on time, the entire leg may fall off and may result in death. Hospitals are not known for treating this mysterious disease. Only medicine men can.
The Good and the Bad
Every once in a while, a village is favored with more than one medicine man, but every village needs one good medicine man. A good medicine man is the quintessential man of power whose skills serve the greater good of the community. His authority does not come from politics, and he does not indulge in politics, even as he might be called upon to settle political disputes. He identifies with the truth and is constantly going after evil. He prefers a life of quiet to a life of ostentation, justice over fortune, and integrity over fame. He is incorruptible. He acknowledges limitations to his powers and refers his patients to other specialists or advises against a course of action or treatment.
Many medicine men do not subscribe to this ideal. They have abused their power to instill and dispel beliefs as well as herbal treatment. Some healers are blamed for the spread of unhealthy myths: The dead can be brought back to life for the right price; soccer games cannot be won without first consulting the oracles; and all diseases can be cured by the use of charms. In South Africa, traditional healers known as Sangomas claim that AIDS can be cured by sleeping with a child under the age of 10, a criminal practice that has only advanced the spread of the disease. Human sacrifice is on the increase. Several ghastly killings recommended by medicine men have been reported recently. To gain power and status, rituals involving the killing of humans and drinking their blood from their own skulls are encouraged. In a ritual called “obeh,” the fingers are used as charms, and bones are ground to paste to give strength. In the 1990s, a medicine man from Ntenako encouraged a man from a neighboring village to murder his sister and take out her genitals. It is common knowledge that in occult killings, the blood boosts vitality; brains are used to impart political power and business success; and genitals, breasts, and placentas ward off infertility and bring good luck, with the genitalia of young boys and virgins being especially prized because they are uncontaminated by sexual activity. Many Banyang medicine men are infamous for selling harmful charms to anyone willing to buy them. They have often been accused of proliferating certain vicious poisons whose recipe is known only to them and charging exorbitant fees to treat victims of these poisons.
The Medicine Man and the Law
The medicine man is the principal enforcer of the law in Banyang societies, through the threat or ultimate use of his power.
Deterrence: The law is best served when people in society take the medicine man’s threats seriously. The medicine man’s powers work like the omnipresent eyes of the law. To prevent trespassing, for example, the medicine man places a fetish where everyone approaching the property can see it and be warned. Violators are afflicted with a disease or a curse that only the medicine man can reverse.
Investigating crime: It is said that the medicine man can solve any crime using his enebe or divination if he can obtain something personal from the perpetrator: a hair strand, fingernail, or a piece of clothing or even a footprint. In the absence of any samples, the medicine man can cast a spell on the perpetrator, which can be broken only by a confession of guilt.
Punishment: Banyang societies never used incarceration as a form of punishment. There were no prisons in earlier societies. The gods, via the medicine man, determined punishment. The accused were made to swear by a powerful oracle, which would spare the innocent and strike the guilty. This practice is still very common among rural Banyang people. The system is not foolproof, however. Questions regarding the integrity of medicine men have cast doubts on the justice of their decisions.
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