Tales of Benshasha: Magical Cures

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Magic and Medicine

***Must we all be forced,

By doctors to endure,

The endless tests and check-ups,

About which they are not sure.

Do they have any inkling,

When they say, "Stick out your tongue,"

If it's the heart or kidney,

Or the liver or the lung?

Can they practice it on others,

Not practice it on me,

And leave me very well alone,

And just let me be me.

Let's take some more blood samples,

It cannot be amiss,

Stools, urine – now come on

Who's now taking the piss?***

Benshasha can be full of surprises. Admittedly, most of these are pretty unpleasant ones but there are odd exceptions. One of these was when we discovered, one night, that a not inconsiderable colony of ants had chosen our bed in which to reside, bring up their progeny and do all the rightful things that ant colonies do. The natural reaction in such cases, would be to reach for the nearest gallon or two of 'Shelltox' or 'Baygon', but this option was neither available nor, as it transpired, necessary.

Fatima, whilst appearing a trifle irked at the uninvited invasion, remained totally unfazed and proceeded to move the bed away from the wall to find out where they were coming in. She did this very gently, taking great care not to tread on any of the ants nor disturb them unnecessarily. She then got two small strips of palm leaves and laid them across the point where they were coming into the house. With that she, very quietly, recited the following sloga:-

"Garleek say-idna Suilliman fit-lee aritåh 'shkell woolah rahkili hå-ird minkhaahn"

and there was, as they say, more to this than you might think.

She then sat down, made a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette saying that 'they go in minute'. Well it was a little more than a minute but within an hour there was not a sign of a single ant in the hose, nor did they return later.

To say I was stunned would be to understate the case. I looked at the woman with a mixture of awe and respect.

"What the Hell did you do?" I asked.

"I ask them go away," she said. "My big mother tell me what say them."

Not for the first time, I found myself wondering about Fatima and her 'Big Mother', Arfidah and felt sure that had either of them lived in England but a few hundred years ago, they would both have been measured for the local ducking stool. This was 'magic', pure magic, but in the circumstances, I was not going to complain and it struck me as a much more environmentally friendly way of dealing with such a problem than spraying them with a highly toxic, carcinogenic, CFC propelled spray. Quite how or why it works is totally beyond me and, try as I might, I cannot come up with any form of rational explanation for it at all.

There was however an unexpected corollary to all this. Having moved the bed back and re-made it, I settled down to sleep only to be woken half an hour later by a scream which had the penetrating properties of a thermic-lance. This was from dear Khadeja, my half-sister-in-law next door. The ants, having dutifully left our premises, had simply moved along to the next house where Khadeja had not greeted the uninvited intrusion into her bed, at that time of night, with quite the same calm and equanimity as had Fatima.

Fatima, after confirming that Khadeja wasn't in the process of being raped, then proceeded to explain to her what to do. This Khadeja then did, and did it with exactly the same effect! Whence the ants went from there remains an unsolved mystery but I hope they are all well after all their exertions.

As has been touched on elsewhere Benshasha lacks any form of normal medical or Vetinary facilities and relies almost entirely on traditional cures for all forms of ailment, human and animal alike.

Women – Fatima especially – collect plants, herbs and all sorts of strange things to make their medications and keep them in recycled jam-jars.

None of this makes the job of cooking any easier. 'Labels' on anything at all are non-existent for the simple reason that not one of the women in the place can read anything at all. There is also little in the way of systematic storage and everything just gets dumped in the nearest available empty container, whatever it is. As half of the ingredients for the cooking are gathered locally, it is as well that you know your local flora and fauna pretty well. What is used for medicinal cooking is all mixed up with what you might be going to cook for lunch and the results of using the wrong things could be pretty dire, as Chaifoor the donkey, had found out.

As might be imagined, anti-tetanus injections are not a commonplace facility in a settlement such as Benshasha although, were any aid organisation to see fit to do anything for the place, providing the facilities for these wouldn't be a bad start. It is almost impossible to get through a single day without cutting or scratching yourself on something there, as even getting into the house, entails sticking your arm through a jagged hole in the rusty tin fence and groping around for the 'latch' which might be anything or anywhere. Cut your foot on anything at all and it is 100% likely to be infected, as the village is alive with chickens, goats, 'howlers', donkeys, dogs and cats, not one of which carries a current health certificate.

The entire village is dangerous with a capital 'D'.

Also unavailable are any such common commodities such as Dettol or Savlon. For any form of anti-septic one has to rely on the local versions. The first one is simple and painful but appears to be effective. It is really very simple, you spit on the offending wound and then stub your cigarette out on it. This is one, not very good reason for not banning smoking in the rural bidonvilles, just yet.

There is but one 'health warning' that goes with this cure and that is 'don't attempt it when you have had too much to drink'. One evening Fatima decided to 'cure' a wound which was the result of her nephew removing a sea-urchin spine from her hand with a blunt pick-axe. Having somewhat over imbibed during the afternoon, she applied the cigarette to totally the wrong part of her hand and left it there far too long. This resulted in my having to take her to the hospital in Mohammediah and have the burn attended to. They also had the decency to remove the sea-urchin spine properly and give her an anti-tetanus injection into the bargain.

The second is strange but not in the least painful. We can all do incredibly stupid things and I am no exception. We had gone to Mohammediah to find someone to make some grilles for the windows of the house. We found a young ethnic welder, who was busy fixing a new handle to a seriously large butcher's axe (about 7.5kgs of steel). He laid it down on a steel door he was also making, with which I started to draw, in chalk, what I wanted him to make for me. The butcher's axe was in the way so, without thinking. I picked it up to move it.

Now if you are stupid enough to pick up 7.5kg of recently welded metal with your bare hand, you can expect to feel some instant and seriously intense pain. OK, you drop it PDQ but in the half-second that it takes to realise and react to your own stupidity, the damage is done. The sheer weight of the thing presses it into your skin and the whole of the palm of my hand as well as the underside of all the fingers and the inside of my thumb instantly became one enormous blister.

Fatima was all for going to the hospital but there was no real point as the damage, though excruciatingly painful was somewhat superficial. The welder did have some cold water in a fridge and I thought that after the blisters had either burst themselves, or I had popped them, a drop of anti-dis-ting and the bandage would make things a lot more comfortable.

Fatima has rather different ideas and kept spitting on my hand and rubbing it. Bloody painful it was too.

However, as soon as we got home she did something a little surprising. She peed in a small bucket, grabbed my hand and plunged it into the contents. A little surprising, crude, simple but it actually works. "My big mother do that" she said and I have to say that the pain decreased incredibly.

There was no need for a bandage and I was able to use my hand, even shake hands with people, although if they had seen the palm, they might have thought otherwise. The healing, as far as pain reduction went, was almost instant and incredibly good. After two weeks the blistered skin, which had dried out completely, began to flake off but the skin underneath, instead of being tender and sore, had also dried out and healed. No pain, no nothing, other than a slight itching of the flaking skin. Within three weeks there was little sign of anything at all, other than the inside of the thumb, which had received the deepest burn.

Some time later I related the experience to someone working for one of the major pharmaceutical companies in Casablanca and he said "Oh yes, it is the best cure. Urine contains all sorts of salts and for burns, stings, cuts and abrasions, it is probably better than anything we make." Cheaper too.

Actually, this was not the first time I had seen urine used as a cure and I had heard that it was a common cure in West Africa, Ghana and Nigeria. I was sailing with a friend in Ajman, UAE and his son found himslf swimming in a mass of jellyfish. The screams were terrifying with which his father yanked him out of the water, pulled donw his shorts and pissed all over him. "Always drink plenty of beer when you go swimming here", was his only comment after the child had stopped screaming. So there you are. Throw out the Savlon and Dettol and just make sure you have a full bladder. The best excuse for not stopping drinking that I have heard in years.

However, by far the most interesting cure was when Fatima managed to get one of the hairs of a 'barbary-fig' in her eye. These 'hairs' are a damned nuisance as they are virtually invisible without a microscope and make eating the otherwise delicious fruit something of a lottery. They are bad enough if you get them on your skin, more uncomfortable than painful, like a particularly nasty 'woolly-bear' caterpillar, but get one in your eye and it hurts and can, eventually blind you.

After two days of suffering, Fatima decided that something needed to be done so Chybiah was summoned. Chybiah is actually a first cousin of Tara but young enough to be Fatima's daughter and it has to be said that the lady possesses the most stunning bosom. Until then I had not been aware that the good lady possessed anything in the way of medical training or expertise. However, like most women of such age in Benshasha, she was nursing at least one baby, this being the nearest thing to contraception that the place possesses, and it was for this reason that she had been summoned.

I was outside at the time and mildly surprised to see her come in, not by her presence, but by the manner in which that she was kneading her more than ample breasts. This was a task which I would have gladly offered to undertake myself had I had sufficient command of the language to ask. When I went back into the house I was even more surprised by the spectacle of Fatima, lying flat on the bed with Chybiah leaning over and massaging her eye with her disgorging nipple. I could not help wondering whether it worked for conjunctivitis but when I asked if I could have a go, I was told that it was 'ladies' medicine', which I thought was a bit unfair.

The least offensive of their medicinal remedies are the Bohoors which don't seem to do you any immediate harm and do tend to make the house smell quite nice. One just ignores the potential fire hazard. These are multifarious and it seems that almost every sort of wood is deemed to possess some specific qualities that will cure everything from aches and pains to the common cold. Making and wielding the 'Bohoor' appears to be a strictly female prerogative but whether this is just as a result of general male indolence or some other reason, I don't know.

The women who 'have the art' are much in demand and one of the most curious, and frequent, demands is for the local version of Viagra. When young couples get married and the bride eventually arrives at the groom's house, he is expected to 'perform'. At least half of the village females will be waiting outside to see the proof-positive.

Apart from anything else, this puts an enormous psychological pressure on the man and, nine times out of ten, he can do absolutely nothing. Here the good ladies such as Tara and Fatima come into their own. Everything is done in great secrecy. Various Bohoors are prepared along with other 'medicines' and the man is then visited in his bedroom. It took me years to find out what happened next, as it is 'a secret'.

It is actually very simple. After all the bohoors and incantations, the man stands in the middle of one of the large (600mm+ diametre) earthenware plates that are used to make the dough for the daily bread. The two attendant women then separate the rim by chipping all around it with sharpened stones. The man is left standing on a flat, circular ceramic tile. The women then lift the 'ring', up over the man – chanting goodness alone knows what as they do it . When the ring has cleared the top of the groom's head, it is smashed on the ground and – with that – the cure is complete.

This particular cure is easily explained by the fact that not being able to 'get it up' with forty wailing women outside your bedroom window is entirely understandable.

However, these simple women do possess enormous knowledge about plants and their uses and many are certainly effective. Science and the pharmaceutical industry have only acknowledged this fact relatively recently, and one has to respect the abilities and knowledge of all primitive peoples.

This faith in traditional cures is all very well but it does have its drawbacks, which indicate blind stupidity and ignorance rather than unshakeable belief. The worst manifestation of this is the treatment of broken bones and the results of the local medicine man's treatment are little short of criminal.

Tara (not Fatima's mother but Chybiah's and a sister of Arfidah's) broke her femur at an age when such things represent a pretty serious injury. She received no treatment other than from the local remedies with the result of which her leg is permanently bent double and she is sentenced to spending the rest of her incontinent days, lying on the floor.

Another case was a young boy who broke his arm quite badly and, after treatment, was left with the bone sticking out and rapidly developing gangrene. Now he has no arm and it was only someone's forcible intervention, by me, that saved his life.

There is though, a more sinister side to things and that is the 'magic'. If you suddenly find pieces of molten lead around your house, worse still in it, it is best to remove them immediately and get the ladies in with their Bohoors.

There were certain women, Miloudah the chief of them, who I just don't allow in the house. When such women do manage to come in and be there for any length of time, the place is left with a decidedly 'odd' atmosphere and things start to go wrong. I say this as someone who was brought up to believe that 'magic' was all in the mind, but here it is not. Of course, if you really believe in it, the effects are far worse, even resulting in death. Magic is very powerful in Morocco and the souks are full of things for making spells for almost everything from putting a spell on someone's crops, house, sheep or children to actually killing them.

There is good magic and bad magic and Fatima knows a lot about both although she is reluctant to talk about it at all. However she does go into houses, including ours, when she feels or knows that someone has been there and made 'bad magic'. She makes magic when people are ill, especially mentally ill and when people need help. As far as I know she has only ever made 'good magic' and it is hard to imagine her ever wanting to do anything bad to anyone.

The really odd thing is that all this lives alongside Islam as if the two were part and parcel of each other. Fatima will often make some magic and immediately go and wash and pray. She is very devout in her own way, and I have never met such a selfless, kind person. She can recite vast tracts of the Koran but holds equal faith in the things her big mother taught her for the simple, but practical, reason that they work. As she says, "What happen after for (is between) me and Allah".

Some years ago, when Fatima was very ill, she asked Ardifah to go to the Imam and pray for her, she did not want magic. However, when push comes to shove, certainly amongst most of the women, the belief in the magic is actually stronger and I am not sure whether the Imam tries to do anything about it.

Tales of Benshasha


19.04.10 Front Page

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