The Bamenda Syndrome
Insanity is very much a point of view.
In mid-June of 2003, Raymond Mbe awoke on the floor of his dirt hut. A white moth had landed on his upper lip. In a half-sleep, he crushed it and the wings left traces of powder across his lips and under his nose. The powder smelled of burnt rubber and when he licked his lips, he tasted copper. Outside the hut, his eyes constricted in the sunlight. A steady dull thud, like a faraway drum, filtered through the trees. “I hate that noise,” Raymond told me later. “The sound of pounding herbs with a big pestle. Every time I hear it, I know that a short time later they will stuff those herbs up my nose.”
Two hours later, Raymond’s nose burned as the green dust coated the inside of his nostrils. A muscular man in a white t-shirt cut off at the sleeves held Raymond’s arms twisted behind his back. Across a table from Raymond, a loose-jowled old man in a worn-out fedora had measured out three piles of crushed herbs.
“Inhale the rest of it,” said the old man.
“Please,” Raymond pleaded, “I have cooperated today. You don’t have to force me.”
Deftly, the man in the sleeveless tee twisted Raymond’s elbows upward, leveraging Raymond’s face level with the table-top. Raymond considered blowing away the herbs. He found satisfaction in defying them, but already his arms burned with pain. He snorted up the remaining piles of green dust. Herbs mixed with loose snot and ran from his nostrils. The piles gone, Raymond’s arms were given a final yank and released.
“Oaf,” Raymond muttered and wiped his face with his shirt. No one paid attention; already the old man had motioned to an androgynous creature in rags to approach him. Four other patients stood in line waiting for their turn.
In the bush that ringed the compound Raymond pretended to relieve himself. Glancing around him to make sure no one watched, he fell into a crouch and crept into the foliage. The scabs on his ankles split anew at the sudden effort. Glancing at the pus seeping across his bare feet, he remembered that he had once had a pair of basketball shoes. They had been white, with blue laces.
One hundred yards or so into the bush, he emerged onto a small path that ran in a tunnel through the foliage. Raymond stood up and began walking, brushing aside the large over-hanging leaves as he went. In places, the sun shone through the leaves shaping a delicate lacework on the path. The tunnel dilated out onto the bright road. It had been three months since Raymond had seen the road. Under the mid-morning sun, heat shimmered off the pavement and mirages pooled in the distance. The road appeared empty.
“So, I did it. I placed a foot on the road. Very close to where I had last seen my mother. Then I walked across.”
“Oh it was terrible,” said the tailor who works alongside the road, “We heard him screaming and laughing down on the road. He was like an animal or something possessed. I was scared.”
In June, I traveled to a village named Bawum, outside the city of Bamenda in the Anglophone Northwest Province of Cameroon, to interview a priest named Father Berndind. Bawum consisted of a single road, high in the cool grasslands, lined for a mile or so with cinderblock dwellings and the occasional open-front store. Behind the houses ran a network of dirt footpaths connecting poorer thatch-work houses built of sun-dried brick or poto-poto.
Berndind had launched a campaign to eradicate the practice of witchcraft from his parish. Plenty of priests wanted to do away with witchcraft; Berndind was unique because he waged his campaign from a seminary that bordered the compound of a witchdoctor. His neighbor was Pa Ayamah, a healer renowned for his ability to cure cases of insanity caused by witchcraft.
I went to Bawum with a post-graduate student named Emmanuel, a thoughtful, good-natured guy who grew up in one of the sun-dried brick houses across the road from both Ayamah and the seminary. We agreed that he would introduce me to both Berndind and Ayamah, as a friend rather than a foreign research student, as long as I paid for food and transportation. He had written a Master’s thesis on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. “It’s funny,” he said, “You come from America to study Cameroonians, and all I want to do is study Americans.”
We arrived on a Saturday night. Emmanuel took me to Mass the following morning to meet Berndind. The church was bright and airy, but struck me as weirdly out of place among the green underbrush and dirt paths. It was built in a pre-fab style; the type of church that I remember having seen in lower-middle class areas of Iowa and Nebraska. On closer inspection, I saw that parts of the church had been hand-built to look prefabricated. Inside, I felt underdressed. I was the only man not wearing a sportcoat. In Yaounde, fashion tended towards the sort of suits worn by comic-book super-villains; lots of bright color, wide pinstripes, and shimmery ties. From the somber colors assembled in that church, I gathered that the trend did not extend out into the provinces.
I felt better when a young man who wore a ratty blue t-shirt and taped-together flip-flops wandered in. He was short and strangely proportioned, a squat upper body rested on thin legs, like a widow’s walk on Greek-revival columns. He plunked himself down in the pew in front of me. Seated, his feet barely brushed the ground, but his upper body took up almost two spaces. Halfway through the Mass, he craned his head around and stared at me. He pointed at my chest and whispered loudly, “Hey! I like your tie! Very shiny!”
A wave of heads spun around to appraise my clothing choice. “Um. Thank you.” A few older men glowered at me and I blushed.
After the Mass, while I waited outside the church to meet with Berndind, I saw the boy walk by and slip into a thin trail that led into the bush. “What’s the story with that guy?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s Raymond.” Emmanuel said, “Nobody pays any attention to him. He’s a patient at Pa Ayamah’s.”
“I wasn’t there,” said Emmanuel’s sister, “But I heard about it. They had to take him back bound at the wrists and ankles.”
“Your teeth have worms in them.” George Fanka told Emmanuel. We had stopped to visit Emmannuel’s Aunt Eliza, before going to Bawum. “That’s why they hurt. They are filled to bursting with worms.”
“Worms?” Emmanuel asked.
“I am good with worms,” George Fanka assured him. “I can pull worms out of pile also.”
George Fanka did not fit my idea of a native doctor. He was my age and sported a Nike track suit. He styled his hair like a mid-Nineties American rapper and a cell phone hung from a cord around his neck. A few years prior, Emmanuel’s Aunt Eliza had come down with a mysterious illness. She spent a good chunk of her life-savings on doctors unable to give her a diagnosis before she hired George Fanka to come live with her and treat her. She was a bulky, ashen-faced woman; whose frequent smiles were followed by equally frequent winces. Once too ill to stand, under Fanka’s care, she had recovered enough to walk into the town center.
The night I met George and Aunt Eliza, we sat in her cinderblock living room drinking orange soda. For more than two hours George talked about his abilities as a healer. “Well, Sir,” he said when conversation turned to successful treatments, “I come from a long line of doctors. It’s in my blood. My uncle is a famous doctor.”
“That’s why he came here,” Emmanuel said, nodding at his aunt. “She needed someone who could live here and George’s uncle recommended him.”
“Everyone in my family has the ability. There are contests you know. Yes, Contests. Contests.” George repeated certain words, as though his audiece were intermittently hard of hearing. “All the doctors get together and we compete to see who is the best. I won a contest, you know.” He talked quickly and eagerly.
He took a swig of orange soda, smacked his lips, and hurried on. “I won a contest and that’s how I lost my toes. Well, only on one foot but that’s how I lost them. I’m a diviner; that’s what I do best.”
“Wait, you lost your toes?”
“On my right foot,” George replied. Abruptly, he dropped his soda bottle on the table. Emmanuel lunged forward to keep it from spilling. George didn’t notice; he was already bent over in his chair, tugging off his Nikes. He gripped his sock by the toe and pulled it off with a flourish, like a waiter revealing a prized entrée.
He was right. His right foot had no toes. There was a line of angry, puckered scars where his toes had been. They looked disturbingly like anuses. Aunt Eliza said something in a flustered Pidgin to George, who was proudly inching his foot towards my face. Emmanuel moved as though he were going to intercept George’s foot, but when he saw me lean in for a better look, he leaned back and asked, “Are you scared?”
“No,” I said, “Just caught me by surprise.”
“Yes, sir!” said George, ignoring the interruption, “My toes were burned off by lightning. After I won the contest, I was too proud - I had been playing with my abilities too much. So someone threw lightning to hit me, but it just got my foot.”
George was still holding his foot high in the air, speaking from between his legs. I peered closely at his foot. “Take a good look!” George said gleefully.
A number of people in Cameroon claimed the ability to throw lightning. I had asked about the phenomenon repeatedly, but while everyone said it was possible - and some had even promised to introduce me to people who could do it - tracking down lightning-throwers seemed to be a wild goose chase. An English anthropologist named Nigel Barley had spent a year with the Dowayo tribe in Northern Cameroon asking about lightning rituals, only to find that their method of directing lightning was to place marbles imported from Taiwan in little bowls set on the mountainside. My own investigations into the phenomenon were inconclusive. My best lead, a professor at the University of Yaoundé, had suggested that lightning could be thrown by coaxing a chameleon to walk up a stick.
Nonetheless, there have been some very strange lightning strikes across Africa, many of them having to do with soccer. On October 25, 1998, 11 professional soccer players were struck by lightning in a crucial game in South Africa. Two days later, 11 Congolese soccer players were killed by a second lightning strike, this time a ground steamer. The worst lightning strike ever recorded occurred at a third soccer game in Malawi, when lightning struck a metal fence, killing five people and injuring a hundred more. The official response of African Soccer officials to the lightning strikes speaks to the common interpretation of these events: they banned witchdoctors from the African Nations Cup.
I had no idea what toes burnt off by lightning might look like, but if I had to imagine, they would have looked something like the scarred puckers lined up on George’s foot. I wondered if he had maybe cut his toes off himself, or lost them in an accident, but the wounds looked cauterized, like they had drawn up into themselves.
“Yes, sir,” George continued from between his legs. “It might have been another jealous healer, or maybe the spirits thought I was too bold.”
I asked George if he could throw lightning. He dropped his leg and cried “Certainly not! I am a healer and a Christian.” He fixed me with an offended expression and wagged his finger back and forth, “That sort of thing is not what I do. What I do is, see, hold on…” He grabbed an empty glass from in front of him. “I make soapy water and I tell it what a person’s illness is. Then I look into the water and I can see which kind of herbs I need to find. The next day I go out into the forest and get them.”
“I get headaches,” I said. “Do you have something for that?”
“And my teeth hurt,” Emmanuel said. George looked up my nose and at Emmanuel’s teeth. I needed to sneeze more, he told me. Emmanuel, he diagnosed, had teeth full of worms. We made an appointment to return the next day for treatment.
Pa Ayamah’s compound looked similar to all the other compounds that dotted the green hills of Bawum: a few huts of sun-dried brick in a clearing surrounded by dense bush. In places, the sun sparkled through the tall trees and sent shadows flitting across soil padded smooth by human feet. Even in rural Cameroon, I had expected an insane asylum to look somewhat clinical – whether or not it was run by a witchdoctor. I saw none of the usual tip-offs: no nurses, no white buildings, no corridors or wards. Only the weathered, hand-painted sign, “Pa Ayamah – Native Doctor,” marked that I had found the right place.
In front of a smattering of brown huts, dusty men in chains shuffled about an open yard. Others not chained had their feet encased into makeshift stocks of rough wood. Everyone smiled at me, as if I were a regular stopping in for an evening beer at the neighborhood bar. A man with his hands tied to his belt tried to wave in greeting and nearly pulled himself over. He grinned ingratiatingly, obviously wanting me to share the joke. I managed a disoriented smile and realized that I had never before seen anybody tied up. A very old man with sunken eyes approached me and held out his hand. Without thinking, I reached to shake it, but recoiled when I saw that it was purple with infection.
“Antibiotics?” the man said hopefully.
Behind me, Raymond burst out from one of the huts, barefoot, and pulling on a t-shirt as he ran. “Hey! I saw you at church!” he cried.
I turned with relief away from the old man. “Oh yeah,” I said, my voice more eager than I intended, “I remember!”
“You do?” Raymond came to a stop in front of me.
“Yes. I do.”
“And I remember you!”
We beamed at each other.
“What’s your name?” Raymond asked.
“Antibiotics?” the old man said again, thrusting his purple hand towards me.
“No, no!” Raymond said loudly, leaning in towards the old man, “He’s a missionary.”
“What? No, I’m not.”
“But you’re white. And I saw you at church.”
“I’m a student. I came to talk to Pa Ayamah”
“Never seen a student here,” Raymond commented. “But, oh, come, I’ll show you where Ayamah stays.” He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away from the old man, whose parched voice faded as I walked off, “Antibiotics?”
Raymond led me on an impromptu tour of the compound, tugging me along by my sleeve. A good portion of Ayamah’s land was devoted to raising corn, planted in rows of raised dirt. Beyond the cornfields were small houses, where women related to the patients lived and prepared food. Raymond confessed that he had no relations among the women, but many of the patient’s families couldn’t afford both the treatment and food, so a female relative was sent to care for the patient. The few women I saw did not give me the same welcoming smiles as their relatives. I tried to say hello to a pretty girl beating laundry in a soapy bucket. She returned my greeting with a sneer, as she had caught me attempting to watch her bathe.
Beyond the women’s huts were the patients’ quarters. The huts were small and dirty with a fire pit in front of each one. An aging man with a barrel chest and wooly hair chased chickens with a broom. He was laughing and shrieking. When he cornered a chicken, he spit on it and clapped his hands delightedly. “That’s where Pa Ayamah is,” Raymond said. I followed his finger to a long building with a tin roof. “You can just go in.”
“Thanks for showing me around,” I said extending my hand, “It was nice of you.”
Raymond shrugged and clapped me on the shoulder. He was significantly shorter than me and had to reach up to do so. “Oh, I know how it is. I used to be a student myself.”
Clouds hung low in a leaden sky the morning Emmaunel and I presented ourselves at George Fanka’s door for treatment. He had exchanged his Nike track-suit for a red Adidas shirt and assumed a businesslike air, though his cell-phone medallion still hung from his neck. He led Emmanuel and me to a small wooden shack, consisting of two rooms, padlocked shut. The first had a bed, a small stereo, and was decorated with magazine cut-outs of American pop-stars. A large stuffed baboon guarded the second room. “I’ll sell you the monkey,” George said to me.
“I couldn’t get it through customs.”
George shrugged and led us inside the second room. Most of the room was taken up by a large table, filled with old water bottles that contained many colored liquids. Red, brown, and green tree barks lay ground up in newspaper. I sat with Emmanuel on a bench and sniffed at the air, which smelled stale, like corridors of a natural history museum. George perused a few bottles and handed me a little bit of brown powder twisted up in cigarette cellophane. “For your headaches. It is a type of tree bark, okay? You snort a bit of that and then you will sneeze for a while and your head will clear.”
I nodded. George pulled out a dirty flat head screwdriver. “Let’s get rid of those worms,” he said to Emmanuel. “They are in your gums.” George poured a white suspension over a cotton ball and directed me to hold a piece of paper below Emmanuel’s chin; from my position I had a clear view into his open mouth. I hesitated when I saw the screwdriver poised above Emmanuel’s teeth, suddenly worried about tetanus. But, I reasoned, when performing oral surgery with a screwdriver, is the status of one’s tetanus shot really the primary concern?
“Hold the paper steady,” George chided.
Emmanuel’s gums looked inflamed, the inside of his mouth very pink. George rubbed the cotton ball across Emmanuel’s gums. Little white spots appeared against the pink, then what looked like whiteheads began to form in the gums between the teeth. George reached in Emmanuel’s mouth. He pinched one of the whiteheads between the screwdriver and his thumbnail and began to pull. The whitehead stretched and began to pop out in segments. George grunted and forced another finger into Emmanuel’s mouth. The last segment of the white-head thing popped out with a little spurt of blood. George held it up for my inspection. It was a small, white, segmented worm, squirming, and covered in blood. It was about a four or five millimeters long, and fat like a maggot.
“They die fast in the open air,” he said, and dropped it onto the piece of paper I held. The worm curled up slowly and was still.
“Fuck.” I said. I had watched carefully for any sleight of hand, and saw none. The worm had just appeared, a fat zit growing in stop-motion capture. I wanted to be skeptical, but the disconnect between my eyes and brain created a dead spot in my thoughts. I felt seasick. “Fuck.” I said again.
“You say that a lot,” said George, dropping another worm on the paper, “Uh- oh, I only got half of that one. If they die in there, they rot.” Emmanuel winced. His gums bled profusely by the time George got the other half out and still the whiteheads seemed to swell of their own accord. By the time he was done, George had pulled four more worms out of Emmanuel’s mouth.
A few days later, I asked Emmanuel if his teeth felt better. “I think so,” he said, “but I also went to a dentist who told me the pain was from an infection. He gave me medicine for it. So I don’t know if I feel better because of George or the medicine. I’m glad I covered all the options.”
A prominent American biologist who visited the Univeristy of Yaounde was skeptical of my story. He had not heard of such a worm. When I returned to the United States, I went to my University library and looked up parasitic worms. To the best collective knowledge of Western biologists, there are no segmented parasitic worms that live in human mouths anywhere in West Africa. Apparently, the worms I’d seen did not exist.
Pa Ayamah was a tall man with folds of skin hanging off his face. His eyes looked coated with oil and slipped around, as if the sockets were too big for them. He spoke no English; Emmanuel translated for us. The three of us sat in a line of rickety chairs, pushed against the far wall of a dark dirt-floored room. Ayamah sat very still, but his stillness seemed to come more from a force of energy held back, like a coiled spring waiting to be released, rather than any sense of relaxation or ease.
Ayamah began by announcing that he was of the sixth generation of healers to specialize in the mentally ill. He was the sole heir to two hundred years of practice. Ayamah spoke to Emmanuel, not me, and Emmanuel waited until Ayamah finished before he translated the words.
“He says that the knowledge will die with him,” Emmanuel said. “His sons have left him to try to become businessmen in the cities.”
Ayamah spoke again, sharply, and stared at the empty space in front of him when Emmanuel translated. “They will end up as market boys. He says that they have forsaken their heritage to be market boys. He finds it shameful.” Ayamah wore an old fedora with a snakeskin band. He took it off after he began to speak in earnest. According to him, there were three causes of mental illness. The first was God, by which Emmanuel explained he meant fate and I understood to mean natural causes. The second reason people went crazy was because they neglected their ancestors. Finally, Ayamah said, people might go crazy because one of their enemies placed a curse upon them.
“What happens after people go crazy?” I asked. Ayamah puckered his lips and blew in exasperation. He gave a response that lasted over a minute. Emmanuel cleared his throat and gave a one word translation, “Encopresis.”
“That means shit-smearing, right?”
“Yes, and they fight with it. Many things having to do with shit.”
“What does he do about it?” I gave up any pretense of trying to phrase my questions in the second person. Like Ayamah, I began to speak to Emmanuel directly.
“He has someone clean it up. They can make a real mess.”
“No, I meant for the treatment.” Emmanuel relayed the question. Ayamah said that he didn’t spend too much time trying to determine what type of insanity a patient suffered from, since he used the same method to treat all of them: he and his assistants tied them up and beat them. Eventually they became docile, and he then stuffed a special blend of herbs up their nose mornings and evenings. “He also maintains a small shrine to commune with his ancestors in the spirit world,” Emmanuel explained. “And he might consult the Bible for wisdom.”
“The Christian Bible?”
“Well, they translated it into the Bawum dialect,” Emmanuel said.
“Yeah, but isn’t it sort of a contradiction to commune with one’s ancestors and then consult the Bible? You know, one God, above all others?”
Emmanuel translated the question and laughed at Ayamah’s response. “He says ‘What’s the difference?’ Jesus is just a really old ancestor of yours. If he wants really old knowledge he talks to Jesus. When he wants to talk to someone more up-to-date he consults his own ancestors.”
Emmanuel waited a moment to see if I had any more objections and went on. The only modifications Ayamah made to his treatments were for those who threw their shit. He chained shit-throwers hand and foot. For everyone else, he simply took a log, drilled a hole in it, and after sticking the patient’s leg through the hole, nailed in place a second length of wood to close off the hole. Ayamah assured me that it was difficult to get very far dragging a log on one foot.
“Doesn’t that bother you?” I asked Emmanuel.
Emmanuel scratched at a five o’clock shadow contemplatively. “I guess it might have, but I grew up in this village. You might say that the sight of madmen in logs was part of my childhood.”
Ayamah picked his nose and blew snot on the floor.
“What about Raymond?” I asked, “How come he doesn’t have a log on his leg?”
Ayamah chuckled slightly when Emmanuel translated the question. His response had a lot of sound effects. At one point Ayamah acted out hitting something with his walking stick and cried, “Bam –Whacka –Bam!”
Emmanuel turned to me when Ayamah was finished. Again the translation was noticeably shorter than the story. “He said Raymond was a hard case. He never threw his shit, but he made trouble in other ways. He thought he wasn’t crazy. They had to beat him to make him understand he was unwell. Once he understood, he was docile.”
Joseph, the cook agreed with all the others, “I was one of the people who brought him back. Some other men had gathered and asked me to help them. I like him. He likes the food I make. I wasn’t happy to see him like that.”
Whenever I try to explain the worms I saw in Emmanuel’s mouth, I get stuck on that exact fact. I saw them. I saw them come out of his gums. After a while, I came to the conclusion that I had three ways to explain what I’d seen: I could decide that I had been deceived, I could decide that my eyes had deceived me, or, finally, I could alter my entire world view to encompass the possibility of non-existent worms residing in people’s gums.
Unconsciously, I think I explored the first and third options, but consciously, I chose the second. Though the first option was probably preferable, the second option seemed more plausible. My disorientation in Cameroon felt like more than simply the result of culture-shock, I had the nagging suspicion that I was experiencing things I wasn’t equipped to understand. Which was more probable, I asked myself, that the world was out of whack, or that I was?
I had my erratic behavior as evidence. I acted aggressively. I fought with strangers. I went to the unrestricted pharmacies and invented pill cocktails. I felt unafraid of garrulous and dangerous men. For someone who prided himself on having lived alone in foreign countries since he was young – who worked to approach other cultures on their own terms - I was suddenly, disturbingly, patriotic. Cameroon may be a rough and difficult place, but millions of people have no problem catching its rhythm and logic. My experiences elsewhere, or maybe my youth, had made me arrogant. Rather than admit to myself that I had arrived unprepared for certain experiences, I narrated my own explanations to myself. But much like a lie built upon a lie, I found myself unable to revise my stories to fit events without admitting that I knew nothing, and so instead my stories, and therefore understanding of the events around me, grew more and more fantastic.
By the time I met George, I was frequently making up the world as I went along. More to the point, I didn’t know when I was doing it, and when I wasn’t. Given all this, I was willing to believe that I saw worms come out of Emmanuel’s teeth, and I was also willing to believe that worms did not come out of his teeth at all.
On my way home from my interview with Pa Ayamah, I came upon Raymond crouched on a log, reading a pamphlet that outlined how to set up a library in accordance with the Dewey decimal system. “Hey, the missionary!” he called out, grinning, “How’s the church work?”
I took a seat next to him. He held the pamphlet up for my inspection. “I’d like to go to a library again. Now I just read about them.”
“Did you used to go to libraries?”
Raymond laughed. “I wasn’t always like this. I used to study economics at university. I was good at it too.”
Like what? I wanted to ask. In my few encounters with him, he struck me as odd, but living in Ayamah’s compound would give anyone a few quirks.
“Why did you quit?” I asked.
Raymond waved his hand airily. His wrists were too thick to make the gesture look natural; it came off as studied or affected. “My uncle. He put a curse on me.” Once he started talking, the story rolled out of him. I got the sense that no one had ever asked him before, he kept skipping back and forth through his story, trying to construct it in words.
Raymond was the son of a polygamist father who died when he was six or seven. As tradition dictated, Raymond’s father’s brother took Raymond and his widowed mother to live with him. Raymond’s uncle and his jealous wife beat and underfed him. While we talked, Raymond pulled back his lips to show me how hunger had ruined his teeth. “Worst of all,” Raymond confided to me, “My uncle was an evil man. He was a member of a secret society. The only thing he was good at was witchcraft.”
After finishing lycee, both Raymond and his uncle’s son were awarded opportunities to study at the University of Buea. “My uncle was furious that I should go to the same university as his son. He kept asking me who I thought I was. But he couldn’t stop me and my mother secretly gave me some money.” During the school year there was not enough money for Raymond and his cousin to come home, so Raymond stayed at the university studying economics, while his cousin came home during breaks.
“What type of economics did you study?” I asked when he paused to breathe.
He furrowed his brow. “How do you mean?” he replied.
“I mean what exactly did you study economics for?”
Raymond inhaled sharply and shifted his seat next to mine so he could grasp my knee. His face was mottled with little scars, but beneath them the skin was unlined. The whites of his eyes were completely clear, remarkable, given the dust and dirt on the path. “Oh you, know,” he said in an off-hand tone. “Lots of different things.”
Abruptly, Raymond lifted his head and looked off towards the tops of the trees. “Do you smell something burning?” he asked.
I sniffed the air. “No. I don’t smell anything.”
Raymond shrugged and continued his story. After months without seeing his family, Raymond’s uncle called him home just before exam period. When Raymond left, his uncle gave him ten-thousand francs. His uncle had never done anything like that before. Raymond later found significance in the action, “The money was cursed.” At this point in his story, Raymond stood and began to wave his hands, acting out his words. His crisp accent contrasted remarkably with his torn blue t-shirt and the caked dirt on his legs and pants.
Raymond returned to school in time to begin cramming for exams. Although he felt he had much work to do, his thoughts kept on focusing on the ten-thousand franc note he had stashed away in his economics textbook. “It was calling to me. Like a beautiful prostitute. Something you know is wrong, but attracts you so much.” Twenty or thirty times in a day he would stop what he was doing and check to see if the money was still there.
“It got very bad,” Raymond said, his voice almost pleading, “This obsession with the money. I was studying all day for the exams, but I was thinking about the money. The night before the exams, I got sick. It was like a fever, and my chest was tight. I was sweating and moaning and I put the text book with the money in it in my bed.”
“The experience you describe kind of sounds like an anxiety attack,” I interjected, “Maybe you were stressed over exams.”
Raymond rolled his eyes, and as though a child had interrupted him. “This,” he said slowly, “was not an anxiety attack. I was afraid to trust anyone. It was terrible. I locked myself in my room and held the book with the money in it to my chest. I was like that for twenty four hours; I missed my exams. Finally it was too much. I took the ten thousand francs and went to the market to buy medicine. But instead of medicine, I asked for poison.”
“They sell poison in the markets?” I had never seen any, but then, I hadn’t looked.
“For animals. But they wouldn’t sell me poison, so I tried to buy Valium to take an overdose, but I was wild and out of control, so they wouldn’t sell me any.”
“If you could spend the money on Valium, why didn’t you just buy a shirt or a radio or something to get rid of it?”
Raymond shook his head impatiently, his wide-set eyes bulging. “Don’t you see? They controlled me! I couldn’t spend the money on anything but poison! Why of all the ways to kill myself did I try to use the money to buy poison? The money made me do it!”
Raymond noticed he was shouting, lowered his arms slightly, and gave me a weak smile, “Sorry, I forget myself sometimes. Not exactly a smart thing for madman to do.”
I shrugged “Go on.”
“I went home in a rage and pulled down the light from the ceiling of my room and tore it open.” He forgot his fear of yelling and began to act out tearing apart a light with flailing arm gestures. “And I took it so there were two wires, full of electricity, and I grabbed one with each hand so the electricity could flow through me and cure me of the fever.” It was quiet on the path; I could hear the whir of grasshoppers and the gurgle of a nearby stream. Against those noises Raymond’s long toenails scraped the bare dirt while he stood in front of me. His arms grasped imaginary wires and his body writhed while muted screams escaped through clenched teeth as he pantomimed his suicide attempt. It lasted long enough for me to grow frightened. Just as I was about to say something, his body dropped motionless on the dirt.
“He was shouting about being on the road.” The sun-blackened man whose job seemed to be to remain ever-seated on the lawn chair in front of the tailor’s shop agreed with everyone else. “So what? I’m down on the road everyday. It’s nothing to get so excited about.” He took a pull on his cigarette and nodded sagely at his own words.
By American standards, most foreigners I met who were living in Cameroon behaved bizarrely. Every ex-pat I met had his or her quirks; some of the Peace Corps volunteers were downright zany. A volunteer named John, who had lived in the desert for a year an a half without running water, electricity, or a telephone, had, after a few beers at bar in the Hilton hotel, repeatedly called room-service demanding to know why they kept calling him.
In Yaounde, I had met a group of wealthy expatriates who had set up something of a European infrastructure and society nestled subtly within the world of Cameroonians. That wealthy, European bubble was not one that was particularly easy to find, and I was happy to have gained their acceptance. They were the twenty-something offspring of diplomats and exporters and they lived a lifestyle that struck me as quite glamorous at the time. Plus, they seemed taken by me; I was new, strange, and for short periods, I had enough money to keep up with them.
It ended when I forgot which person to be with them. One night they took me to a club, some fancy club, where I was ripped off on the entrance fee. Inside, I went to the bar and ordered myself a beer. I asked the barman if he had change for a five thousand. He said he did. He took my money and brought me a tiny beer.
“And my change?” I asked.
There is none.
I decided to be friendly, “Look man, you can keep two thousand of it as a tip if you want, but there is no way a beer is five thousand francs. I pay two hundred at the bar by my house.”
“This isn’t the bar by your house.”
“Just give me the money.”
The barman didn’t say anything more. He simply nodded to a large Frenchman who had a whore hanging off of each arm. He shrugged off one of the whores and grabbed me by the chin. He yelled something in my ear in slurred French. I told him I didn’t understand what he said. I understood him the second time, when he told me to fuck off and slapped my cheek Godfather-style.
I got angry then, and forgot where I was. I forgot that I was a twenty-one year old middle-class American boy, who was very far from home. I forgot that a flashy nightclub in an expatriate inter-city was not my turf. I forgot that I have not been in a real fight since fourth grade and I forgot that any large Frenchman who has two whores and slaps my cheek like the Godfather is someone not to be fucked with. Instead, I swelled with the sort of self-righteous pride that you find among students at small liberal-arts schools in the United States. Places where things are fair, prices are marked, and some cheesy-looking French Mafioso-wannabe is an abstraction of the movies.
Who the fuck does this mustachioed and obvious low-life exploiter of the African people think he is?
I bitch-slapped him.
The music was loud enough that only a few people heard it. There was a moment where no one moved, not me, not the whores, not the French guy. Then I remembered where I was. With as much dignity as possible I turned my back and walked out of the club. Behind me, the Frenchman was organizing a group of large men. Once outside, I got in the first taxi I saw.
My girlfriend was at the club. She was very confused by my disappearance. I called her on her cell phone and told her what I had done.
She paused a moment, then said, “But a beer here is five thousand francs.”
Raymond awoke in a hospital, his burned hands fastened to the side of the bed. He had been examined while unconscious. A foreign doctor, an Arab, Raymond thought, had found evidence of possible brain anomalies and ordered a few basic tests to be conducted at the provincial hospital. The doctor concluded, though, that Raymond was most likely suffering from something like anxiety or depression. Raymond felt otherwise. The pieces fit together easily in his mind. His illness was caused by witchcraft on the part of his uncle, most likely with the help of a secret society and most likely with the help of other members of his family. Why else was he suddenly called home? Why else the sudden gift of ten thousand francs, from a man who had never before given him anything? His uncle had given him a gift of bewitched money.
Raymond’s conjecture wasn’t implausible. Although I found it hard to draw the same initial conclusion as he did, the description of his relationship with his uncle and his uncle’s actions follows an almost classic model of bewitchment. Accusations of witchcraft most often occur within families, or at least along some form of kinship lines. Witches and the bewitched nearly always know each other. If Raymond suspected his illness was caused by witchcraft, he would look to the person who hated him most: his uncle. With a little knowledge of witchcraft, the seemingly innocuous gift of money becomes more suspicious as well. While traveling around Cameroon, I found that while I could not leave any of my belongings lying around because they inevitably would be stolen, loose cash left in plain sight was never touched. In the town of Kribi, a group of children went into hysterics when I picked a hundred-franc coin off the beach. The instant I touched the coin, the children screamed “No! Drop it! Drop it! Mami Water, she’ll get you! Mami Water! Mami Water!” The youngest of them were nearly in tears. In Kribi, no one touched lost money because of the belief that Mami Water – a mutation of the mermaid myth – used money to entice men into the ocean to drown.
The story varied place to place, but the theme was the same: don’t take money from strangers. Cash was the perfect medium for sorcery.
Although Raymond remained distrustful of his uncle, he nonetheless left the hospital with him. His uncle remained silent, while his mother pressed his hand and told him that they had borrowed a car and arranged to bring him to Yaoundé where he could be given modern medical treatment. Instead, they drove West into the grassland regions along the Ring Road. In the village of Bawum, they parked the car on the path that led to Pa Ayamah’s compound.
“My uncle got out of the car and walked away. He came back with two men, who opened my car door and pulled me out. I was so shocked I didn’t do anything. I fell out of the car and they began to beat me while my uncle and my mother watched. I cried out for my mother to help me, but she kept repeating, ‘These men are going to help you.’ Then my uncle stood between us. I cried her name many times as they beat me and I began to bleed.” Raymond inhaled audibly and pulled at his ear. “My mother began to ask if it wasn’t enough, but my uncle pushed her into the car and they drove away.”
Almost an hour had passed since I had sat down next to Raymond on the path. We were both sweating in the sun. He lifted the bottom of his t-shirt to wipe his sweat away, leaving trails of dark blue in the light blue fabric.
“They had me chained to a post the first two months,” Raymond said, and picked at a stray thread on his shirt. “At first I tried to reason with them. I yelled for days about the rights of man and how it was not right to treat me as they did.”
“Were you speaking in English?” I asked.
“Yes, some Pidgin, but mostly English. I don’t speak quite the same dialect as they speak here. It’s really kind of funny, because I was trying so hard to reason with them, but I was talking about the rights of man, you know, Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite, which must have sounded like complete nonsense. It’s no wonder everyone thought I was crazy. A total madman!” Raymond laughed at the memory, but the sound came out dry and mirthless.
By midway through my stay, I had so convinced myself that I was unbalanced, that it took me a while to notice when other people were acting more absurd than I. In a crowded market, I had been pulled out of a taxi by a gendarme with the disgruntled, bovine face of a cop who once had a desk job. He demanded my passport and vaccination records. I produced them and he scowled at the vaccination card. “Your records are not in order,” he declared. He blew his whistle and told the taxi driver to move along. The taxi man said he would wait for his fare.
“What is the problem with my records?”
“Are you contradicting me?”
I reviewed what I had just said in my mind, wondering if I had accidentally misused the French words. “No,” I said. “I am not contradicting you.”
“Good.” He squared his shoulders and adjusted his gun belt. Three other gendarmes, brandishing automatic rifles, appeared behind him. They couldn’t resist a white kid in a taxi. Tourists hemorrhaged cash at the sight of a couple of Uzis. I sighed and asked what could be done to “remedy” the problem.
“You’re missing a vaccination,” he said.
“Which one?” I asked.
“You don’t have an AIDS vaccine.”
“You need to have an AIDS vaccine. You don’t have an AIDS vaccine.”
“There is no AIDS vaccine.”
“I said, there is no AIDS vaccine.”
He blinked and turned to one of the other gendarmes. “This guy, where does he come from? He says there is no AIDS vaccine.” He guffawed loudly, the other gendarmes coughed out half-hearted laughs.
I stepped towards him. “Look, I’m telling you there is no AIDS vaccine.”
He laughed, “Oh yeah, then how come so many people are sick?”
My words came out soaked in condescension, despite myself, “Well, vaccines cure sicknesses. If there was an AIDS vaccine those people wouldn’t be sick. What you have here in Cameroon is an epidemic, something that happens when there is no vaccine.”
A small crowd had gathered around as soon as I was pulled out of the taxi. It must have been an interesting scene: an angry white boy who sneered out broken French at four gendarmes who patted their guns like puppies.
The cop tried a new tact. “You think just because there isn’t an AIDS vaccine I can’t arrest you for not having one?”
I was mad then, and didn’t bother to control myself. “What’s it going to take for you to leave me alone?”
“You’re under arrest.”
“For what? Not having an imaginary vaccine?”
The growing crowd cackled with pleasure. A young man cried, “Careful, they almost arrested me for killing my imaginary friend! But I swear, I wasn’t anywhere near that imaginary car crash!”
One of the other gendarmes told him to shut-up, but couldn’t totally repress a smile.
The bovine-faced cop was less amused. He put my passport in his pocket and reached for his handcuffs. “You’re under arrest.”
I pulled out my cell phone and told him I was dialing the embassy. The cop hesitated. The crowd hooted in surprise. It was a new trick for them; they didn’t have an embassy to call.
“You lack respect!” the cop screamed.
“On the contrary, I have only used the vouz form, where you call me tu.”
An Anglophone who corrected his French was the final straw. Exasperated, he threw my papers back in my face and told me I was too clever for my own good. This was apparently an insult powerful enough to redeem him. With renewed swagger he turned to berate the assembled crowd.
The taxi-man clapped me on the shoulder as we drove away, “Hey, you argue like a Cameroonian,” he said, “I planned to overcharge you, but forget it now.”
After months of striving to fit in, I had only to mock a half-witted policeman in order to be accepted.
Raymond squinted at the sun. “I think I will go get a snack.”
“What are you having?”
“It’s mango season. Mangos.”
I walked with Raymond to the center of the compound, where he had left a plastic bag of mangos. The fruit was everywhere; at night the falling fruit thumped in the forest like giant raindrops. We sat against a plank across from a schoolroom chalkboard posted under an overhang.
1. Take medicine at 9:00 and 5:00
2. Clean personal space.
3. No fighting.
4. Bathe twice a week.
5. Attend nightly prayers
6. No crossing the stream.
7. No crossing the road.
The letters were written in a shaky hand, and it looked like there had once been nine rules, but the last two, too low to be shielded from rain by the overhang, had washed away. “Can I take a picture of that?” I asked, pulling a little point-and-click from my pocket.
Raymond looked eagerly at the camera. “I’ve never taken a picture before.”
I gave the camera to him and showed him how to zoom in and out. “Can you take a picture of those rules?” He stood up and carefully lined up the shot, trying different angles. Behind him, a large man carrying a load of wood walked around the corner. His hair was cut in a flat-top, and his t-shirt sleeves had been torn off to reveal arms that looked like they had been drawn by a comic book artist. In a single fluid motion, he dropped the firewood, caught one of the falling sticks and flung it at Raymond. The stick flashed past Raymond’s ear as the shutter clicked. With a roar the man was upon us, towering over me and dwarfing Raymond. Raymond smiled benignly and lowered the camera. There was a quick exchange in Pidgin and Raymond handed me back the camera. The man fixed me in a hard squint, and I, in an attempt to look away, ended up reading his t-shirt, which advertised a music-festival. “That is a madman!” he growled. “You don’t give him your things.” I didn’t say anything. He backed away with a menacing finger pointed at Raymond and I stayed quiet while he gathered his firewood and stalked past us.
Raymond switched back to English and said in a steady voice. “He is one of the men whose task is to beat and control us. He doesn’t want me talking to you.”
“Because I am a madman, of course. Just as he said.” Raymond picked at the gaps between his teeth during the silence that followed. I couldn’t tell if he was serious. He may have been a bit odd, and perhaps he talked in church and wouldn’t explain what he knew of economics – but in the time I knew him, he was always lucid. In fact, he was the most friendly, forthcoming, and sensible person I had met in days.
“Okay,” I said finally, “But you don’t really seem like a madman. Forgive me for saying so, but mostly you just seem unlucky.”
Raymond held out an empty hand and a sour look crossed his face. “As I told you, I am a simple man. It was my uncle’s witchcraft that drove me insane. The madness is there, even if it doesn’t show. Not to you. Not to me. But it is there.”
I put the camera back in my pocket. “People write books about that, you know. The insane are insane because they don’t know that they are insane. By that logic, I would say your belief in your own madness proves you are fine.”
Raymond sighed and spat on the ground. In the sunlight, his scalp shone through his hair. “That’s a fun word game,” he said at last. “But some of us in places like this require more than that. We must prove our insanity to ourselves.”
“How could you possibly have done that?” I cut in.
Raymond pointed at the chalkboard. “Do you see rule number 7?”
“Yeah. Don’t cross the road.”
Raymond turned and pointed in the direction of the road. “You might think that Pa Ayamah has that rule to keep us from wandering through town. That’s not it. Pa Ayamah says that this area is protected. Out on the road, we are exposed once more to the demons that cause our madness. If we cross the road, we go mad again.”
Raymond tapped his head. “A few days before you arrived, I went and tested his rules. I’m a madman all right.”
After the AIDS vaccine incident, I wrote an e-mail that described the event to my professors in the United States. It was meant to be humorous, but apparently taunting armed police just doesn’t strike the same funny chord in the States. I got a call from my Journalism professor shortly afterwards. Rather than saying outright that he felt worried, he told me about two psychological syndromes.
The first was the Florence Syndrome. It is a condition that affects young people –usually artists – when they travel to Florence, Italy. Suddenly they find themselves inside a world that they had only seen in books. All their lives, they studied art printed on a page or projected from a slide. But in Florence, there is no book to close, no switch to kill the the projector. They overdose on art. Their brains overload and they lose perspective. The art becomes an obsession, an addiction, as crippling as any drug, and the importance of their lives before Florence slowly fades.
The Jerusalem Syndrome is more serious, and religious, rather than artistic, in nature. People from a culture like America’s – only two hundred years old – go to Jerusalem and find themselves inside of history. Scraps of the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran, are made tangible before their eyes. They have no chance to close the Bible and decompress, instead the Bible is all around them, they are inside the Bible. A man with the Jerusalem Syndrome finds himself at the wide road of religious history, the course of which traces its path all the way to him. And what must it mean that all that is holy and recorded leads to the moment of his arrival in Jerusalem? Simple, he is the Messiah.
While my professor talked, I thought of the spring leaves outside his office in Massachusetts and contrasted it with the bare dirt and open sewers I saw from the balcony. Was he really paying five dollars a minute to tell me these stories?
“Let’s talk about this other pattern I’ve noticed,” he continued, “Lots of young people go to Africa. But they all go through programs and organizations. They have a safety net, Peace Corps, NGOs…but when they cut themselves loose, they change. They become disillusioned, they get mad, they take on Africa single-handedly.” My professor paused, I heard static. “They pick fights with men carrying guns. Any of this sound familiar?”
“I see what you’re getting at,” I said into the mouthpiece, “but tell me, does this particular syndrome have a name?”
His laugh sounded dry across the line. “Not that I know of. But in your honor, we’ll just call it the Yaoundé Syndrome. Take care.”
“A moth that tastes like copper?” The eminent biologist frowned.
“That’s what he told me.”
“I really don’t know about that. But hey, maybe he was he having a seizure when he ate it. Epileptics taste copper and smell burning rubber before seizures. The“Epileptic Aura.” The eminent biologist’s belly shook with a chuckle.
Raymond stood on the far side of the road and waited to go insane. Nothing happened, and it wasn’t long before it was clear that nothing was going to happen. It was all bullshit, the rules weren’t worth anything. He was fine.
“Please,” Raymond shouted to the empty road, “I have crossed the road and nothing happened. What’s more, I will cross it again!” He was almost hysterical with laughter as he sprinted back across the road. Three months of beatings had almost convinced him. He remembered how seriously he had begun to take Ayamah’s mumbo jumbo and hooted at the thought.
“I felt like celebrating. It felt wonderful to be so free,” he told me later. “It was a wonderful celebration. I knew at that moment that I was cured. Probably there was nothing wrong with me in the first place.”
Four times he crossed the road. Each time he proclaimed his accomplishment to the uncaring trees and dusty rocks. Then it was ten times. His voice was hoarse with laughter and he barely had enough breath to keep it coming. Standing in the middle of the road, he raised his hands heavenwards and shouted, “I am free to cross the road. Free to cross the road!”
Just beyond the far side of the road, a stream ran fast and clear over brown pebbles. A young girl had been wading in the water, her red dress turned dark at the hem. Frightened by the shouting, she ran to the nearby cooking shack where her mother was pounding huckleberries. The mother wiped her hands on a rag blackened by kitchen smoke and told her daughter to go inside. Outside the sound of shouting carried across tree tops. On top of a bridge made of split logs, a group of villagers all faced the same direction. The mother followed their gaze. A young man skipped and laughed as he crossed and re-crossed the road, proclaiming his accomplishment each time. The women clucked their tongues in dismay, while the men discussed how to subdue him. How sad that so promising a youth could be so hopelessly and so obviously insane.
David Torrey Peters is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa. He has lived in the Dominican Republic and Cameroon, and worked for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. His essays have been selected as finalists in contests held by Narrative Magazine and Third Coast Magazine, and his work is forthcoming in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. “The Bamenda Syndrome” won the Grand Prize in the Third Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing and was published in The Best Travel Writing 2009.
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