Dear Reader, the events I am about to describe here happened way before we knew that such a thing like coronavirus existed. So do not fear that I went against common sense and ignored directives on social distancing. In fact, the reason I remembered this story and tell it to you now is that the ritual healer involved sent me a text today. I guess it was a mass text to all his contacts because it said, “Dear friend, Mchungaji Machenje has a traditional cure for all viral infections. Please WhatsApp 07876900 to order your full dose.”
Mchungaji Machenje reached out to me a little over a year ago when he heard that I was carrying out research on alternative medicine on behalf of a member of parliament who wanted to propose a law regulating alternative medicine practitioners. I was surprised by a phone call from him, one afternoon when I was seated in my office, debriefing with my researchers.
“Hallo,” I said trying to be polite because I did not know who was at the other end of the line.
“Hello is this the madam who is finding out more about traditional cures?” asked a deep husky voice.
“Well, I am currently carrying out research on alternative medicine in Kenya, if that is what you mean,” I said.
“Ah-ha,” replied the deep husky voice. “And the person calling you is Mchungaji Machenje and I am an alternative medicine man.”
“Great,” I said. “And how may I help you Mchungaji Machenje?”
“I don’t know what kind of alternative medicine you are looking at but I want you to come and learn our kind of traditional medicine,” he said.
“”What is your kind of traditional medicine?” I asked.
“Well,” Mchungaji Machenje paused for a short while and then said, “I came to know about you because you visited Kimbasi in our village and interviewed him on his traditional medicine practice. You remember him?”
“Yes I think I do,” I said.
“You left him with your number to refer you to other traditional practitioners whom you can interview, do you remember?” continued Mchungaji Machenje.
“Yes I remember,” I said. “I leave my number with all my interviewees in case they need to reach me with any further information.”
“Well,” said Mchungaji Machenje pausing again. “He gave me your number because I am a more powerful healer than him. In fact, my ghost appeared to him on that same night telling him that I was very powerful and that I must also be interviewed.”
“Your ghost?” I asked confused.
“Yes my ghost,” confirmed Mchungaji Machenje. “You know the way when you go to sleep your ghost leaves your body and goes around minding its own business, free from the constraints of your body?”
I struggled to suppress my laughter. Maybe he meant his spirit or his soul, I don’t know. But saying that his ghost left his body sounded quite funny.
“Okay, I understand now,” I assured him.
“You are lucky because I will be travelling to the city next week to heal a certain woman,” continued Mchungaji Machenje. “I am inviting you to come and witness this healing and even interview me and write about me. I am more powerful than other medicine men and I must appear in the thing that you are writing.”
“That sounds interesting,” I said. “Has the woman that you are going to cure agreed to have me present, documenting the process of her healing?”
“I did not think about asking her first but I will ask her and then give you the full details of my visit later,” he said.
“Thank you, I will appreciate that,” I said.
“Thank you also for thinking about me,” he said. “Don’t be afraid if my ghost appears to you when you are sleeping. I know that your ghost will also appear to me now that we know each other and have talked on the phone.”
“I promise you that I won’t be afraid,” I said, struggling to suppress laughter.
He dropped the call and I turned to my assistants laughing. They were eager to hear the details of the conversation and I related it to them. We all had a good laugh and I forgot about Mchungaji Machenje until a week later when he called me again.
“My dear madam,” he said. “I have come back to you to tell you that I will be travelling tomorrow. The woman has confirmed that you can come and watch her healing. Here are the details of her house.”
I took a pen and paper and wrote down the address of the house Mchungaji was giving me. I then searched the address on Google maps and realised that this woman lived in the high class Zenda Estate. Why on earth was she seeking out the services of a village healer whose ghost had the tendency of visiting unsuspecting people in their sleep?
There and then, I made up my mind to go to this healing. I was not sure why he wanted me to go but maybe it was to showcase how powerful his elixirs, decoctions and potions were in curing the sick.
Therefore, the following day, with one assistant in tow, I set out for Zenda Estate at half past ten in the morning. It did not take me long to get there and locate the house. I was right. This was a very posh gated community. The main gate was manned by three smartly dressed security guards who inspected my vehicle and took down our details. One of them then made a call on the intercom before waving us through.
I drove to gate number sixteen which is the address I had been given. Again, there was a security guard at this gate who inspected my vehicle and spoke through the intercom before letting me through. I drove down a winding tree-lined driveway. Beyond the trees on each side of the road were well manicured lawns which were interrupted by patches of beautiful flower beds and neatly trimmed shrubs.
Presently, the house came into our view. It was a large luxurious mansionette (not a maisonette, Dear Reader. This is where I urge you to pause and take a minute to expand your vocabulary by researching the difference between the two). The mansionette, set on two storeys, had a brick-orange colonial roof and dazzling white exterior walls. In keeping with the colonial architecture, the house had large gleaming windows and an imposing front door.
There was a four-car garage to the right side of the house but this was fully occupied with four luxury motor vehicles; A Mercedes Benz S-Class, a Porsche Cayenne, an Audi E-tron Quattro and a BMW X-7. These people clearly had something against Japanese cars!
Not knowing where to dump my Japanese Toyota Corolla, I parked it at the edge of the driveway, trying to squeeze it as much as possible to the side, so as to leave room for those machines in the garage, in case they needed to be driven out while I was still within the house.
I rang the door-bell and the door was opened by a middle aged, smartly dressed maid who was wearing a clean crisp black dress with a white apron and white headscarf. She greeted me and told me that ‘madam’ was expecting us and that we should follow her to the ‘morning room.’
I clearly did not know much about rooms in houses for my bungalow in Hekima Estate certainly did not have a morning room. We walked through a short hall and then turned right into the morning room. It was a room located to the east of the house with French doors that opened out completely onto a spacious terrace that was surrounded by beautiful flower gardens. The orientation of the room ensured that it was bathed in all the rays of the morning sun and the morning sun shone brightly into it.
The room was tastefully furnished with spotless white sofas that had gold and green throw pillows. A handsome middle aged man was seated at one end of the room and he immediately rose to his feet to welcome us. From his dress and manner, I immediately concluded that this was the master of the manor.
As he rose, an equally expensively but comfortably dressed woman looked up at us and smiled. I went forward and shook the man and then the woman’s hand.
“Have a seat,” the woman motioned. “I am sorry I cannot stand to welcome you properly but I am rather indisposed. Mchungaji and his assistant are in one of the rooms preparing the stage, so to speak, for the healing ritual. He will join us shortly.”
“I am sorry to hear that you are unwell,” I said. “Don’t mind us. We are very much at home and I must say that I am awed by your beautiful home.”
“My wife, Janice, is a lover of art and interior décor,” said the man proudly. “I provided her with a pile of brick and mortar and she transformed it into this beautiful home.”
“Ah Gregory,” the woman said waving him off playfully. “Don’t mind him, he is a writer and likes exaggerating things.”
When she said that I had light-bulb moment as it dawned on me that this was Gregory Ketolo the award winning mystery writer. How silly of me not to recognise him immediately.
“From one writer to another,” said Gregory. “What is your story angle here? What really are you interested in? Mchungaji did not give us much detail.”
“Oh,” I said smiling shyly. “I am not actually a writer. Mchungaji must have misrepresented me in his enthusiasm. I am actually carrying out research on alternative medicine for a proposed law to regulate the practitioners.”
“Interesting,” said Janice. “Why does Parliament want to regulate alternative medicine?”
“I believe it is because some of the practitioners are exploiting the poor with remedies that do not work,” I said. “Others are serving up dangerous and poisonous substances in the name of medicine.”
“In that case, it would make sense to regulate them,” said Gregory. “But I don’t know how you can regulate spiritists like Mchungaji.”
This was the first time that I was hearing that Mchungaji was a spiritist. I did not even know what a spiritist was or what his work entailed. So far in my research, I had only come across herbalists and so called native doctors but nobody had represented their work to me as spiritism.
I told Gregory this.
“Oh, you have never encountered a spiritist?” he asked, raising his eyebrows surprised.
“Never,” I confirmed.
“They are what you would call ritual healers, I suppose,” Janice said. “Ritual healers generally base their practice on some religious or spiritual practice. In this case, Mchungaji is a traditionalist and so his healing is based on traditional religious practices.”
“Interesting,” I said. “And how did you come to know of Mchungaji and engage his services?”
“I knew that this question was coming sooner or later,” said Janice. “So I may just as well unleash the whole enchilada.”
I found her language interesting. Maybe it was many years of living under the same roof as a writer that made her employ this kind of vocabulary.
I was drawn from my musings by her standing up and saying, “Voi-la” while pointing at her grossly distended abdomen. My eyes widened in surprise. She looked like she was carrying as set of twins and was close to delivery.
“As you can see, I have this grotesque swelling that has been a nightmare to me going on two years now,” she said. “One can mistake me for being pregnant and yet, I am way past the age of getting pregnant, if you know what I mean.”
She winked and my assistant and I smiled. She obviously maintained her sense of humour despite her condition.
“I am actually a grandmother of four,” she continued. “My two older children are married with kids while my last born is still in college. So it would be quite odd for me to find myself in the family way, don’t you think?”
My assistant and I nodded.
Janice continued speaking, “Now, two years ago my stomach started swelling. I went to doctor after doctor and expert after expert who carried out test upon test that yielded nothing. Instead, my stomach just kept growing. X-rays, ultrasounds and CT-scans revealed nothing, just an empty cavity. No fluids, in there, no growths, nothing. I was given different kinds of medicine including diuretics and even slimming pills but nothing seemed to work. My stomach just grew and grew and grew.”
“That must be quite strange and disturbing,” I said.
“It is, I assure you,” said Janice. “I rarely go out nowadays. At least, at the onset of this swelling, I could wear deras and momos and hide my huge belly but now, nothing can hide this. The most distressing bit is that I always had a narrow waist. Even after having my babies, my waist always snapped back to size. The search for a cure and not getting any diagnosis, got me depressed and I gave up. I was ready to accept this as the end of me until my husband was introduced to faith healing.”
“Yes,” said Gregory. “I am an explorer of faiths and I think I am one person who has subscribed to most of the major world religions within my lifetime. I met a Catholic priest with whom I shared my wife’s problem. He offered to pray for her and then introduced me to a pastor friend of his from the Golden Gate Pentecostal Church. You have heard of that church?”
“Yes I have,” I said.
“We went to the pastor and he prayed and fasted and at last, told us that God had revealed to him that we should go for alternative medicine,” Gregory said. “We visited a renowned herbalist who told us that medicine based on nature was the only way for some of these ailments. He gave us various herbs and concoctions but they did not work. That is when he told us to try spiritism. As I said, I am an explorer of faiths and was open to this. He introduced us to Mchungaji and now, here we are.”
“Interesting,” I said. “I find it encouraging that these faith healers and herbalists were acknowledging defeat and sending you to the next person.”
“That is what encouraged me too,” said Janice. “This is my last line of defence. After this, I will just cut this thing off or accept it as a living breathing part of me.”
“And it is not a growth?” ventured my assistant timidly.
“No dear,” said Janice. “I wish it was and then surgery would have taken me out of my misery. It is just an empty chamber of air. Or maybe it is a vacuum. The doctors saw nothing in there. Not even layers of fat.”
Mchungaji came into the morning room with his assistant, and seeing me he shouted his greetings with joy as if we were long lost relatives. He told us to follow him into the room he had prepared for the ritual healing.
We went up a flight of stairs and then off to the left into a darkened room. Mchungaji had drawn the heavy curtains to keep out the sunlight and had lit several red and yellow candles that were placed on a table to provide some light. On the floor was a reed mat and in one corner of the room there was a water pot and a carton box containing what I supposed were Mchungaji’s healing paraphernalia.
Mchungaji directed Janice to lie on her back on the reed mat with her grotesque belly pointing up to the ceiling. Gregory was directed to sit on a low traditional three legged stool at Janice’s head and my assistant and I were told to sit on the floor in a corner and observe quietly.
“I just want to tell you that for this healing to work, you have to both be completely open and honest,” Mchungaji said to Janice and Gregory. “Let me know now if you are going to hide anything so that I do not waste my time here.”
“We promise to be honest,” said Gregory and Janice simultaneously.
Mchungaji took out a plastic bag from his carton box and dipped his hand inside it. He removes some ash which he directed Janice and Gregory to lick. He then rubbed Janice stomach with the ash. The stomach seemed hard and unyielding it did not cave in as was expected when pressure was applied to one’s abdominal cavity.
He then took out a bottle of oil, poured the oil over the stomach and started rubbing it in silence. Occasionally, he would stop, put his ear to the stomach and listen and then continue rubbing. This continued for so long, I started to get bored. Where was the action? I came here for entertainment’s sake because I did not believe in ritual healing. However, I was surprised at how a well-educated, successful couple like this one would subject themselves to the antics of a semi-literate con-artist. I am sure Mchungaji had received a good amount of money to come and carry out his weird performance. The healing would obviously fail and he had already laid the ground for such failure. He would blame it on the lack of openness and honesty of the couple.
At last Mchungaji rose to his feet and sat at the corner near the water pot. He cupped his mouth around the mouth of the water pot and said something. He then returned to Janice’s belly to listen.
After going back and forth this way a few times, Mchungaji sat down beside the mat and looking at Janice and Gregory, said, “You need to let go of the evil deed in your hearts.”
Janice looked up and Gregory and he looked down at her and they both looked at Mchungaji stunned. It was Gregory who spoke up and asked, “What do you mean evil deed?”
“You know what I mean,” said Mchungaji. “There is a voice of an innocent ghost speaking from beyond the womb.”
He placed his hand on Janice’s belly and said, “It is decrying being denied the light of the world. It said that when you sent it away, it left its globe inside your belly. Its globe has been growing round and round and it will soon burst.”
The room was so quiet; I could hear my heartbeat.
“Very many years ago,” Janice said with tears flooding her eyes and rolling out to the sides of her face. “I had an abortion.”
“It was necessary to save her life,” Gregory quickly put in. “She had suffered pre-eclampsia upon the birth of our third child and when she fell pregnant with another her blood pressure shot up at only eight weeks of pregnancy. The doctor advised that we terminate as it would be risky for both Janice and the baby to carry the pregnancy to full term.”
“I will be honest and say that I did not want that baby,” Janice said. “Gregory and I were now moving in wealthy circles where fashion was key and I had to maintain a beautiful petite figure. I did not want to give up the international trips, sea cruises, champagne and wine parties. I saw the pregnancy as a hindrance to my new found freedom.”
Gregory nodded silently and then said, “All our new friends bragged about how they were done with child birth. How it was time to explore life to the fullest. We joined a circle of swinging couples and we loved it. We did not want our fun to be hindered by an unwanted and at the same time, high risk pregnancy.”
My assistant and I exchanged looks. This would be the basis of some sweet gossip back at the office.
Mchungaji nodded and said, “I don’t know what swinging couples are but it sounds evil.”
“The doctor would not terminate the pregnancy as it is illegal,” confessed Janice. “I talked to one of my friends in the swinging ring and she told me that she had been in the same situation a few months earlier. She had taken an herb from India which raised her blood pressure. She gave me the herb and I took it without Gregory’s knowledge. I went back to the doctor with my new complication. Gregory and the doctor accepted that this would occur because I had suffered pre-eclampsia before. The doctor approved the abortion and carried it out. I am sorry I did this to you Gregory. You also did not want the baby but you were not as conniving as I was. I deserve this punishment. I deserve this so called globe or whatever to keep growing in my stomach.”
Janice turned to her side and wept uncontrollably. Gregory came off the stool and held her in his arms until her weeping subsided.
“It is okay Janice,” he said. “The whole thing was not entirely your fault. I am the one who pushed us to join that new circle of friends. I too, am guilty of this.”
Mchungaji watched the exchange quietly. He then went to his pot and talked to it. He talked animatedly and at length. It was as though he was having an argument with whomever was in that pot.
Eventually he rose and listened to Janice’s stomach. He then took his oil bottle, poured some out onto his hands and rubbed it onto the belly. After a short session of massaging the belly, he went back to his box and returned with a smooth black stone. He told Gregory to sit back on the low stool and he started rubbing the belly with the stone. Much to our shock, bits of sand started falling away from the belly. We all gasped.
Mchungaji stood up and went to the table with candles. He held the smooth black stone above the candles as if warming it and then returned to his work massaging the belly with the stone.
“The globe is very difficult to remove,” said Mchungaji. “The innocent ghost has let go of the globe and given me permission to remove it. It has let go of the foundation of the globe, the anchoring sand as you saw coming out of the stomach. However, because the globe has been growing for very long, it is large and not easy to remove. You will have to be patient.”
Mchungaji massaged and massaged that belly with the smooth black stone. He moved back and forth from candles to belly and kept adding oil to make the massage process smoother. At last, we heard a sound like the splotch of a wet sponge falling to the floor. We all looked at the floor but saw nothing. Janice gave a loud sigh, like a sigh of relief and fainted.
“What has happened,” Gregory asked worried. “What have you done to her?”
“Don’t be so concerned,” said Mchungaji. “This is normal in cases of abortion. The baby has called her to him to say his goodbyes and then he will free her forever.”
True to his word, Janice came to after a short while and started sobbing. Mchungaji pressed her stomach and it was no longer rock-hard. It was now soft and gave way to the pressure of his hand. He told Janice that she could now sit up.
“You have now been freed of your troubles,” said Mchungaji. “If you tie your stomach with a lesso like a woman who has just delivered does, it will be back to normal in a few days.”
“How can I thank you?” asked Gregory elated by the miraculous recovery of his wife.
“You should thank yourselves for your honesty and openness,” said Mchungaji. “I was just a path and you trusted the path enough to take it. Kindly leave me now because I need to carry out a few sacrifices to my ancestors to thank them for guiding me to be able to heal you.”
I was too stunned to speak. Many confusing thoughts were running across my mind. How would one regulate such practices? It crossed my mind that this couple and Mchungaji knew each other and had put on this show to mesmerize me and make me understand that not all forms of alternative medicine were tangible enough to be regulated. I needed to go and do some more independent research. Maybe invite Mchungaji to a patient of my own choosing. Someone he had not met before.