Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Curse

Category: Issue 1, Short Story Winners

My laughter reflects amusement and anger – and disappointment. Disappointment with Magdalena. “You are quite crazy, Magdalena! Go back to your work!” This, I say to Magdalena. My Magdalena, who does all the housework independently and I must admit, far more efficiently than I do. How presumptuous of me! I should apologise but don’t, because I’m worried. I must confess, however, that I am more concerned about the fact that I might lose the best housekeeper in the country, than the unbelievable story Magdalena has just told me. May the One above forgive me!
Magdalena is about to be “cursed“ - probably this weekend. A good friend of hers paid her a visit in the middle of the night to inform her of this looming disaster. Some cousin of Magdalena’s would do the evil deed. Apparently, her family has decided to take this drastic step, because she is exorbitantly rich. She owns 50 head of cattle and even has a bank account. She possesses many clothes and her house is well furnished. Magdalena has also learnt to read – something regarded both enviously and sneeringly by those around her. I taught her myself.
A few weeks ago, Magdalena did the unthinkable and bought herself a car - with my help, of course, and the amused, yet cautious lenience of my husband. The darling has this wonderful approach to life that reads, if mum is happy, the family is happy. He warned me, though, not to expect too much, the 21st century might have arrived, but this did not apply to everything, especially not in Africa.
The purchase of the car has brought things to a climax. A black female worker on a farm who drives and even owns a car! Unheard of!  In these parts driving cars is a man’s business. Until now, Magdalena has defended herself successfully against the verbal attacks by men and women alike. She has a sharp tongue, my Magdalena. And I, as an active campaigner for the emancipation of women on farms, support her wholeheartedly. Our driving lessons are enjoyed on the farm “pad” at the “Saddle” watering post. There we are free from venomous looks and can squeal and laugh as much as we like.
Magdalena has become my confidante in the six years that she has been working for me. We talk about all kinds of things and each savours the other’s humour. I have come to know Magdalena as a modern and enlightened woman. Until today. Odd, that witchcraft never figured in our conversations - then I would probably not be so disappointed in Magdalena.
Ah well, now Magdalena polishes the same spot of the dining room window over and over again, while staring sightlessly at the brightly coloured zinnias in the garden. “The Missis does not know our people. You are white and understand nothing about witchcraft!”
“Yes, and I’ll tell you why! – Because such a thing does not exist! Nobody can cast a spell upon somebody, least of all in a way that the person dies!”
Magdalena throws me a sideways glance, opens her mouth to say something, but then keeps silent. Sadly, I have to accept that Magdalena has called me “Missis” – an appellation for the white “Mistress”, which is still widely used by black housemaids and which I have tried my damnedest to eradicate. Usually, when we have one of our conversations she calls me by my name. “Good grief!” I think, might this curse, though not even uttered be working already?
I continue to reason with Magdalena: “I’m telling you, only if you believe in such things can they happen. Some clever people have established that a disaster can happen, simply because people believe it. If you choose not to believe in this idiotic witchcraft thing, even the most evil cousin will not be able to harm you. It is like hypnosis, if you do not want to be hypnotized…” I stop my monologue, thinking, what am I blabbering about, how would Magdalena know about hypnotics, she is not that erudite.

Later that night I put my husband in the picture. Should I have hoped that he would ridicule my unrest, I am to be disappointed. He relates the story of one of his mother’s workers who had been “cursed”. The man’s health went from bad to worse, in fact death was knocking at the door, as they visited doctor after doctor. None of these medical deities were able to help him. Until she took him to a witchdoctor - who had no trouble curing him.
“Don’t tell me that you believe this gibberish! I sincerely hope that your poker friends aren’t aware of this juicy piece of triviality.” I stand aghast. “I’m not saying that I believe this; I’m saying that they believe it. Perhaps its autosuggestion – I don’t know, in any case it works. Now I would like to sleep, unless someone in this room wants to practice her witchcraft on me?”
Sleep does not come to me tonight. The oppressive heat these past days, without the relief of rain, is almost unbearable. I am also unable to rid myself of the goose bumps between my shoulder blades.
I am on the warpath this morning. Such madness has to be eradicated – roots and all. I shall find out about experiences our workers have had with witchcraft. I must watch my step, however, so they do not have the feeling of being interrogated.
The first interviewee is Alfons. He is a little older – a “groot man” – the people’s idiom of their more mature contemporaries. Alfons says, usually someone is cursed if the others are envious and hastens to present me with an example: If the “Mister” would lend Alfons his car, to go to Windhoek on business, but the “Mister” would not do the same for the other workers, they would become jealous and could punish him by having him ”toored”. Such a curse can have various strengths, which can range from bad luck to impoverishment and in its worst form - illness and death. Sometimes such a curse can also hit someone else – someone who is also involved. Alfons’ words have a smattering of innuendo, but I am unmindful of the meaning at this point. I only perceive, with secret amusement, that Alfons would heroically face the whole palette of curses, should the “Mister” lend him the car.
Jonathan, who attended school to the 10th grade, explains that it is very difficult to succeed in life, because one’s fellow-men do not allow it. They are jealous and want to thwart the person who tries to do better. That is why one is cursed. “Is this the reason why you left school?” I want to ask, but don’t, I do not want to jeopardise my campaign.
Africa, oh Africa, why are you wanting, why are you so poor? Is it because of jealousy?
Magdalena appears to be more collected this morning, albeit not as amicable as usual. I ask her whether it would help if we were to turn away all visitors from the farm, or whether she would like to stay somewhere else for the weekend so that the spell-casting cousin could not find her. Benevolently she lectures me. The one casting the spell does not have to be near the victim. He could be far away, on another farm. He could also blow the ill-meaning words into the fire and let them travel with the smoke.
“Can’t we curse him back, Magdalena?” I have this vision that our curse and his curse would meet somewhere in the middle and that ours would annihilate his curse. Magdalena shakes her head and sighs – only very special people can cast spells.
“Very well, let us presume this evil cousin succeeds to curse you. What do we do?” The only way out would be the big “Kuru-Aôb”, the witchdoctor. Sometimes the “Kuru Aôb works with a mirror – the affected person tells him who the sorcerer is and the witchdoctor would then show the perpetrator’s face in the mirror. Magdalena sees the disbelieve in my eyes, ignores it and continues: “And then the Kuru-Aôb asks: ‘Is this the man who cursed you?’ And you say” ‘Yes, this is the man’. Then the witchdoctor sends the curse back to the sorcerer.”
“What happens to him?” “Nothing! After three months he will say: ‘Funny, why is the person still here?’”
I learn that the witchdoctor also works with blood. The “patient” has to bring a sheep, which the Kuru-Aôb kills by cutting its throat and catching the gushing blood with which he neutralizes the evil curses. “And then?” I ask. “Then the sheep is cooked and eaten.” Even Magdalena joins a little in my laughter. The sorcerer and the witchdoctor are probably in cahoots with one another, I think vindictively, and in my mind I see the fat oozing from their chins.
Many an animal has to suffer because of these “cleansing” treatments. The tortoise species is very sought after as an exorcism tool and has to suffer many deaths. Often the Kuru-Aôb treats the “patient” by pulling the intestines or a foot or leg of a tortoise out of the body of the affected.
I’ve had enough! It’s time to do some work. “…. And remember, Magdalena, he can only harm you, if you believe in that sort of drivel!”
Scarcely have I spoken these words, when the telephone starts ringing. I go into the office to answer it. The caller is exceptionally polite and wants to speak to Magdalena. It’s him! I feel it; I feel it’s him! To my disgust, I cannot suppress a slight shakiness in my voice when I explain to him, that Magdalena is not available right now. I clank down the receiver, laugh, and give myself a resounding slap on the cheek. Then I warn Magdalena that he will probably call again shortly.
Sure enough – it’s ringing again! “Do not fear, Magdalena, pick up the receiver and tell him, that you do not believe in this witchcraft thing! I’ll listen from the connection in the office, okay?”
This is fun – Magdalena and I pick up simultaneously. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Damara/Nama is very rudimentary. Damn! The conversation is very short and the talking is almost exclusively done by the caller. As he rings off I hear a faint scream coming from the lounge. Magdalena lies in the telephone chair – semi-conscious. I pat her cheeks and slowly, as if in a trance she rises, looks at me and says: “It also works with the telephone”.
Apparently he wished festering abscesses upon her. “Well, at least he does not want to kill you just yet, a festering abscess is hardly a death sentence”, I try to joke. Then I send her home. She is not able to work today. I also do not feel like putting others to work. The heat is just too oppressive. 
It rained last night. Sadly, I cannot enjoy this young morning, fresh and without dust, with glistening drops clinging to every leaf. Magdalena and I are on the road. In my car! Actually, it is “her” car that I bought from her. She insisted. If she wants to go driving, she will rent the car from me, thus nobody can accuse her of being overly rich.
We have to drive 150 km to the “Kuru-Aôb”. Pity that the car has no radio-tape, music would have relaxed me. A nasty smell of wet skin wafts towards me. I turn around. Taken aback, I look away again. The sheep on the backseat stares at me as if it knows that it is going to be sacrificed today. Magdalena with her “saddle post” driving experience manoeuvres the car like an old hand – no wonder; the projected “festering abscesses” have not materialized – on her, that is.
My eye hurts more than ever. I take off my sunglasses and look into the mirror. The sty on my lower eyelid looks ghastly

Posted by Leserin on 11/09 at 12:58 PM | Permalink
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