Vol. 22, #9
Last time I reported that many Maasai girls have come here to the mission following the finish of their last year of primary school. In January the results of their final exams will be published and they will learn if they have been chosen for secondary school. Their number has now grown to sixty and our resources are being stretched to the limit. We’ve gotten together a program of English, Math and typing to keep them occupied during their time with us. They are also busy with daily trips to the spring for water and frequent trips to the forest for firewood.
The Laibon is a very important man here in Maasailand. Many times the title is translated witch doctor, but since the Maasai don’t have witches among them, it doesn’t really fit. The basic idea though, of being a doctor to help when the occult or unexplainable threatens, does fit. It is important to keep in mind that the first question asked by Maasai when things go wrong and in time of trouble is “WHY?”…Why is this happening? Who cursed me? What did I do to bring this calamity down on myself? Why am I, my child, or my wife sick; more specifically, who cursed me, him or her? The seemingly more obvious question: “WHAT?”…What is the physical cause of the problem is of secondary importance to him. The Maasai is certain that if he can deal with the root cause of the trouble, which is of course some spiritual dislocation like a curse or a spell, there will be little difficulty in dealing with the physical reason for the trouble. The job of the “Laibon” therefore is primarily to explain why bad things happen to people, why a person is sick, why a woman can’t get pregnant or whatever. He goes about the task of discovering “why”; it may be that the person has been cursed, is under the influence of an evil eye, or maybe some sin of the an ancestor or the person in difficulty himself may be to blame. He makes his diagnosis by means of about forty little round stones of different colors which he pours out from a gourd onto a skin spread out on the ground. By looking carefully at these stones, how they have fallen, what colors are together and which colors are separated from each other, he is able to discover why the person who has come to him is in difficulty, and furthermore what might be done about it. He may decide that it is something simple like not have received a very important bracelet from one’s mother at the time of her death, or something very complicated to deal with like the solemn curse of someone now long dead. Whatever the “Laibon” discovers it to be, he will prescribe a remedy. Perhaps he will tell the person to go to the source of the Oldagum, our local stream, and wash in the water after mixing in some particular roots. Again he may direct that a sheep be slaughtered and skin necklaces be made from the hide to be worn in a certain way for some specified length of time. If the sickness of the person begins to fade, the “Laibon” will be brought gifts in thanksgiving, and his reputation will increase. If the person doesn’t get better, pregnant or the problem is not solved, sometimes another “Laibon” will be sought and consulted. Very often the intervention of the “Laibon” can be helpful, but not always. Among the villages in which I teach there are three “Laibons”. Very often I come upon them doing their thing with the stones. They are used to me being around and have no objection to me sitting and watching. This morning I taught at the village of Olendetiai. As I arrived, I found the very old almost totally blind “Laibon” sitting under a tree with some people who had traveled from a place called Piaiya to consult him, two days travel by foot. It seems the son of the elder sitting under the tree with Olendetial had been sick for years with a very serious skin decease. As I sat down at the outer edge of the small group, at whose center Lendetiai was carefully consulted his little piles of colored stones. He had poured them out some minutes before from a beautifully prepared cow horn. He was saying, “Your son is cursed.”. The old man asked, “But by who?” The old “Laibon” answered that it was the elders’ oldest wife, who had cursed the boy out of jealousy. It seems that she herself had no son, the sick boy being the son of her co-wife. But what must I do so that my son will get better asked the old man. The Laibon gave his remedy. She must be driven from your village with out cattle or even gourds of water and never allowed to come back. I was horrified. It seemed to me that for all practical purposes the “Laibon” had just imposed the death sentence, in a totally arbitrary manner, on some poor woman who perhaps was as grieved over the sickness of her co-wife’s son as anybody else.
Till next month,