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Need For Medical Missions In Africa

( Originally Published 1913 )

This vast land, fitly named by reason of its superstition and degradation " the dark Continent," presents no exception to the rule when the needs of its sick are considered. A belief in the perpetual presence and machinations of evil spirits dominates whole regions in Africa, and leads the African to attribute to such causes most of the sickness with which he is afflicted. His first thought is usually not " what is the matter " when illness overtakes him, but " who is the cause " ; in other words, who amongst his enemies has cast a spell over him. The result is that he seeks the help of his medicine man or witch doctor, with the definite object of having the spell broken and the evil spirit sent away. Thus it is that around the poor sick person in Central Africa there settles down a night of debasing superstition. The subject of dread and delusion, the object of fear and loathing, the diseased African is one to be profoundly pitied and speedily delivered.

The witch doctors are a cunning and shrewd set of men, supposed to be possessed of special power over malignant spirits and regarded by the ignorant people with great awe. They are unquestionably the very citadels of superstition and demoralisation in the districts where they exercise their baneful sway. Their " stock-in-trade " consists of a set of gourds, and the skin of an animal to which are attached charms. How they proceed when called to a " case " may be gathered from the following description, written by the Rev. John Weeks, of the Congo :

" In diagnosing a case the doctor ' must not ask any direct questions, but he overcomes the difficulty thus. He asks a series of very indirect questions, and if those present say ` Ndungu,' he knows he is on the wrong track ; but if they shout excitedly ` Otuama,' he knows he has guessed rightly ; and the more excitedly they say the word ` Otuama,' the nearer is he in his guess ; and the more indifferently they say ` Ndungu,' the farther he is from the truth. Hence, when the people of the village have gathered around him, he starts: ` There are such things as pains in the stomach.' ` Ndungu,' quietly say the people. ` Sometimes there are back-aches, headaches, and pains in the chest.' ` Ndungu,' is coldly repeated by the folk. The ` doctor' knows he has taken the wrong line, but he has narrowed the list of affected parts. He begins again : ` There are such things as severe pains and aches in the arms and legs.' ` Otuama,' say the poor folk. He now knows the affected part is an arm or a leg. So he goes on narrowing down until he says : ` Ah ! the right leg is bad.' The people excitedly exclaim, ` Otuama,' snap their fingers in astonishment, and look at the ` doctor' with awe and wonder.

" The ` doctor' has thus ascertained that it is the right leg that has to be treated. Now, what are the most common complaints of the leg : rheumatism, boils, cuts, sprains, abscesses, etc. So again he starts, this time to discover the complaint and its exact location on the right leg, and the folk say coldly ` Ndungu,' as he misses in his guesses, or excitedly shout ` Otuama ' as, by his cunning process, he narrows the circle smaller and smaller, until at last, to the astonishment of all present, he says

The woman is suffering from a bad abscess on the inside part of her right thigh.' The people think that such a clever ` doctor,' who has found out all about the disease, etc., without being told, is just the man to cure the patient. He is consequently engaged and well paid.

" Should the patient not get better, but a series of abscesses break out, another ` doctor' is called, by name `Ngang 'a Moko.' He arrives and conducts an inquiry similar to the one above, but directed in such a way as to discover whether the patient is hated by any particular person who would like to bewitch her. After due questioning and much consideration, he states whether the woman is suffering from bewitchment, evil spirits, or from some unknown cause. If the latter, nothing is done except the abscesses are treated with medicinal herb plasters or some mess compounded by the ` doctor.' If, however, the ` Ngang 'a Moko ' (Moko doctor) says she is bewitched, her relatives call in another ` doctor,' who shouts to the witch to leave the woman alone, and calls down all kinds of curses and imprecations on the person bewitching her. In the quiet of the night you can hear a man going through the village beating a native bell and shouting to the witch to let the woman alone, threatening the witch to call in some noted witch doctor to search the wicked witch out and cause his or her death. But neither cursing nor entreating avail, for the woman becomes worse. Perhaps the ` Moko doctor ' said it was an evil spirit of some deceased relative that was troubling her, so they resort to a ` doctor' whose special business is to appease such spirits by sacrifices, or frighten them away by threats, by cursing them, and firing guns at them."

The modus operandi of those " doctors " differs in various parts of pagan Africa, but the foregoing will convey a clear ideal of the futility, absurdity, and heathenish character of such practices under which millions to-day are held in thraldom. When in addition to this is remembered the widespread extent of disease in the African continent, and how great is the suffering associated with many of the affections, it will be easily recognised that the claim for help and healing is appealing in its urgency. Is there then, we ask, once again, no need for Medical Missions ?

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