A traditional guide to controlling pain

About Eritrea - Art & Sport

Once, when I was quite young, the boy playing next to me was hit on the head by a big stone. He didn’t cry at first. The rule was there. But then he ran his fingers through his hair and felt something wet. Blood! It was then that he began to cry and wail.

“Shut up, stupid! You are not supposed to cry!” I stated.

“Shut up, yourself!” the boy replied. “I will cry my heart out!”

And he continued to cry until his mother arrived and slugged him for being a crybaby.

“If you cry like that again, you are not my son,” she said. “I will not tell your father this time, but if you do that again, you will live to regret it.” Recall that the entire time, the kid’s head was covered in blood.

I also recall another incident from when I was visiting a village with a relative from England who was here for the first time. Once we got to the village, we all sat down for coffee. A woman in her eighties brewed coffee. She poured it in small, handless porcelain cups. When she handed the hot cup of coffee to my relative, he was unable to hold stand the heat and dropped it.

“Iba (cow dung),” shouted the lady. The word iba is used in Tigrignya to denote a combination of clumsiness and weakness. The old lady thought that one had to suffer in silence and not show it in public. But my friend thought otherwise. What is the use of burning one’s fingers for nothing?

That is why there are so many people in our country who have never been to a doctor. They feel the pain in their stomach or liver, but they think that going to the doctor with a chest or kidney compliant is like a child running to his mother to tell her about a black eye or a bloody nose sustained in a neighborhood fight. “Don’t surrender to pain” is the principle.

I’ll never forget the face of the man who arrived at the clinic with a bloated hand. His eyes emitted dark rays of ignorance and he walked with misplaced arrogance as he made his way to the health officer.

“What’s wrong with your hand?” inquired the health officer, who had recently promoted from dresser.

“I was bitten by a snake,” said the man.

“How long ago?” asked the health officer. He had great experience working with peasants.

“A week or so ago,” replied the man.

The next day, I went to the clinic to inquire about the man’s health. The health officer told me that he had referred the man to the hospital. There is no use for a gangrened arm but to amputate it and thrown away.

“But why?” I asked.

“Villagers are like that,” he said. “They consider an urgent visit to the clinic as a sign of cowardice. They prefer to keep their pain to themselves.”

I have seen people carried to the hospital on a traditional stretcher because they refused to see the doctor on time.

There are two kinds of pain: mental and physical. A common example of unbearable physical pain in this country is toothache. It makes brave men weep and certified village heroes scurry to the nearest clinic for help. Nobody can bear the pain of an infected tooth. Yet, whimpering or whining is frowned upon by society. It is considered a sign of weakness.

Edde or betki (good for nothing) are used to label the yellow-bellied. A real man should keep a straight face under pain and hardship.

“How did our forefathers extract teeth from a patient before the arrival of the Italians?” I asked my grandfather.

“With coarse and primitive tools. The ones they used to craft household furniture,” he replied.

Most of the time, someone with an infected tooth was held by two or three able-bodied men. A carpenter took out his tools and after much struggling and wrestling would pull out the infected tooth, often along with a part of the gums. The area was then filled with soot scrapped from a ceiling in order to stem the flow of blood.

The carpenter-turned-dentist would sometimes fall backwards to the ground along with the tooth and flesh clinging to pliers. Blood would be dripping everywhere.

“Thank God!” would sigh the patient at last, relieved of his pain.

“I have seen people ready to smash their jaws with a big stone in order to dislodge a painful tooth, so much were they in pain,” my grandfather told me.

The bad tooth had to go, whatever the cost. But in all this, they showed no sign of defeat under pain. They kept a straight face.

The other type of pain, the mental pain, although worse than a toothache is dealt with in the same manner as the first.

Job of the Holy Bible is the role model of our society in this respect. Once upon a time, Job, who feared God and shunned evil, got what he least expected. Not only did he lose his children and property, he was also struck with an abominable skin disease that kept his friends away. Instead of complaining, however, Job accepted his fate with resignation and with unmovable faith. In the end, he got all his children and property back as a reward for hisfortitude and faith.
It seems that suffering in silence is a cultural trait of our society. Ask a poor person if the world or God is unjust and they will reply that they have nothing to complain about. They’ll explain that God has destined them for such a life and that someday, somehow, whether on Earth or the in the afterlife, God will repay them for past wrongs.

One day I went to visit a relative in his forties. He was suffering from bone cancer. He sat at the door of house, warming himself in the sun. He was the breadwinner in the family and his disease brought, as a local saying suggest, “cold winds to the house.”

I told him that I felt very sorry and that it was unjust for the Creator to bring such calamity upon him.

“I have lived to be 45 and I have seen the wedding of one of my daughters. My sons are now adults... things could be much worse,” he explained. “I leave everything to God.”

He died the following year. Never during all his suffering did he show any sign of grief or pain. He died like a saint.

The same goes for relationships. A broken-hearted man never cries and never shows that he has been defeated by a heartless partner. If a man goes to his friends to whine about breaking up with his partner, he is simply told to get over his feelings. Men would rather take their heartbroken friends to a bar full of women to drink, rather than listen to a man talk about his painful love stories.

Can pain be controlled? Yes. Through the mind, by the so-called mind-over-matter process or through faith. The latter is the easiest, more meaningful, and durable.