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Traditional Beliefs on Sickness

With over 12.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, there hasn’t been a better time than right now to write about sick people. This writer has taken the time to look at how different cultures view illness. From the funny to the absurd, here is a piece to start off your weekend.

According to the early Greek philosophers, people got sick because there was some kind of imbalance in their body humor or fluid.

According to the traditional belief, a person is taken ill for two reasons: either the body is not functioning well or the soul has been disturbed by evil forces.

For the first case, traditional healing methods, starting from herbal treatment to bleeding or rubbing the body with various concoctions, are tried. When they fail, the patient is taken to traditional spas where hydro-shock methods are used: the sick person is made to stand under a waterfall early in the morning. The chilly water tapping on his skull does the trick. The patron saint of the place is, of course, there to expedite the cure.

“Why am I sick?” asks aunt Tsehai. Could it be the Good Lord’s countenance in my demise?

“How are you aunt Tsehai? Are you feeling okay?”

“Well, let’s pray that nothing more terrible that this becomes my lot?”

Aunt Tsehai has been bedridden for the last fifteen days. What’s her problem? Why is she not seeing the doctor?

The world is such a terrible place to live in that from time to time human beings have to learn to take things for granted. Going to the doctor means refusing to take your share of misery in this cursed world.

If aunt Tsehai is lying in bed groaning and moaning the whole night, it is something she says she has to face in life. But anyway she prefers to get her medical treatment at home. The moment her family decides to take her to hospital, her optimism declines and her chances of survival with it.

So the neighbors think it is their duty to visit her and console her.

“You will soon get well. The Lord has the power to heal.”

“Well, if He thinks I am not needed here anymore, let Him do as He pleases.”

On the night table by the bedside stand bottles of milk, juice and small bags full of fruits, oranges and bananas. They had been put there by the visiting guests. But aunt Tsehai has neither the force nor the appetite to drink the milk or eat the fruits. So they will be sitting there for a day or two until they mysteriously disappear probably feasted upon by the younger members of the family.

Once, an Eritrean abroad went with a friend of his to an Italian hospital to visit a mutual friend with a serious bullet wound to his leg. They brought a bottle of milk and some bananas.

His friend had told him to take flowers instead of bananas. “Flowers are symbols of freshness and good health,” he tried to convince him and Europeans prefer flowers to a bottle of milk. But the Eritrean insisted that either the patient respect his tradition or to hell with him.

As they walked along the doorway, they saw his name written on a door. He was, the Eritrean thought, inside, gravely sick and probably groaning. But the door said otherwise: No visitors allowed for the moment. ‘What?’ he wondered. We came all the way to visit this person and what do we see written on the white door?

They asked what the reason was and got a reply that he needed absolute peace. Absolute peace, my foot! muttered the Eritrean.

You see, human beings have more power to impact the desired peace than anything else?

“What’s wrong with these Westerners? Doesn’t chatting with those who love you have more healing effect than staring blankly at the ceiling?” he continued dismayed.

As they turned to leave, he could see through the door left ajar that the patient was reading his favorite magazine.

They didn’t know what to do with the bottle of milk or the banana. They entered a small teashop, ordered tea and took the chance to finish the contents of the bottle and the bag undiscovered by the idiot.

The same person, back home at his beloved country now, made it his habit, following humiliating experiences in the past, to visit relatives before they expired. But this one, Tesfai, was not in a hurry to depart this world. However for the people from the country-side who came to visit him in his ward, he might as well have left the tears earlier for his leg had been amputated by the doctor. According to Eritrean country men, a one-legged man is as good as a dead man.

So the womenfolk among the visitors began to cry and weep before the eyes of the surprised patient. When he told them to stop crying, they began to put together their stuff for a coffee ceremony with a glowing brazier right in the middle of the hospital ward. And all the time they never stopped mentioning his misery and misfortune.

“What a plight, what a calamity,” the ladies would whine.

The amputee could say nothing but stare at the ceiling asking himself where he went wrong.

In our culture a good visitor is the one who visits a sick relative while the former is alive and kicking. Going to the funeral of a person one has forgotten to visit in the house or in the hospital rubs one’s conscience the wrong way.

One Sunday afternoon, Tesfai, back when he still had both his legs intact, went to the hospital to visit a friend. He knew he was still in the hospital because most patients stay a week or two before they are discharged dead or alive. As usual he had his kilo of bananas inside a paper bag ready with him.

The hospital gate opened exactly at 1pm. The queue was long and he had to wait for some time before it was his turn to have the contents of his bag sniffed by the Derg soldiers stationed at the gate.

He could see the person who was right in front of him carrying a bag containing three pieces of bananas. Tesfai knew the man was poor, but inside he was very rich. At least he remembered his friend lying desperate in some of the hospital wards.

When Tesfai’s turn came, the Derg solider did not sniff at his bananas. But the lady who was behind him was told to reveal the contents of her siltania (lid-covered enameled bowl). Derg soldiers hated covered containers, for they thought they contained plastic bombs for blowing up the hospital administration and personnel.

Tesfai’s friend was in ward B or was it ward D? Anyway he walked along with other visitors and located the block and the room. Inside were about fifteen visitors sitting on both sides of the three beds and chatting forgetful of the patients. The night tables were laden with milk bottles and fruits. Tesfai looked around but could not spot his friend. He asked one of the patients the whereabouts of the missing friend.

“Are you a relative?” the patient asked in somber voice.

“I am his friend,” Tesfai replied.

“A real friend?” he inquired.

“I beg your pardon?” Tesfai asked perplexed.

“Teklai had left about three weeks ago,” the patient sighed.

“Where did he go?”

“He went the way of all flesh.”

That served Tesfai right. All he had to do was make frequent visits to enquire about his friend’s health. He felt miserable that he was not there when his friend died.

He donated his kilo of bananas to the patient and left.

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