I’ve known for a long time that mothers use traditional medicine on their babies, but it hasn’t been until coming back with baby B that I have a better idea of what this all entails. I’m still figuring things out, but I’ll share at least a bit of what I have learned. The majority of babies wear around their neck a necklace made out of chitenge material. Wrapped inside the material is one of two things – either a piece of bark from a specific tree or some part of a snake (I still don’t know which part – my Bemba education has not yet included snake anatomy). The purpose of this necklace is to ensure that the baby’s skull forms properly. I know, “forms properly” is vague for me too, but that’s all I can get.
I’ve started talking to every woman I know with a baby, asking why they put this around their child’s neck. “Its medicine,” is always the reply. When I press them on how it works, I only hear the same response of, “it helps the head form.” I ask whether the clinic teaches them how to do this, and they all tell me that no, there are specific women in the village who know how to do this and they are the ones who understand this tradition.
When it comes to tranditional medicine, I’m usually pretty skeptical. I understand that not all traditions are based in witchcraft, but the vast majority are, and I’m trying to understand whether these necklaces are connecting these women and babies to evil spirits. Since none of the women seem confused (like I am) about the fact that the material around the neck doesn’t put any medicine into the body, I’ve stopped trying to understand how this is supposed to work. Instead, I’ve started asking the women whether this necklace is using power from God or from the spirits. “It’s not witchcraft, its medicine,” they say confidently, and that’s pretty much that.
The conversation ends there as I’m the only one seeing logical problems with this method and I’m the only one questioning whether this might actually be connected to evil. The whole concept has raised an important question though: if no one believes that a current tradition is demonic, even if it originally was connected with demonic principles, does that remove them of evil consequences, or put them right in Satan’s path? I’m not sure. EVERY SINGLE MAMA talks to me about this tradition as if it is normal as giving your child tylonol. Hopefully I can find someone with additional information who might explain to me the history. The other interesting piece is that no one thinks that my baby is at risk even though she doesn’t wear this around her neck. Still trying to make sense of it all… I’ll keep you posted.