One thing Herbert Rappaport found out when he was in Tanzania is that you can catch a curse as easily as a cold. That's what Rappaport did, and besides, that's what his curse is -- a cold.
People kind of snicker when Rappaport tells them about his curse. He knows when he got it (circa 1972) and where (Tanzania) and why (jealousy and envy, of course) and he'd really like to get back to East Africa and get it lifted.
Rappaport isn't laughing. Sniffling, yes, clearing the tickle in his throat, yes, shaking his stuffed head, sure, but not laughing.
Rappaport, a Ph.D. clinical psychologist, is associate professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. In the early '70s, he spent some time working with medicine men in East Africa, and almost every time he goes to talk about the experiences someplace -- and mind you, he's given 30 to 40 presentations in all parts of the world -- anyway, on the day of the talk he wakes up with a cold. Almost without exception.
There is nothing to identify the just-turned-40 psychologist as a curse victim. He is medium tall, his dark hair just beginning to recede along his high forehead. He is articulate, with a wry humor (especially as regards curses) but, for the most part, not what you might think a medicine man would look like.
Neither, he reports, were the African healers he met. "Not what you'd find in a Tarzan movie," he says he was pleased to discover. (On the other hand, he found that the "big" medicine men, especially in the cities, tended, as do their counterparts in the West, to live in comfort. "You can bet," he says, "every time I saw a big white Mercedes and the driver was dressed in African garb . . . it was a medicine man." There were other more basic similarities to the West as well, Rappaport found. The African healers were adept at what we think of as Western psychiatry and psychotherapy.
Rappaport was in town recently, stuffed head, tickly throat, sniffles and all, for a seminar at Meridian House, part of a program co-sponsored by the African-American Institute to accompany a Meridian House exhibit of mostly West African ritual artifacts.
"I'm really only half kidding," Rappaport said plaintively after describing his curse to a predictably snickering audience. "I know people always start thinking I'm a flake . . . "
When Rappaport went to Africa in 1971, medicine men were not part of his plan. His job was to combine a teaching mission at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania with a project to set up a model for a 10-year mental health program for the Tanzanian Ministry of Health. His psychologist wife came along.
After he was there about a year, though, he began to hear colleagues occasionally kidding about going to a mganga , Swahili for medicine man or healer.
"I was curious," he recalls, "so I began to ask about medicine men and behold, these people were not kidding at all. They only kidded to handle a kind of social discomfort in talking amongst Western people."
He probed more deeply, he says, "and found a large majority of my colleagues, including Western-trained or African-university-trained academicians, all tended to use medicine men on some occasions." Even more interesting, they used them not out of sentiment or superstition, but as the result of a rational consumer decision about one kind of health care over another.
So the American psychologist, with degrees from New York's Queens College and University of Buffalo, enlisted a group of 30 or 40 African students -- he was teaching Freudian psychology -- who were representative of a number of Tanzania's 100 or so tribal groups, each of which spoke its own tongue, and got himself invited home.
He had been impressed at how easily the students were able to grasp the principles of Freudian theory. He understood better later when it became clear that the African shaman is, essentially, a Freudian psychotherapist, and a practitioner of what is being called in the West today "holistic" medicine, the treatment of the whole individual for an affliction in one part.
Rappaport aproached the members of the medicine man-shaman hiearchy as one colleague to another.
"I showed them ink blots," he says, "and they understood and showed me beads, and animal teeth, pieces of wood . . . after all, there really is no magic about ink blots and no magic about various pieces of wood and all the things medicine men do in the diagnostic process. It's simply to get the; [afflicted] person relating to the diagnostician so the latter can get a piece of the person projected forward."
Shrink or shaman, Rappaport found little basic difference.
East African medicine folk -- a few, usually among the most prominent, are women -- fall into several basic categories.
On the lowest rungs are the herbalists. These may be likened to your friendly neighborhood druggist, says Rappaport. They prescribe all sorts of herbs, roots, leaves, plants, barks, some to be ingested, some to be used as ointments or simply for ritual preparation. The ceremony of deciding which herb for what is much like the "transplanted ritual" of a Western doctor writing a prescription. It may be a sugar pill, a placebo, but says Rappaport, both come from a respected source and in both cases, "there is a ceremony about getting it."
Above the herbalist is the mganga, who might be likened to a family doctor. He as is the herbalist, is usually a member of a small village and generally has a relatively close personal relationship with his patients.
Then comes the diviner, a kind of super diagnostician who is brought in when herbalist and mganga are baffled, or "when witchcraft or action at a distance [as in curse] might be involved."
At the top are the witchfinders."You might call them epidemiologists," says Rappaport. "They deal with 'epidemics.' Say there's a little war in an area, for example, and the witchfinder will come in and make a social diagnosis, root out the cause of a group of people suffering. And establish whether or not the village is cursed."
speaking of curses, as Rappaport often does, he makes this point:
Now I know it sounds incredible at first, strange and impossible, but when you think about it, it's just another metaphor for describing what goes on in all cultures.
"After all," he says, "there are some things about Freudian theory that also take a heap of faith not terribly different from the belief that somebody could put a spell on somebody at a great distance. For example, believing that what happens to a person in the first or second year of life might possibly make somebody neurotic or crazy or psychotic in 30 or 40 or 50 years . . . ."
Much of the shaman therapy, Rappaport found, involves various exorcism rituals, in public, with the afflicted's entire extended family -- often the whole village -- as participants.
The Temple University psychologist finds this akin to -- in fact an improvement on -- current trends in family therapy in the West. It is, in essence," he says, "a massive affirmation of support."
Rappaport also found a high degree of sophistication among the healers who are "called" to their profession often after going through an affliction of their own. He found them keen students of human nature who often spent as long as 10 years in apprenticeship to another healer. Occasionally one of these will become a witchdoctor. The healers are careful to distinguish between their essentially benevolent craft and that of their brothers who become the intermediaries for the laying of curses instead of healers.
They are also smart enough, he noticed, to know when Western medicine does better than traditional -- shots and casts are examples. Broken bones almost always go to Western clinics for setting. But then, says Rappaport, the victim goes back to the shaman "to find out why the bone got broken in the first place," another page out of the Freudian book.
The rituals, which can vary in form from village to village, but which often deal with the ravages of guilt or other "deviations from a person's own value system," are often so hypnotic that observer Rappaport himself on several occasions got so caught up in them that he forgot to record.
Through the rituals is imparted "a lot of wisdom, a lot of accumulated oral traditions that have built up, from how to handle marital problems, sexual difficulties, pregnancies, wanted or unwanted, the complex problems that occur in polygamous marriages . . . they have tremendous social skills," Rapport says.
"The missionaries really did a terrible thing to this craft," he says.
Actually, Rappaport understands part of the problem. The missionaries saw the pharmacopeia of herbal medicines and assumed they were all to be eaten, Rappaport says. "If you saw these things stored in vessels -- they're dirty, they're filthy, they're lying in mud, so the missionaries got appaled and thought they'd be causing all kinds of harmful diseases . . ."
Rappaport really understands, because, in a way, that's why he is sniffling today.
THE CURSE OF HERBERT RAPPAPORT: It was one of his earliest visits to a local Tanzanian mganga.
While they were talking shop, the healer said something like, "Oh by the way, the mganga across the creek is really ticked off that you're spending so much time with me and he's cursed the lot of us."
So then, recalls Rappaport, to block the curse, "they passed around this awful black, murky stuff . . . not the kind of stuff I wanted to drink, so I kind of slipped it into the fire.
"I may regret it for a long time."