What You Know and What You Don’t

It’s a Thursday morning and I’m sitting in the sun with an albino named Gift. Three half-dressed kids are eyeing us warily from 1 metre. We are waiting for a witch doctor.

Gift is in my ear. He is most worried that we might offend the healer at some point. There is a long list of things not to do.

Extra kids emerge. Drums are flayed and then the healer emerges. Fully dressed in ceremonial attire she is an amazing sight as she dances and chants. In the bright sunlight it is a striking performance.

And all I can see is the massive goitre in her neck.


I don’t think Gift listed “don’t stare at the second head trying to erupt from her neck” in his list of rules, but I’ve figured that one out all on my own. As a 20 year old it would be fair to say I’d not had many occasions to work on my diplomacy. I have  never been so conscious of maintaining eye contact in my life.

We’re in this remote village in Zimbabwe while on medical elective. Gift, working as the rehabilitation technician at the hospital, arranged this meeting and it is a real treat. The local healer is a mainstay of healthcare in the region. Many patients seek her advice prior to coming to the hospital or eschew the hospital entirely. That doesn’t always go well. We’re here hoping to understand a bit about how she works, what she can do and what she believes.

Over the course of quite a long chat, it emerges that she comes from a long line of healers. Their belief is that it is the spirits of her ancestors who guide her medicine and they reveal how to assist those seeking her help. It’s fascinating to hear the labour involved in collecting her medicines. There is also evidence of the collision between old practice and her connection with the latest of western medicine. Disconcertingly she seems particularly intent on letting me know she’s had the equivalent of Viagra for years (and we were in Zimbabwe only 6 months after Viagra got its US patent).

Gift, adopting the role of translator, seemed pleased. A number of times he conveyed the message that we have impressed the healer by showing respect. Finally it seems like the time to try and reveal the back story with that neck lump. So I venture “are there any situations that you can’t help with?”

She replies:

“Sometimes the spirits won’t give me the answer I need or won’t come to my dreams. And then I send them to the hospital. Actually, you might have noticed that I have this goitre.”

Finally! We’re allowed to glance briefly to soothe the burn in our eyes generated from maintaining that uncomfortable fixed gaze.

Why yes, we had wondered about that actually.

She continues, “well the spirits won’t let me cure myself. So I went to the hospital. But there was too much torment. All the spirits of all the sick people, and all those who have died. They were screaming all the time. I had to stand outside the hospital. After 3 days, I had enough and I left. So now it grows.”

Surprisingly, this Disney version is not at all reminiscent of my experience [via deviant art]

Surprisingly, this Disney version is not at all reminiscent of my experience [via deviant art]

What You Know

Which obviously leads to the PhD. When I first set out on the research path, I was under the impression that I had to do it essentially alone. Quite why I thought that research would be a field where collaboration was not the norm is a bit unclear. In my head though, PhDLand was populated entirely by people in white coats toiling away in the lab equivalent of the artist’s garret.

Happily I’ve since learned I was an idiot and in fact you are allowed to avoid starvation in an attic. Research, like every other area I work in, involves much more than the individual. This is where there are lessons to be learned from a thyrotoxic shaman figure.

The first vital thing is, like the mystic, you have to understand your limitations and deal with them. The quicker you point out your own deficiencies and seek help, the faster you get places. It turns out that doing a PhD is not about demonstrating that you can do it all (being able to “do it all” is left to retain its significance mostly in editorials in second rate women’s magazines).

The second lesson I’ve learnt is that the team you get to research with is a significant part of the story. For us, the project relies on the involvement of a very clever epidemiologist in Hong Kong (Prof Anna Lee who is both patient with my horrifyingly dopey questions and quick with the replies that take me days to understand). We’re also benefiting from the assistance of a team at The University of New SouthWales including Prof Nigel Lovell and Dr Stephen Redmond who are busy building little things like the bionic eye (!!! – excellent clip with Nigel there too, if sorely missing the classic Steve Austin sound).

By the end of this project, much of what is gained will actually be from working with people who are incredibly good at research. Knowing it’s a team that will get you there makes it far less daunting. As long as the team you’re involved with isn’t a set of obstructive dead ancestor spirits of course.

Back at the Hospital

We returned to the hospital that day reasonably confident we’d not attracted hexes, although a little dubious of some parts of the story. When we were chatting about it with the staff later, we mentioned the story of the goitre.

“Oh yes, we remember her. She came. She walked outside. She screamed for 3 days and nights. Then one morning she was gone.”

I hope the spirits gave her a break so she could get that thing fixed. It would be nice to think she’s still in the village under a tree, offering old school Viagra to medical students.


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