As he removed the bandage, I cringed at the large open wound that covered most of Muambi’s shin. He was a tall, strong young man, but now he could barely walk with the help of a crutch. He told us the progression: In March, a railroad tie had fallen on his leg while he was at work constructing a building. It was not a large wound, and he assumed it would get better in a few weeks. But it didn’t; the wound got bigger and more painful. In late April, Muambi’s father, Malandi, came to us to ask for help. Malandi is our night guard, and part of his work contract is that we will cover medical expenses for his dependents. But because Muambi is nearly 30 years old with three children of his own, we did not want to set the precedent of taking on all of his medical expenses. So, we gave a contribution to them for the purpose of going to the doctor or getting medicine, and affirmed that we agreed he should get treatment. In late May, I asked our night guard how his son was doing. “Not good” was the reply. “He can’t walk. The wound has not healed. We have a friend who is a pharmacist who has been treating it at home, and he said he has tetanus. We don’t know what to do.” I told him that I would go see him. The next day, I happened to be with Sankara, a Congolese friend who is a nurse. I told him about Muambi’s situation, and he suggested that we go together to see him. And so here we are, sitting in the lush valley of their compound, with Sankara assessing what should be done about the wound. Sankara was able to confirm that he did NOT have tetanus, but that the wound was infected.
Muambi and his father confirmed that they wanted him to go to the hospital and get treatment. I asked which hospital they wanted to go to, and they said that they preferred to go to PAX, which is the Presbyterian clinic in town. I came home and called Bob, who was traveling at the time. We decided we would cover the costs for him to see the doctor and get tested and treated for infections. The following day, I met Muambi at PAX and accompanied him to see the doctor, get the wound cleaned, and get some antibiotics and other medicines. We paid about $13 for all of that – a modestly significant sum for medical treatment in Kasai. The doctor told him to come to the clinic each day for a week to get the wound cleaned.
In early June, a few days after going to the clinic, I saw Muambi’s wife on the road and asked how he was doing. “Not too well. His leg swelled up after going to the clinic, so he gave up going to get the wound cleaned.” That evening, I asked Malandi, Muambi’s father, about the situation when he came to our house for work. “Muambi’s leg swelled up after going to the clinic, and he was not able to climb the hill to the main road to go to the clinic for cleaning the wound. A couple of days ago, someone came to our home who told us that this wound was not an accident. Someone cursed him with nkuba. ‘You will never be able to heal this wound with Western medicine.’ he told us, ‘You need to find a traditional healer who is able to heal these types of wounds.’” I started to get frustrated. But Malandi continued “This visitor recommended someone, and he came to see us. He said that he can heal the wound, but he will charge $150 and 2 chickens. We hope that you will help us to cover this expense because we can’t afford it ourselves.”
I was getting angry now. “You didn’t even follow the doctor’s instruction for a week, and are already pursuing this other path of treatment?! You waited for 2 months without seeing a doctor. Now that you’ve seen one, you give up on the treatment immediately?” “We didn’t know the real cause,” Malandi responded, “We couldn’t discern ourselves that it was nkuba. It was only when this visitor came and told us that we realized what should be done. I know that we have different ways of seeing things, and your culture does not believe in nkuba. As Africans we know that sometimes people use mystical powers to attack someone – because of jealousy or as punishment for something they have done. the healer has already started the treatment; he mixed up a solution and put it on the wound, then put his lips on the wound and sucked until a large black bug about the size of my finger came out. He will come tomorrow morning to treat him again. You could come and see for yourself.” Malandi had been explaining patiently, like a father trying to help his child understand a foreign concept. Now he got defensive “If we had followed the western medicine instructions, they would have amputated the leg! We don’t want that to happen.”
I had heard nothing about a need to amputate, and was frustrated that he was believing that rumor. The following morning I had to leave early for a meeting, so was not able to take him up on his offer of coming to see the traditional healer. I told him that we had agreed to help him get treatment at PAX, but were disappointed that they did not follow through. They were on their own now if they wanted to continue with the traditional treatment for nkuba. We parted, both rather exasperated.
Nkuba is a Kasai term that refers to a tribe of people (the Bakuba), but also means “thunder”. The Bakuba are believed to have power to kill or wound people remotely – e.g. to put a curse on them. The death usually happens during a storm and somehow by the storm– hence the reference to thunder. There are different terms based on different regional tribes and the specific “medicine” or power that they use. In the west we know the existence of the scientifically verifiable physical world (including germs, wind, etc.) Most Christians also believe in the existence of a spiritual world, including angels and demons. But as far as I know, in English we don’t have good terms or concepts for much in between. Dozens of times we have heard reports of people being killed or debilitated by nkuba or something similar. This is not just a phenomenon that happens “deep in the bush” or among uneducated or unchurched people. Malandi, our guard, is an elder in his local Presbyterian congregation. His conclusion was that some people were jealous of his son Muambi because he had a job and a family and had good character that they could not fault. And, because he was in a Christian family, he would not retaliate with mystical powers. That is why they sent this nkuba, or “thunder medicine” to attack him.
So – what do we do? I talked to some colleagues in Kananga to understand more about nkuba. I heard that the pastor of Malandi’s congregation had experience in “freeing” people from nkuba and responding in a pastoral and Biblical way, so I encouraged Malandi to talk to his pastor. When Bob returned from his trip in mid June, we sat with Malandi and heard again his perspective, but reiterated that we were not going to help with the expenses of this traditional healer. Bob challenged him “Do you think that this nkuba is stronger than God?”
Still concerned about Muambi’s prognosis, we went to visit him around the end of June. The wound still looked big and ugly, but they said that it was scabbing over and getting better. The other leg, however, was grossly swollen. He was not able to walk at all now. What started as a significant problem had gotten worse. He was not able to work now, and his family was hungry. We prayed for him and gave them some money for food. We have asked after him periodically this month, and there does not seem to be much progress.
Muambi, his wife Marie and young child,
and Bob, holding “baby Bob” in 2011 at their home
This is just one incident that demonstrates the cultural dissonance that often occurs. These terms are not used in the Tshiluba Bible, exactly, but could be considered sorcery. Trained pastors here would emphatically agree that God does not approve of the use of sorcery. But most would also agree that it indeed exists. Thus, the question – How do you respond to people who are apparently victims of nkuba in a way that honors the culture, demonstrates love, and also emphasizes the power of God and allegiance to Him alone? Here is where we live and breathe…and struggle to find answers.