Thursday, October 9, 2008

Eating Dirt

A short story

“Look at this,” she chortled slapping the newspaper down before me. “They’re eating dirt and think it cures AIDS.”

Indeed the head line screamed in boldest type. “Miracle Cure in Masaka!”

Times in Uganda in the mid-eighties were desperate. AIDS or “slim” in the vernacular was cutting a terrible swath through the population. Recognition of the scourge and its cause – sexual promiscuity – was beginning to crawl out from under a rock. There was growing public exposure of the malady and some very frank talk by President Museveni and other officials about the need to change irrevocably sexual behavior. Yet a deep sense of shame afflicted those who contracted the killer. They hid away and died quietly. Obituaries always referred to the cause of death as a “short illness.” And in those days before retro-virals were available, the terminal illness was usually short.

I read through the news story quickly. An elderly woman in Masaka, about eighty miles south of the capital, was telling her neighbors that her daughter, who had become skinny, weak and ill – obvious signs of AIDS – had rallied when fed a concoction of clay from her back yard. The old lady claimed traditional medical prowess and told the paper that she had used herbs and potions, including clay, for years to treat maladies. This remedy, this miracle, the paper asserted, could reverse the tide of death. It added that supplicants were beating a path to Masaka in search of the cure.

Normally, I would have joined in the chortle and recognized that sensationalism was a standard tactic to sell more papers, but I had recently lost another friend to AIDS. I saw the story more as a reflection of the desperation we all faced as this uncountable evil swept through the land. The stories of those lost were legion. As an expatriate I had no Ugandan relatives, but friends and their families were sorely afflicted. An outdoorsman, I had joined the Mountain Club of Uganda, whose members were a nice mix of foreigners and young Ugandans; all of us rock climbers and hikers. Outings included weekend trips to nearby granite outcroppings or a hike in the countryside. We mounted an annual ten-day expedition to the Ruwenzori’s and shorter trips to summit Uganda’s lesser mountains Our Ugandan colleagues were Ugandan yuppies – students and recent graduates of Makerere University. They included several medical students and others who by dint of their brains and perseverance were destined to be the next elite generation. Yet one by one our Ugandan colleagues were dying. There was nothing to chortle about.

I called Paul later in the day to ask his view of the Masaka cure. Endowed with an irrepressibly gregarious personality, he’d always been a straight shooter, although often embellishing his remarks with a twist of humor or a touch of irony. “Sure,” he said, “maybe she’s found it. An answer has to be somewhere. So far, clay from Masaka looks as good as anything from American laboratories. But,” he suggested, “let’s not guess, let’s go check it out.”

Why not, I thought. I ran the idea past the ambassador. He thought it was nuts, but told me to go if I wanted.

We set off the next morning. It was a beautiful clear day with clouds building up over the Lake. The road wove through banana plantations and small farms, and then straightened out crossing wide plains as it neared the expanses of Lake Victoria. Paul pointed out the bridges and culverts that had been battlegrounds when Museveni’s irregulars captured the capital several years earlier. Only one rusted hulk of a tank gave evidence of that struggle. Evidence of the new struggle, however, was ever present. Coffin making – and road side display of wares – was a growth industry.

Paul asked directions in Masaka. Shortly dozens of parked cars and a crowd of folks indicated we had come to the now famous shrine. It had turned into a commercial operation. For a couple of hundred shillings one could dig a basket full of backyard clay. Another couple of hundred shillings bought a consultation on the proper mixtures and dosage. The carnival air notwithstanding, there was an ardent sense of expectation. The intensity reminded me of religious pilgrims, for example, at Lourdes. Indeed it was a pilgrimage. I spoke hesitantly to several persons. Paul interpreted into Luganda as necessary. “This is our only hope.” “I believe God has blessed this place.” “My son is dying, this will save him.”

“Why not,” Paul said as he too scooped up a supply. “African magic does work. The Bible teaches that Jesus made miracles, and,” he concluded, “the worst might be clogged bowels.”

We talked a lot about faith, magic and hope on the way home. My western science told me it was all hokum, but I had undoubtedly seen a tremendous display of conviction by those in the old lady’s yard. I conceded that it was a slim straw to grasp, but what if there was some undiscovered mineral with medical properties?

Later I bounced the topic off Dr. Laura Hodge, an American epidemiologist striving to discover the true nature of the virus and how it took hold. She agreed that some old wives tales were based on solid science, but dismissed the clay as “Wishful thinking. It might improve a person’s will to live, but is essentially without medicinal merit.”

After several days on the front page, the story ran its course. A month or so later, I heard that the old lady’s daughter died after a “short illness.”

Yet hope remained an irrepressible part of an Ugandan day. Even in light of such tragedy, people pressed on, put on their best face and went out each day with a smile.

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