The old man pulled a leather pouch from his waist and spread it flat on the ground. He scooped up the contents of the pouch and gently tossed them to the leather again. Ayize watched impassively as the withered old witch doctor studied the bones.
Sitting beside her mortally ill husband in a grass hut thousands of miles away from home, Olivia could only think of the relentlessly modern and fastidiously sterile hospital back home in Baltimore. Three weeks ago, she and Dylan had jumped at the chance to enjoy a holiday in Ngorongoro. Three days ago, Dylan complained of feeling feverish. Three hours ago, she and her guide, Ayize, gently carried him into the hut of the tribe’s Sangoma: A witch doctor.
“Please, Ayize, ask him if he recognizes the symptoms of this fever.” The old man had said precious little in their time together. He took no notice of Olivia’s anguished plea and continued to study the bones.
At length, he pointed to a small bone indistinguishable from the others and spoke solemnly to Ayize. When he finished, Ayize turned to Olivia and translated, “He says this one is Hyena. It means ‘thief’.” She pointed to the one nearest the hyena bone and continued, “This one is lion claw. It means ‘strength’. Nduduzo believes,” Ayize’s eyes flickered to the old man as she explained, “that your umyeni…your husband is being hurt by a bad spirit. It steals his strength.”
Olivia clenched her teeth and blinked back tears. She prayed for strength and guidance while she nodded respectfully. He didn’t know, and he couldn’t help her. She shifted her weight as she prepared to stand, but Ayize put a restraining hand on her knee. “Nduduzo is wise and proud. We must let him finish. I know you do not understand, but please – he can help.”
The old man spoke again, pointing to a shadowy corner of his hut. Ayize’s eyes widened in surprise, as she looked to where he was pointing. She responded hesitantly in Zulu. He nodded slowly as she went to the shelf he indicated and retrieved a small vial.
“Nduduzo says, ‘This is the essence of dreams’,” translated Ayize. She bowed her head reverently before the skeletal Sangoma on the other side of the fire. The old man gestured impatiently to Ayize and she turned to Olivia and presented her with the ornate little bottle.
The old man spoke again, rapidly, fluidly. He paused to allow Ayize to translate. “Tears of Ancestors, blood of lion, also…” she searched for the word, miming twin pinchers.
“Scorpion?” offered Olivia.
Ayize shook her head, “No, it moves between the land and the sea…”
“Yes!” Ayize’s smile was brilliant but brief as the old man plunged headlong into his prescription. Her translation continued, “As the crab moves between land and sea, so he links this world with the spirit world. This must be drunk and your umyeni will be cured.”
“But how can he drink anything? He’s unconscious!”
“No!” Ayize interrupted emphatically, “You must drink. Nduduzo says, ‘Wish only for your husband’s recovery. The muti is mighty and to ask for more would only anger the ancestors.’”
Her hands shaking, Olivia studied the iridescent contents of the dainty bottle. Seeing no other choice, she closed her eyes and threw her head back, swallowing the contents of the bottle. I wish we’d never come to this God-forsaken continent.
When she opened her eyes, she felt a flash of vertigo followed by a wave of relief as she saw the familiar walls of their flat in Baltimore instead of the dark sooty interior of a witch doctor’s hut. She jumped to her feet and was about to call out for Dylan when the phone rang.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Olivia, I need you at the hospital, your father’s sick. I’m afraid Africa will have to wait!”