Wednesday 5 September 2007

The Hunter, The Hero & The Witch Doctor - Samati & The Lion

Dedicated to those victimized by their own courage.

Unspoiled Africa
I had the glorious opportunity to live and work for three months in the Okavango Delta area of Botswana, helping to construct lodgings and renovate existing structures in a tourist camp on a lagoon called Xakanaxa (this is a Bushman name, with each 'x' pronounced as a click) within the Moremi Game Reserve. I met, lived with, and worked with some extraordinary people there, who taught me much about everything that makes Africa both great and troubled, but the most interesting person by far was a fellow named Samati.

The Chick Magnet
I first came across Samati while taking part in a village celebration that I had been invited to attend. I don't recall the occasion of the celebration, but I do recall (through a bit of a haze) that we dined on roasted buffalo and drank home-made beer. What I remember most, however, is a big commotion and a subsequent hero's welcome being accorded to a solitary figure walking into one corner of the village from a bush trail. Someone shouted the word "Samati!!" and all the young women in the village immediately left whatever they were doing and ran to greet the approaching man. I'm not sure what I expected, but, when he got close enough, I realized that he certainly didn't look like a rock star, so I couldn't help but wonder just why he was being treated like the Beatles arriving for the first time in America. He was clearly uncomfortable with all the attention, and had a wild look to him, accentuated by a face, neck, and torso liberally adorned with substantial scar tissue.

Humility Personified
What with the festivities and all, I never got a chance to properly investigate the matter, but, as it happened, less than a week later, Samati turned up to join my small construction crew at the camp. He was quiet and extremely humble, with very little familiarity with English, and seemed quite fearful of me. As I was only in the beginning stages of learning his language, and he clearly didn't want anything to do with me, any communication with him had to be done through a third party. I soon learned, after asking about him numerous times, that he was extremely uncomfortable talking about himself in any language. If I wanted to understand the mystery of his extreme popularity, I needed to start with accounts of others.

A Nice Twist
In a nice twist of fate that I appreciate keenly in the midst of our somewhat more cosmetic culture, it turned out that his disfigurement and his popularity with the ladies were intricately related, but in a way that I could never have expected. The story was told to me by several people, with little variation between versions, as follows.

Trophy Hunting
Several years previously, Samati had been employed as guide for big game hunting parties. One nice irony throughout many parts of Africa populated by protected wildlife is that hunting within the rules is not forbidden but actually encouraged. It won't surprise many to know that people of means in the affluent parts of the world will pay a lot of money to go to Africa and hunt for animals that they could never find at home. The fees charged by the governments that allow this are astronomical, with trophy fees up to $10,000, depending on the animal. Whatever one's view on the hunting and killing of animals, there is a huge upside to this practice; these funds are then put directly back into conservation efforts, with the concept that, as hunting is something that people will find a way to do regardless, the sacrifice of one animal for sport enables the survival of considerably more of its kind.

An Unwise Decision
One day, Samati, armed with only a sheath knife, was the lead guide for an American hunting party looking for buffalo. They were tracking a particular buffalo through some fairly dense brush when one of the hunters spotted a large male lion at the edge of a clearing ahead and to the left of the hunting party. According to the story as relayed to me, the hunter was heard to mutter something along the lines of "Screw the buffalo, I'm going to bag me a lion", even though the party was not actually licensed to hunt lion and would have been in violation of national law for doing so. The hunter levelled his gun at the lion, and fired. He missed.

Hell In A Lion's Jaws
We can only imagine what the lion was thinking as the shot rang out and a bullet whizzed by him, but it's safe to say he wasn't pleased. The lion roared, likely in a mixture of anger and fear, and bolted for the first living thing he saw, which happened to be Samati. The lion reached Samati in practically an instant, leaped on top of him before he'd even had a chance to turn fully around, and started tearing him apart. According to accounts, Samati was pinned by the lion and his left arm was fully inside the lion's jaws and throat, while the lion bit down and tried to tear the limb off.

The Miracle
Samati's reaction to this horrifying situation can only be described as miraculous. With a 200-kg lion crushing his legs and ripping his left arm from its socket, he managed to reach down with his right hand to his belt, unhook the clasp of his knife sheath, and extract his knife. He then ran his fingers up along the lion's rib cage feeling for where its heart should be, and, in one powerful thrust, plunged his knife through a thick layer of muscle between two of the ribs. The lion shuddered for a few moments, then slumped in a heap on top of Samati.

The End?
I wish I could end the story there, with Samati's difficult one-year recovery from his wounds and his subsequent rise to local legend. I wish I could say that the worst injustice in the whole affair was that, in disturbingly typical African fashion, the rich white guy who had almost facilitated Samati's death got off with a token fine and a slap on the wrist. Unfortunately, the cruelest irony, at least from my perspective, was yet to come.

Always An Achilles Heel
Samati was not a complicated man, and though he must have certainly become more complicated after spitting in the face of violent death, it was said by those who knew him that his trademark humility had remained completely intact, and even deepened, in spite of the adoration he now received from everyone in his environment. Unfortunately for Samati's continued well-being, this simplicity, mistaken by the truly stupid as stupidity, was accompanied by a very tangible naïveté.

The Hero Gets a Visit
One day as we were working, a young man came into camp and asked to speak to Samati. As soon as Samati saw him, he became edgy and clearly uncomfortable, even though, judging by the respect this young man received from the others, he was a person of some standing in the community. He and Samati headed off for a half hour or so. Samati returned alone, visibly shaken and muttering under his breath. I asked what was bothering him but he wouldn't speak to me. I urged him to take the rest of the day off, but he wouldn't have it. I did notice that he spoke to a few of his co-workers, often in animated tones, several times during the day, so, when the day's work was done, I asked the guy with the best English, one of Samati's friends, what was bothering the village hero. Was the young guy a doctor? Had someone in his family died? Was he sick? What could have disturbed him so?

Doctor in The House
Well, according to his friend, he was sick, in a way. As this was right at the beginning of the AIDS scourge in Africa, I immediately feared that Samati had received that dreaded diagnosis. His friend replied, fortunately, that that wasn't it, though the young man who had paid a visit, a simple safari driver by day, was a kind of doctor.

The Curse
In fact, or at least in perception, he was a witch doctor, and he had come to tell Samati that he had been cursed. As a result, he was compelled by whatever laws governed such curses to become what amounted to a servant of the witch doctor for a specified period of time, so that the curse might be removed. I was frankly incredulous, first that Samati would allow himself to be manipulated in such a way, and secondly that his clearly rational and intelligent friends wouldn't see this charade for what it was; an obvious attempt by the "witch doctor" to bring the local hero under his control, in order to better control others. I was further shocked to learn that this was not the first time Samati had been informed of his cursed status, but the third time. How could this happen? All these guys went to church, and often spoke in glowing terms about Jesus and the Bible. Couldn't they see what was happening here? Well, being the outsider, it became obvious to me in no time at all that my argument was culturally insensitive and lacking proper perspective, so I respectfully requested a meeting with the witch doctor, with the hope that I could convince him to remove "the curse".

The Doctor's Qualifications
I was granted a meeting, and was surprised to learn that the witch doctor spoke better English than anyone in the area, owing to the fact that he had spent the most time in school and had travelled to a number of places. Here we had a comparitively well-educated, well-travelled guy dispensing curses whose only cure was to demonstrate service to him, the conduit to all the dark forces behind the curse. Hmm.

Truth Hurts, Don't It?
The meeting was civil enough, but I wasn't able to get the curse removed. He listened to me, nodded a lot, and then told me I couldn't understand because I didn't come from his culture and that, in any situation anywhere, human beings took superiority over other human beings wherever they could get it. If you were brave and strong, you used your body; if you were physically weak but smart, you used your mind. People would use whatever attribute they had to take any advantage they could get. With that much, I had to grudgingly agree, and we ended our meeting with at least some level of understanding. I suppose I should at least feel thankful that he didn't put a curse on me.

Same Old Story
Now, I'm not saying here that I don't believe in curses, or witch doctors, or at least in the power of the unseen to influence human lives. I have seen, and will write about, some things that come a lot closer than this to the supernatural. I'm virtually certain, though, that this guy was not just a fake, but a clever, malicious control freak, who well understood the political value of having a great, respected man running around like his hunting dog, sniffing for other vulnerable souls to tear out and stomp on. This was a perfect example of a phenomenon I had seen before and have recognized many times since; an intelligent person, schooled in human behaviour, supported by the trust of a community, exploiting that trust and the gaps in understanding existing in that community, for the purpose of personal empowerment. In spite of having some level of understanding of the witch doctor, the whole situation still made me about as angry as anything ever has.

Lesson Learned
So now and then I go hunting, looking for witch doctors wherever I can find them. When I get one in my sights, I do sometimes pull the trigger, but I always use rubber bullets. For, while chances are good that they've already cursed their share of heroes, chances are even better that, given the opportunity and the tools, I might have done the same.

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