This evening I was privileged to watch a ceremony unlike anything I have ever seen before. I didn't know until it was over what was going on, so I will first described it as I watched it.
About 15 or 20 family members, mostly women and girls, showed up in Nanay's living room. With them was one woman I'd never seen before. She was maybe 40 or 50 years old, very thin, and a little disheveled compared to everyone else. She was a little surprised to see me, I think, and looked at me a couple of times.
This stranger knelt on the floor in front of the family altar (right) and Paz's sister brought her two white candles maybe 6" high, matches, a teaspoon, and a dinner plate filled with water. The stranger lit one of the candles and used it to melt the bottom of the second candle a little so she could make it stand up by itself on the floor. She extinguished the first candle and broke it into several pieces. She seemed to pray a little and made several fast, jerky signs of the cross over the water. She then took a piece of the broken candle, put it in the spoon, and held the spoon over the burning candle. It looked oddly like a junkie cooking drugs before injecting them. As she was doing this she continued to pray. When the candle wax in the spoon was melted she withdrew it from the flame, let it cool a little, and poured the molten wax into the water in the plate. She took the disc of hardened wax, maybe 3" across, out of the water and repeated the process with two more pieces of the candle.
There followed more prayer, and she made a series of strange moves of her arms, extending one or the other stiffly. She wound her right arm around wildly, ten times or so, as if she were winding up to pitch the fastest fastball in history. After that she took each of the pieces of wax and studied it minutely. Then she called one of my nieces over to her. This girl, maybe 20 years old or so, has been a particular help to me because she is often around Nanay's house and because she speaks more English than anyone else here, with the exception of course of Paz. A lot of them understand a lot of English, but are embarrassed to speak it. This niece is a student at the local college.
The stranger began to talk to her and to massage her back, arms, legs and head. Paz's sister brought out from the kitchen a plate of small, peeled onions, sort of like shallots. The stranger crushed them in her hands and began to rub them into the niece's hair and around her body. They talked a little, and after a little more prayer it was over.
Later on I asked Paz what had been going on. She explained to me that the stranger was what is known here as a quack doctor. She was summoned because the niece had a medical problem. It wasn't terribly serious--more a cosmetic concern than a dangerous illness--but it was something a young woman would understandably be concerned about. This quack doctor was brought in to advise her what to do.
This quack doctor's treatment seems to have had some of the marks of a shamanic performance. The ritual acts at the beginning and end, with their repetitive and abrupt movements, suggested that she was under some kind of control that had invaded and then left her. Paz said that after it was over the quack doctor didn't know what she had said and had to ask my niece what had gone on. I wish I had pictures or video to show you, but I felt like my presence as a westerner was enough of an intrusion without my bringing out a modern gadget to make a record of the event.
I've been thinking lately about the Enlightenment. It succeeded as much as it did first because of its success in furthering scientific, technological, and economic progress. Second, it also had not just a world class, but a world-and-all-of-history class public relations coup in being associated with the word "enlightenment." That title said to all, "What came before was darkness; this is progression into light. It is permanent, because any move away from it would be a return to darkness, and who would ever want to do that after having experienced light?" Third, it succeeded because it was able to present an image of impregnable intellectual consistency. This consistency has had holes poked in it in recent decades, though. Fourth, it profited from and gave support to the age of colonialism. Colonialism has been so thoroughly discredited in this post-colonial world that Enlightenment thought, its partner in hegemony, has suffered a loss in status as well.
That brings me back around to this quack doctor/shaman. Of course I, as an heir of the Enlightenment, can't really think that her prescriptions will be as effective as those of a doctor from Western medicine,with its rational, scientific foundation. What I'm not prepared to do, though, is to stand before these members of a previously and quite recently colonized people and say to them, my reality must be your reality, and it is incumbent upon you to accept it. It's not clear yet exactly what the parameters of a post-colonial world will be. Surely they will somehow incorporate the inheritance of the Enlightenment. Assuming civilization survives the coming climate changes at all, it's hard to imagine going back to quack doctors as the primary strain of medicine. What seems clear, though, is that will will have a chastened view of its previous arrogance and some epistemological humility. I am taking the same kind of attitude toward this evening's events.