Written by Abebe Haregewoin
A very pretty teen age girl was brought to the emergency room at Fenote Selam Hospital in the middle of the night in a state of apparent uncontrolled shrieking alternating with strange gesticulations, shivering and writhing. Her hapless father with his eyes filled with terror was holding his daughterâ€™s waist and trying to restrain her restless hands and fists from self inflicted injury. The poor man looked totally exhausted from his struggle from this sylph of a girl, who seemed to have endless and uncontrollable power of an angry lioness. There was also a rope tied to her waist and gripped by her fatherâ€™s gnarled peasant fists, apparently to prevent her from running away and do herself grievous harm. It was apparent from the red and bleeding welts on her face and exposed chest that she has been scratching and beating her face and chest uncontrollably. A couple of scratches on the fatherâ€™s cheeks and nose revealed that he has also been a victim of her tireless nails and fists. Her poor mother, a scrawny little thing herself, was weeping uncontrollably from blood shot eyes. She was also making her own scene, by wailing for her daughter as if she was already dead. Her heart rending funereal tunes which were only interrupted whenever she frequently blew her profusely runny nose was the only respite from the impromptu mother and child tragic opera and drama.The trio was surrounded by bedraggled, younger and older siblings of the sick child, uncles, aunts and villagers of all sizes and shapes. Some were weeping and all looked miserable. From the bags of supplies they were holding it was apparent that they had travelled from a long and harrowing distance to come to the hospital.
The patient was the first child of the family and apparently quite well until two days ago. She had gone out by herself to fetch some firewood and did not return back on time as expected. This alarmed her mother, who went out looking for her. When she did not find her in the usual places, and did not respond to her name shouted repeatedly, she became more alarmed and panicked and soon became hysterical. She started screaming the usual â€œuâ€™uâ€™taâ€ to declare the emergency situation and also vent her frustration. She was soon surrounded by her children and neighbors who also joined her in her â€œuâ€™uâ€™taâ€ The situation was hopeless until the village priest arrived and threatened them with excommunication unless they stopped offending The Lord and his holy mother by their screaming like hopeless heathens. They were soon joined by other villagers and ultimately the father. A search party was organized to look for the lost child. Many feared that she might have been snatched by either a hungry daytime hyena and worse still abducted by an undesirable suitor, in the traditional â€œtelefaâ€. But the girl was found safe but not sound near a stream some distance away from her village at the edge of their parish. The next parish and associated villages were inhabited by villagers not particularly liked or trusted by their village. At the time of her discovery, she had seemed unusually subdued and reticent about what she was doing by the stream at mid-day. It was common knowledge that evil spirits abound at certain spots by the river during the height of the mid-day sun.
It was apparent that she had earlier waded through the stream from her wet dress and muddy feet. It was also noted that she was clutching some leaves in her right hand, which they identified to have come from a field of green peas from a field across the stream, as their village had no pea fields in the immediate vicinity. More and more people arrived and generated more discussions and opinions about why the poor girl was discovered in that locale. Nobody was paying attention to anybody else. There was a murmur of sounds with the poor girl at the center of the group. There were speculations bandied about where the girl might have been and what drew her to the taboo fields of green peas across the stream. There were discussions about who she might have encountered on her misadventure. Potential suspects were named, mostly from the other village. The poor girl who was lying on the ground resting her head on her distraught motherâ€™s shoulders was barely asked any questions. She was looking around with frightened eyes and taking in all that is being said. As the discussions became heated, she started to scream until the veins on her neck and face seemed to pop. Her screams and intelligible mutterings became more alarming as time went on and the speculations widened to consider possession by the devil.
The priest put his cross across her face firmly until she felt the pain of the metal pressing against her prominent forehead. He then started prayers in Geez to castigate the evil one and immediately exorcise her right there and then. But the poor girl continued to scream from all the unwanted attention, speculations, and the fearful mutterings of the priest. Matters continued to get worse as it became obvious that his prayers were not working. A wizened old woman who arrived at the scene late, as she was unable to match the speed of the others uttered the most feared word of all.She said, â€œBuda beltuat new!â€ That is when the poor girl started going berserk and started becoming even more aggressive. Her first instinct was to run as far away as possible from the nightmare surrounding her. With her eyes almost popping out of her head, her mouth foaming with froth, and breathing hard, she screamed and screamed and tried to break loose and run away. More hands started restraining her until she was unable to move in any direction. She felt suffocated and screamed even more. She was soon accompanied by a chorus of other screamers, at the lead of which was her mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and close relatives who were on the scene. In this state the girl who was acting like a wild animal was carried to her home for further ministrations by the priest who had not given up the hope of exorcising her. He had ordered his deacons to bring in more ecclesiastical armamentarium including the huge church cross, a stack parchment books, his censer, and buckets full of holy water. The hut was filled with the old priestâ€™s querulous voice of prayer and the billowing incense smoke of his censer. The girl now firmly tied hand and foot and secured to the central column of the hut was in a state of terror. She defied the priest who repeatedly asked her to denounce the devil and doused her with bucketfuls of holy water until she felt that she was almost drowning in the holy downpour. Her defiance and continued attempt to fight whoever approached her was further confirmation that it was Buda and not possession by evil spirits which were sure to have possessed her soul. As this was going on, it became clear that she had lost her mateb and kitabs (amulets) that warded off such evil as long as she wore it. It was nowhere to be found. Its loss was an ominous sign and evidence of mischief and whoever removed it must be found and forced to undo the evil wrought on the poor girl.
Her irate relatives started to figure out why and who might have committed the heinous crime against such a beautiful child. Many thought it was her big eyes, others her smooth light skin, and still others her thought it was the new colorful dress that she was wearing that day that attracted the evil eye. A list of candidate budas was drawn and a strategy was devised on ways to identify the one and only buda that was responsible. Part of the exorcism included incantations by an â€œawaqiâ€, a kind of witch doctor, against the express forbidding of the priest. The awaqi was consulted on the sly by the enterprising grandmother. The awaqi had advised that the identified buda should be forced to recant their possession of the poor childâ€™s soul and as a final act spit on a cupful of fresh butter, which will then be buried next to the central pole of the hut in order to make sure that repossession does not occur. However, the strategy was changed and the decision made to bring her to the hospital, as a visiting relative, who was educated and was a teacher advised that modern treatment might be more expeditious than all the superstition. He was a highly respected relative, whose words were obeyed by his illiterate older brother, who was the father of the child. She was brought to the hospital against the better judgment of all the rest of the family including the father. In the hospital she was sedated with an intravenous shot of Valium soon after arrival after it was clear that she was in a state of hysteria and there were no other signs of physical illness. She immediately slumped and went to deep sleep and woke up after almost ten hours of sleep. On waking up, she looked refreshed and once again a child and not the monster she appeared to be the previous day. But she looked fearful and surprised by finding herself in a strange bed in a strange room, with strange people. She neither screamed nor became aggressive any further, much to the relief of her parents and immediate family. The teacher uncle was obviously immensely proud of the decision to have insisted on her bringing to the hospital. Without further treatment and another day of bed rest she was discharged from the hospital with her childhood restored and sent back home with her happy parents and relatives.
Almost all physicians who practiced in Ethiopia must have come across, a case of yebuda beshita and yebuda medhanit. For those born in Ethiopia, they have grown up with buda as part of their vocabulary and part of their cultural heritage. Many know it from the dire warning of parents to avoid certain people or situations that might put them at risk of becoming victims of buda. Many also grew up with kitab or amulets with small leather packets of either some sort of herb or a scroll of parchment with incantations tied around their necks with the hope of being protected from buda and other malevolent spirits that abound in the environment. Those whose parents are more carful than others loaded their children with a string of kitabs as part of the jewelry of childhood and a folklore vaccine strategy to prevent illness and possession. Most knew what type of people to avoid and who to suspect if one is struck by an illness that smelled of buda possession. The influence of buda as part of the folklore of Ethiopia may be declining with the increased education of mostly the urban population. But it remains a significant part of the psyche in the countryside and the less educated members of Ethiopian society. Surprisingly, many who apparently are educated still harbor some reservation about rejecting such occult thinking as a modicum against totally selling out to the western propaganda of science as the only answer to mans ills.
Buda is literally the evil eye. It is a belief in the potential for some human eyes to have a supernatural malevolent power over others. This system of belief is not unique to Ethiopia and is part of the folklore of many cultures and nations. Variations of the evil eye exist in many cultures in Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean world, and the Americas. It is also a very ancient and tenacious belief system that has made it almost intact into the twenty first century. The oldest references to it appear over three thousand years ago in cuneiform tablets. There is strong evidence to show that it was part of the cultures of the Babylonians, Sumerians, and Assyrians. Both the Old and New Testaments mention it. It is therefore not a uniquely Ethiopian folly. Other than the oral tradition it is not sure if there are any documents in the Ethiopian literature where the subject of buda is discussed in some detail.
In traditional Ethiopian thought, the eye is not just an instrument of sight or the mythical window to the soul. It is a magical orb, which through the agency of sight and through the emission of an unseen power may elicit illness, pain or even death. People with unusually big eyes or some sort of eye abnormality such as a squint are feared by the more careful members of society even when the bearer of those eyes might have impeccable family background that does not cast suspicion of malevolent power. Budas are generally members of a marginalized community. Those in the upper echelons of society fear very little that they might be suspects as budas, and consider themselves rather the target of buda. At the bottom of the budaconcept is that it is based primarily on envy. It is a condition that usually afflicts the poor and dispossessed. One does not voluntarily choose to be a buda. Society assigns the unwelcome designation. Traditionally certain professions such as iron mongers (qetqach) , gold smiths (antâ€™regna), potters (shekla seri), and tanners (faqi) and their families are shunned and feared by the community as hereditary perpetrators of buda. Some of these professions are called tebib, which literally means artisan, craftsman, or a knowledgeable person. It is feudal notion that those who make their living other than the land have some dealings with evil spirits that allow them to have the skills and knowledge the ordinary person does not have.Thus the term tebib is loaded with aspersion and considered an insult rather than respect for being knowledgeable. Certain religious groups such as the Felasha or Ethiopian Jews and the Woito of Gojjam are also suspected of being buda. Itinerant beggars, and people who are strange, bedraggled and unknown and who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time as when a child or a cow suddenly took ill or died with some association with their presence can instantaneously be labeled buda. The budas are thus both feared and shunned. Those labeled buda in turn fear for their safety and well being. In certain societies those suspected of budas avert their eyes or cover it with their hands in order to avoid from directly looking at people in order to prevent an unnecessary accusations or altercation. Many people, particularly those with children cover their infants and children and swaddle them with clothes completely whenever they go outside to prevent them from both the evil eye and the sun. The sun is another suspect in having a malevolent synergy with buda. This practice has been associated with the widespread occurrence of rickets due to lack of exposure to the sun. Even adults are not immune from trying to protect themselves in this manner. Both men and women can be seen wearing their shemas over their heads so that they can quickly cover their faces if they suspect they might come across an unknown bearer of the evil eye. For some with marginal mental profiles this can become a burdensome preoccupation, and even a detrimental disability that curtails their full participation and enjoyment is society.
Buda belat or belaw, literally means that the person so affected was cannibalized by the buda. In other words, the person who is possessed by buda can suffer from a variety of afflictions. These may include behavioral changes, such as becoming unusually fearful or tearful and sad or even apparently psychotic like the child mentioned at the beginning of this story. Or it can result in physical illness such as loss of appetite and loss of weight, rashes, or diarrhea and vomiting, or some other such ailment. Gastrointestinal ailments are particularly supposed to occur if the person was in the presence of the evil eye while feeding. This is mostly the reason why people try to avoid eating in public or if forced to do so cover their food from sight and their mouths with their hands. It is a curiosity of Ethiopian behavior that people care much less of exposing themselves while relieving themselves with relative ease in full view of others. Mothers particularly take umbrage if certain people pay attention to their feeding child. Any child who loses weight unexpectedly, or develop diarrhea is feared to have been affected by the surreptitious gaze of a buda. Food and occasionally milk but not other beverages are considered vehicles for the evil eye. Thus those who fear buda more severely than others live in a state of physical and mental siege so that they do not become unwitting victims. Friends and neighbors might become lifelong enemies and marriages might break under the suspicion of some buda connection. Calling somebody a buda is thus one of the worst forms of insults. It is calculated to hurt and soil the reputation of the recipient of the insult and is not taken by anyone lightly.
The victims of buda are usually people. Children are considered most vulnerable. Women come next. Men usually consider themselves victims whenever they have an unexpected illness. In cultures that value cattle, it might be a favorite cow or calf or even an entire herd that can be affected by buda. The suspicion that a cow or calf is affected by the evil eye arises if a cowâ€™s milk yield declines suddenly, or the animal looses weight, develops diarrhea or suddenly dies. Buda is thus an alternative explanation to a variety of unfortunate circumstances. In some cultures even crops that fail suddenly might be due to the evil eye.
The prevention of buda, in addition to the aforementioned hiding oneself or oneâ€™s child from the evil eye include spitting at the suspected person or spitting in their direction is supposed to nullify the power of the buda. There are herbs that people tuck above their ears when they go to the market or fear exposure in social situations. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has routines of exorcism which include prayers, incantations, and throwing holy water forcefully at the possessed personâ€™s face in order to chase the evil spirit of the buda as mentioned in the story. Suspected budas may sometimes be forced to undergo such exorcisms so that their neighbors may live without fear.
At the beginning of the new millenium the notion of buda still persists in Ethiopian as well as other cultures. Let us wait for the next one and see if this ancient ogre is still among us.
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Ethiopian Medical History
Photo: Dr. Melaku Beyan. Dr. Melaku Beyan became the first Ethiopian medical doctor to complete his education in the United states in 1935 (Dr. Workneh Eshete became the first Ethiopian doctor to obtain a modern medical education in 1882)
The non-governmental organization, People to People, has just released The Manual of Ethiopian Medical History by Enawgaw Mehari, Kinfe Gebeyehu and Zergabachew Asfaw. The purpose of the publication is to teach the future generation of Ethiopian medical students and health care professionals about Ethiopiaâ€™s medical history.
Mekele University and Bahir Dar University have reportedly agreed to incorporate the study into their medical education curriculum.
Enawgaw Mehari, MD
Kinfe Gebeyehu, MD
Zergabachew Asfaw, MD
Senior Graphic Editor: Matthew I. Watt