Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Meeting of Healers

In Kisses in the Nederends, Epeli Hau‘ofa shows the varied interactions between and reactions to traditional and modern forms of healing. The novel begins, as Marama comments is the only proper way, “from the end” (10), quite literally in that it begins with a pain in Oilei’s rear end. Oilei’s medical predicament leads to a view of the medical systems available in Tipota and worldwide, and this specific field often presents various aspects of colonialism and its effects on people. The typical medicine of the colonizers, modern science, is at first seen to be at odds with traditional medicine, the typical medicine of the colonized, and, thus, “the first International Conference on the Promotion of Understanding and Co-operation Between Modern and Traditional Sciences of Medicine” is held (26). The modern doctors attending this meeting are able, for the first time, to meet those “whom they had always dismissed as poseurs and crackpots” (29). Like many colonizing forces, the modern doctors enter the arena of interaction with preconceived notions of superiority over the traditional healers of colonized lands. They are sure of this superiority before even encountering the witch-doctors of traditional medicine. Furthermore, the only change to these attitudes is not really a change at all, but simply the addition of some pity and perhaps fascination, similar to that of the colonizer in Things Fall Apart who plans to write a paragraph about Okonkwo. The modern doctors realize that “without traditional curers the vast majority of the world’s population would have no medical attention whatsoever” (29) and so they accept this medicine as acceptable only in situations where there is no other alternative available.

The modern doctors, again like many colonizing forces, do not believe that those with whom they are meeting present any value to them or the members of their culture. The most that these “crackpot” witch-doctors can do is provide the most basic and miniscule aid to members of their own culture and social status. The colonizer, modern science, enters with its new technologies and sets up bastions of enlightenment in the form of hospitals, but would really rather remain a separate entity from the medicine of the colonized people. The colonized traditional healers, in return, are paid to quietly accept what they do not understand, as do Marama and Losana. Some modern doctors, like Dr. Hamilton, may even be so intrigued by the ridiculous spectacle of an antiquated medical system that they are willing to travel to see a traditional healing treatment. In the end, however, even Dr. Hamilton, who promised not to interfere, immediately does so.

In the end, the entire conference is a shallow piece of propaganda: “a great symbolic success” as Dr. Hamilton says. However, what seems to increasingly become as ridiculous as the fake show of equality demonstrated by modern doctors towards their traditional peers is the falsehoods present within the traditional healing community. Fraud after fraud is presented to the reader as each traditional healer fails to truly heal Oilei of his ailment. However, just as one begins to doubt that there is any legitimacy in traditional medicine, a curious example of a traditional healer’s knowledge is presented in the form of Sera’s accurate knowledge of the kautumba plant and its powers. Also curious is the fact that this plant does not heal, but instead causes war and destruction. Is Hau‘ofa perhaps commenting on the ease with which we find legitimate sources for war but often cannot seem to find them for the cause of healing and peace? Sera, as did his grandfather before him, pledges to spend his days searching for and destroying the plant, and to me, this is the most true sign of his legitimacy as a healer: his active quest to destroy the causes of war and destruction.

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