Syrup of Ipecac – a short story.

This short story is extracted from my book “A Sin for a Son.” It takes place towards the end of WWII in the spring of 1945. Dr. Laurence Medford is part of the British Army stationed in Nairobi, Kenya

In the spring Laurence was confronted with a challenging medical problem. The hospital janitor, a man they all knew as Bundi, fell ill. Bundi, as his name in Swahili suggests, was a carpenter and workman who kept the place running. His illness distressed all who knew him. When he stopped coming to work they realized how much he did and missed his help as well as his cheery presence. They missed his twinkling dark eyes and smiling face with his remarkable set of glistening white teeth which contrasted with his shining dark skin. They missed the aura of health which exuded from his athletic figure, and the way that he stood proud and happy with his morning greeting, “Jambo?” (literally “Hello, good day, how are you?”), to which they would reply, “Jambo!” or “No problems!”

Laurence went to visit Bundi’s home. He found it in a non-descript, grimy back street, a simple hut with thatched roof and adobe walls. Inside Bundi lay lethargically on an old stained mat. Laurence examined him and found no obvious malady. Bundi’s wife told Laurence that he was eating less and less and daily getting weaker. His skin looked sallow, his eyes sunken and he hardly moved or expressed any emotion. His previously muscular slender body already looked wasted and skeletal. Laurence ordered that he be hospitalized. Over the next week the medical community tried to diagnose what ailed him. Eventually Jirani, one of the other Kenyan orderlies, took Laurence aside and told him that the case was hopeless as Bundi was suffering from a malady outside “white man’s medicine.” He had been cursed by the Oloiboni or juju man.

Jirani explained that the juju man had cursed Bundi because of his association with Laurence and Laurence’s institution of a system of certifying the local prostitutes. Laurence had started his system because many of the troops were contracting venereal diseases. He rationalized that if he could make sure that the prostitutes were healthy, the troops would also remain healthy. Bundi had been the messenger who assisted in the two-pronged initiative.

The troops were strongly advised to visit only prostitutes who carried certificates signed by Dr. Medford, while the prostitutes, through Bundi, were invited to come to the hospital for medical check-ups and certification. The system worked well and they were able to assist some of the sick prostitutes as well as prevent the major epidemic which had previously been assailing the bored troops. The problem was that the girls’ local families, who managed their activities and regarded their takings as important income, were annoyed by the loss of income and control. One girl in particular, who was identified as carrying syphilis, had a direct family link to the juju man. When she was diagnosed, the family’s income stream was cut off and so they spearheaded the initiative to bring in the juju man to assist in righting the problem. Bundi, as the link to the British troops, was identified as the prime target for their revenge.

Laurence worried that he should be the indirect cause of Bundi’s illness. He was also horrified to find that a witch doctor was able to affect a man and kill him without any apparent disease or injury. He reasoned that, if the hospital staff could convince Bundi that “white man’s magic” was more powerful than the juju man’s curse, perhaps he could be saved. The English medical team met to strategize how to accomplish this feat. They agreed that they needed to showcase their powers in an impressive enough ceremony to convince the dying man that the spell was broken and that he could live.

At first they could think of nothing showy or dramatic enough to compete with the centuries of display that the juju man must have at his command. Then someone remembered their high school chemistry and suggested that they perform a demonstration of burning metals. They remembered that the soft white metal magnesium, which is used in incendiary bombs, burns with a brilliant white light. They could all remember high school chemistry experiments of burning magnesium unquenched by water. They rationalized that if they burnt some zinc and magnesium, including dousing the burning magnesium with water, they could display the power of the white man whose fire is unquenched by water. They hoped that this type of exhibition might put them on the right track. They further decided that, after the performance, they would administer a strong dose of syrup of Ipecac, telling Bundi that this would make him eject the evil spirit which was lodged in his body and thereby cure him. The logic sounded impeccable.

Putting the show together was a challenge as they were restricted to the supplies in the hospital dispensary. They managed to scrounge together a Bunsen burner, pieces of zinc and magnesium, tongs, goggles and protective gloves. They prepared the Ipecac in a crystal glass. They persuaded Jirani to act as an interpreter. They performed the ritual to the soft notes of a gramophone which someone kept wound up in the background. They scheduled the entire procedure to occur at night to further emphasize the visual effects. They had difficulty getting everyone to wear goggles but, other than this, there were no hitches. The magnesium spluttered and burnt brilliant and rejected the water with leaps. The presentation team were energized and elated, glancing now and then at Bundi as he lay on his cot. His expression of quiet resignation did not alter. At the conclusion of the session he obediently drank the syrup of Ipecac.

They waited. Bundi did not vomit. The doctors had given him a strong dose and were amazed that it had no effect. They double-checked their calculations and references, rallied and prepared a second stiff dose which Bundi again drank. He still did not react. They wondered if they dared a third dose but decided that the man was dying anyway, making this their only chance at saving him. He drank it. Then, the poor man began to vomit. He retched and heaved in utter misery. Word spread throughout the hospital that white man’s magic may be more powerful than the juju man’s but it was more painful and decidedly less appealing to the wasting away which accompanied death after the juju man’s curse.

For almost a week they fought for Bundi’s life. They administered fluids, they bathed him, and they replenished electrolytes. Just when they were about to abandon hope, he began to rally and asked for some food. At that moment they knew that, on this occasion, white man’s magic had overcome the juju man’s curse. Bundi’s wife expressed thanks and gratitude to have her husband back, but Bundi could not talk about the events. He returned to his job without his previous carefree smile and cheery disposition. He moved like a zombie returned to the living but not returned to the existence which he knew before his ordeal. Perhaps the memory was just too painful or perhaps he didn’t want to have his entire value system and understanding of the universe turned topsy-turvy.

*****

Several months later Bundi and his family disappeared. When Laurence asked Jirani, he got a shrug. This time Jirani had no easy answers. He merely muttered something about the need to return to one’s roots, a need to make things right with the gods. No doubt Bundi had undertaken to visit the juju man to re-establish the balance of his world.

Copyright © Jane Stansfeld 2013

8 thoughts on “Syrup of Ipecac – a short story.

  1. We know very little about the human mind. I know for a fact that not only does this kind of practice exist in Africa but also in similar form in India and some of the Islands of the Pacific and aboriginal communities in Australia. It cannot be explained to a Westerner who need to measure everything in a test tube and come up with a logical answer.

    • Thank you for your additional insight. I agree that the human mind is a complex and beautiful thing. In some ways I’m glad that it cannot be measured in the test tube. Cheerio, Jane.

    • Hi Wyon. The answer about the truth is yes and no. Yes, the jujuman curse and syrup of Ipecac etc. is true and yes, the prostitute registration is true. The link between the two stories is my addition as history didn’t explain why the curse was made. Of course all the names are fictional.
      Love and a hug,
      Jane

        • Sympathy was written by Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1899, right at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It is a poem about the caged bird who wants to be free and tries, tries and tries again to break out of its cage. Each time, it is unlabe to break free and instead only injures itself, adding to injuries left over from past escapes. Dunbar depicts the bird’s desperate and unsuccessful struggle for freedom and images of nature, that beckon outside. The first paragraph touches on the situation that black people faced at the turn of the century.

    • That culture is alien to me also – it is hard to believe that a curse without physical contact can really kill a man – but apparently it can. It says a lot for the power of a person’s mind. Mind over matter really happens. It can happen in any culture – Jefferson and Adams both died on the same day – predictably the 4th of July 1826 – a pivotal anniversary for them both!
      Cheerio,
      Jane

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