local wisdom or a trip to the dentist

lamu, kenya, last december. i’m hanging out with some friends i’ve met here, in a small bar near the harbor. a multi-cultural batch – kenyan, german, australian. as talk of politics and con-men dwindles to the wee hours, omar is seized with pain. he groans, holds his left jaw, mumbles ‘it’s starting again,’ and makes a dash for the water. my inquiring look at herbert yields an explanation: omar has a toothache. it must be pretty bad because the pain, when it comes, is the searing debilitating sort. now he returns from the ocean with a bottle of salt water to gargle, plops himself on his back on a bench, closes his eyes and continues moaning. every few minutes he stands up, spits into a planter, takes another gulp of salt water, and lies down again.

according to herbert, because of course omar’s not talking, he’s been doing this all week. he won’t go to the dentist, because in lamu there’s no one qualified (‘he’ll just pull it’). so he’s self-medicating until he can get to mombasa. a mysterious tall man appears (beckoned by whom?) with a small satchel. inside are all manner of pain-killers, prescription and non. omar buys some aspirin. but an hour later he’s still groaning, sweating, gargling, spitting. suddenly he sits up, throws his head in his hands between his knees and starts rocking back and forth. when he looks up again there are tears rolling down his cheeks. a grown man, cocky and confident when i first met him, reduced to tears. hassan and i pull him to his feet and help him stagger down the street to the all-night health clinic.

the night nurse readies a needle while i make jokes like ‘open up and i’ll pull it out for you’ or ‘whaddya say we just cut your head off, huh?’ omar gargles. spits. before i realize what she’s doing, the nurse has stuck him in the bum with a general anaesthetic. brilliant. she gives him some pink pills and we hobble home.

in the morning the shot has worn off and the pink pills turn out to be no more than ibuprofen. but luckily the tall shady guy with the little bag of drugs appears magically. omar buys some codeine. i’m the self-appointed nurse trying to make sure he doesn’t overdose. a glance in his mouth shows an enormous recess above his back molar, eerily grey and frothy. he still won’t see the dentist and i’m in over my head, thinking seriously about dragging him to mombasa myself.

but the codeine gives temporary relief and omar has a plan. his brother knows a guy named simba (a common name in these parts) whose mother has been known to cure toothaches with a local fruit that grows on another island. it’s the size of a cherry, yellow, and poisonous if you eat it. i’m skeptical but he promises if this doesn’t work we’ll go to the dentist. hassan finds a boat to the island and returns two hours later with the fruit. we walk down the pier, find simba sitting on a wall chewing a plant – a stimulant of sorts, looks like sprouts almost, illegal but common. anyway, simba gives us a boy to lead us to his mom’s house. the boy takes off through winding streets, past donkeys, out of town into a village of thatch-roof houses. simba’s mom sits in the sand before her house cleaning coconuts, old and wrinkly, one eye wandering, wrapped up to the chin in kanga fabric. omar proffers the bag of poisonous fruit.

inside the house, simba’s mom prepares the fruit – cuts and smears the tomato-like seeds on the end of a stick, lights and burns it till a black smoke smolders. above the smoke stream she holds half a coconut shell over-turned with a hole in the top. the smoke collects in the shell and rises through the hole. she motions for omar to place his mouth over the hole. not to inhale. to then spit into a bsin of water she’s pulled over. dusk has fallen and the only light is from a candle on the sandy floor and the glowing embers of the burning fruit. in the shadows i see a mouse crawl up to sniff the fruit rinds. it stops, looks me in the eye, then scurries off. omar spits.

simba’s mom swishes the water in the basin, peers in, like reading tea leaves, moves the candle closer, points a rugged henna-painted finger into the water. in the glinting light, amidst bubbles of spittle, i clearly see: worms. small white worms.

in the morning, omar is fine.

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~ by aliciawolcott on April 17, 2008.

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