In Sickness and In Health : The Sharing of Pain in Namibia

Between a doctor and a patient, there is a very special and unique relationship contained in an exclusive realm. The connection is formed from the presenting of an illness and the sick are drawn to the healing. The healer in turn aspires to release the sick from their symptoms and pain. Our wonder of medicine sometimes overlooks the elements that symbolize the very nature of our human condition of this shared relationship – recognition, empathy, compassion of the Other. One example of the act of healing from Namibia however reveals the true essence of the human to human connection and the role of medicine in how we experience our world.

In the desert, distances away from the familiarities of the West, two women sit opposite each other on the bare earth. One of the women, an elder, is experiencing acute pain. She can locate the pain to her heart but the pain is all encompassing. It conducts through the whole of her body and smashes through one cell to another, carrying destruction to reach all of her being. The energy from the pain, its heat and the awareness of the body’s aliveness, transpires into a particular state. In this state, the woman focuses on expelling the pain that she believes is a curse.

The pain’s momentum is experienced as the speed of a spirit that has possessed her body. The body and the spirit are two separate entities that on this occasion have become entangled in her life force. The woman is not powerful enough to kill the curse. She can only direct it towards the woman, a healer, sitting opposite her.

The pain, or curse, is propelled from the body and it is invited to be absorbed into the body of the healer. The healer becomes possessed by the curse, and the elder woman is born back into life. The healer labors through the curse. The curse has entered her body but her powers of healing prevent it from identifying with her physicality. In a heightened trance the curse is combated. Slowly the healer begins to relax and the curse is dissipated.

As the cultural relativists would describe, a culture is a natural entity of which individuals are part of. The medicinal world that the woman elder and the healer belong to are as real and ingrained in experience as our hospital setting is in our experience. Yet, the narratives of each show a common illumination of our human discrepancy. Through embarking in a relationship of kindness – perhaps adopting the words of Hippocrates of “doing no harm” – medicine is the ultimate tenderness of care other than when a mother gives life to her child.

Whilst we in the West prescribe a third party into our medical relationships, namely that of chemical (pills)  or physicist (radiotherapy/ imaging) or biological (transplants) to embody the pain that illness curses, we still embark on a journey to remain with life.

The presence of pain, ironically, enables one to develop the skills to reach and help another person.

And , pain can strike in the deserts, on islands in the wide oceans, within the majesty of mountains or in the hospitals that are sterile and armed with technological apparatus to battle any invasion of suffering.

So, I believe that the lesson to carry in our minds, and let fly in our perspective is that of remembering that no matter how deep our knowledge may travel in the researcher’s laboratory, or the doctor’s clinical room, the essence of medicine is in the joining of one person’s experience to another.

How that experience is conveyed – whether through ritual or narrative or diagnostic charting – is only ever a symptom of what belies the curse of illness – namely, the gift of the relationship between the sick and the healing.