Saturday, September 10, 2011

tangled tassels

in quite a few of the cultures in south africa people tie ribbons, strings and tassels around their own and their children's wrists and waists. these tassels are imbibed with power to keep evil spirits at bay, i am told. if these tassels come off then the patient is completely unprotected from any and all marauding evil spirits that may be lurking around. of course, not wanting to be responsible for the unopposed assault by multiple evil spirits, most people are fairly reticent to remove these things. i saw it slightly differently.

as a student i took my lead from my senior. if he removed the tassels then i would be ok with it. if he felt that we should respect the culture of the patient and sort of try to move the tassels out of the way of the operating area or even operate around them, despite the increased infection risk, i sort of reasoned it was his patient and even if i medically didn't agree with him, the reasoning of respecting the patient's culture surely held some water at least and i didn't argue. the fact of the matter was that quite a number of the sisters would become quite aggressive with the doctor if they thought he was going to remove the tassels and strip the patient of his evil spirit protection and i think some of the doctors were scared. then one day something happened that cemented my views and actions for the future.

i was working with a senior doctor that had grown up in one of the 'tassel cultures' of south africa, so when i prepared the gunshot abdomen patient in theater for him to operate, i left the tassels alone. it was one thing calling down the wrath of evil spirits upon me but i was not willing to call down the wrath of my senior. it was not worth it.

my senior walked in. he took one look at the patient lying on the theater table, already anesthetized with a nice round bullet hole in his mid abdomen oozing a mixture of blood and feces and with the tassels tied securely around his waist, left in position by me. without saying a word he grabbed a pair of scissors, walked up to the patient and unceremoniously cut the tassels off and threw them away. the sister immediately layed into him.

"doctor! what the hell do you think you are doing? that is the patient's culture and you have no right to remove that!" i saw the corner of the doctor's mouth edge upwards in a mischievous smile as he answered.

"come now sister. besides the obvious medical and hygienic reasons that i could give for removing a dirty piece of string before we operate, even you must agree, this tassel just doesn't work. i mean it didn't protect him from getting shot in the first place so i think it is safe to assume it is pretty much not going to protect him from anything else. so i am removing it and i don't really care what you have to say about that." his logic was flawless and the sister had to keep quiet. i also tried to keep quiet but the faint sound of a laugh did escape from behind my theater mask.

since then i have cut every tassel off, explaining to everyone that will listen that it clearly is no longer working.


Charles Kinnaird said...

Great story. In healthcare we are often faced with taking cultural practices into account. The tassel culture is not without counterparts in Western civilization. I've had Catholic patients who wanted to keep their scapular on during a procedure (normally it is worn by the devout underneath their clothing).

And then there is the matter of St. Christopher medals worn for protection. St. Christopher has been downgraded in our time from saint to legend - I don't know if the number of St. Christopher medals found in automobile accidents had anything to do with that.

anne said...

You have your sangomas, we have our 'Naturheilpraktikern' (= 'natural healers') and homeopaths. The 'first world' is not immune from superstition and nonsense. Suffice it to say that I also see no reason to support the delusion of supernatural healing. If it really worked, then there would be double-blind controlled studies to support it.

Elise Franco said...

There are some practices in our culture that needs to be respect while some needs to be cleared out and disregarded. It is not disrespect for practice and norm of people when all you want to do is save them from more harm. If they insist, we explain and give them the choices. But at the end of the day, we only have to do what we have to do that that includes saving them.

Wreckless Euroafrican said...

he had apoint - and now, so do you!

A Daft Scots Lass said...

This was a really interesting post...its always brilliant to find out about other cultures and their beliefs.

SA is so diverse. Its awesome!

Hildy said...


the wallabies vs springboks next weekend!!!!

Bongi said...

hildy, i think it will be close, but i think we'll take it.

Doctor Lagrange IL said...

It is amazing how people hold on to religious or spiritual belief when so much wonderful science and data is available. Education limitations in remote parts of the world are the greatest risk because to them, we are wrong and we are the lunatics trying to kill them.

Bongi said...

hildy, dam bryce lawrence!!!

at least justice prevailed today with an all black victory. now, all blacks all the way.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bongi,

I stumbled across your blog about a week ago and I have read every post!

Your writing is unbelievably readable and the content makes it a real "page turner". Once I had started reading I literally couldn't stop (perhaps it was because I shared similar experiences including life at "the other" boarding school in Pretoria in the late 80's)

You have to get this into a book. Your experiences are so rich in explaining the paradox that is South Africa - more people need the opportunity to share this.

My family too has experienced firsthand South Africa's cruelty and madness - my dad was killed in a hijacking in the most brutal way in 1998. Yet for us, leaving is not an option. Not because we can't but because Africa is in our blood too.

I have some very dear friends, also in the medical profession who did their Community Service at Tintswalo in 2001 and have not yet left! Despite the bureaucracy and madness they are making a difference and love the people and the lifestyle. We have spent some wonderful times with them.

We are blessed to have doctors like you - thanks for sharing what you have. You have certainly seen more of the underbelly than most -hou moed – and keep writing!