Notes from an Exorcism
I’m not depressed now — but I was depressed for a long time. I lived with blinding depression and had long stretches when everything seemed hopeless and pointless — when returning calls from friends seemed like more than I could do, when getting up and going out into the world seemed painful, when I was completely crippled by anxiety.
When I finally got better and started writing about the process of recovery, I became very interested in all the different kinds of treatment that there were for depression. And having started as a kind of medical conservative, thinking that there were only a couple of things that worked — medication and certain talking therapies — and that was really it, I very gradually began to change my mind. Because I realized that if you have brain cancer and you decide that standing on your head and gargling for half an hour every day makes you feel better, it may make you feel better, but the likelihood is that you still have brain cancer, and you’re still going to die from it; but if you have depression and you say that standing on your head and gargling for half an hour makes you feel better, then you are actually cured, because depression is an illness of how you feel. And if you feel really great after you do that, then you’re not depressed anymore. So I began to think all kinds of things could work.
I researched everything from experimental brain surgeries to hypnotic regimens of various kinds. I had people writing to me because I had been publishing on this subject. There was one woman who wrote to me that she had tried medication, therapy, electroshock treatments, and a variety of other approaches to depression, and she had finally found the thing that worked for her, and she wanted me to tell the world about it. And that was “making little things from yarn”… some of which she sent me. In any event, I had that rich engagement.
As I was doing this work, I also became interested in the idea that depression exists not only in the civilized West, as people tended to assume, but also across cultures, and across time.
And so when one of my dearest friends, David, who was living for a little while in Senegal, said to me, “Do you know about the tribal rituals that are used for the treatment of depression here?” I said, “No, I don’t know about them. But I would like to know about them.”
And he said, “Well, if you come for a visit, we could try to do some research on this topic.”
And so I set off for Senegal, and I met David. And I was introduced to David’s then girlfriend, now ex-wife, Helene. And it turned out that Helene had a cousin whose mother was a friend of someone who went to school with the daughter of a person who actually practiced the ndeup, the ritual David had mentioned, and that I could therefore go and interview this woman who had practiced the ndeup.
And so we went off to a small town about two hours outside of Dakar. And I was introduced to this extraordinary old, large woman wrapped in miles and miles of African fabric printed with pictures of eyes, and she was Madame Diouf. And we did an interview for about an hour, and she told me all about the ndeup. At the end of it, feeling rather daring, I said, “Listen, I don’t know whether this is something you would even consider, but would it be possible for me to attend an ndeup?”
And she said, “Well, I’ve never had a toubab attend one of these before [the local word for foreigner was toubab], but you’ve come through friends. Yes, the next time I perform an ndeup, you may be present.”
And I said, “That’s fantastic. When are you next going to be doing an ndeup?”
And she said, “Oh, it’ll be sometime in the next six months.”
I said, “Six months is quite a long time for me to stay here in this town, waiting for you to do one. Maybe we could expedite one for somebody, move it forward? I’ll pitch in.”
She said, “No, it really doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.”
I said, “Well, I guess I won’t be able to see an ndeup then, but even so this conversation has been so interesting and so helpful to me. And I’m a little sad about leaving here not actually getting to see one, but I thank you.”
And she said, “Well, I’m glad that you could come. I’m glad it was helpful…but there is one other thing. I hope you don’t mind my saying this.”
And I said, “No, what? What is it?”
She said, “You don’t look that great yourself. Are you suffering from depression?”
And I said, “Well, yes. It was very acute. It’s a little better now, but I still do actually suffer from depression.”
She said, “Well, I’ve certainly never done this for a toubab before, but I could actually do an ndeup for you.”
And I said, “Oh! What an interesting idea. Well, um, yes, sure. Yeah, absolutely, yes, let’s do that. I’ll have an ndeup.”
“There is one other thing,” Madame Diouf said. “I hope you don’t mind my saying this. You don’t look great yourself. Are you suffering from depression?”
“Oh, well, that’s great,” she said. And she gave us some fairly basic instructions, and then we left.
And my translator, the aforementioned then-girlfriend, now ex-wife of my friend, turned to me, and she said, “Are you completely crazy? Do you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into? You’re crazy. You’re totally crazy, but I’ll help you if you want.”
So we left. And the first thing we had was a shopping list. We had to buy seven yards of African fabric. We had to get a calabash, which was a large bowl fashioned from a gourd. We had to get three kilos of millet. We had to get sugar and kola beans. And then we had to get two live cockerels, two roosters, and a ram.
So Helene and I went to the market with David and we got most of the things, and I said, “But what about the ram?”
And Helene said, “We can’t buy the ram today. What are we going to do with it overnight?” I saw the sense of that.
So we got into a taxi for the two-hour drive to the ndeup, and I said, “What about the ram?”
And Helene said, “Oh, we’ll see a ram along the way.” So we were going along and going along, and there was a Senegalese shepherd by the side of the road with his flock. And we stopped the cab, and we got out, and we bought a ram for seven dollars. And then we had a little bit of a struggle getting the live ram into the trunk of the taxicab. But the cabdriver seemed not at all worried, even by the fact that the ram kept relieving himself in the trunk.
So then we got there, and I said, “Well, here I am. I’m ready for my close-up.”
And the thing about the ndeup is that it varies enormously depending on a whole variety of signals and symbols that come from above. So we had to go through this whole shamanistic process. And I still didn’t know really very much of what was going to happen.
First I had to change out of my jeans and my T-shirt and put on a loincloth. And then I sat down, and I had my chest and my arms rubbed with millet.
And then someone said, “Oh, we really should have music for this.”
I said, “Oh great.” And I thought, you know, drumming, some atmospheric thing.
And Madame Diouf came out with her very prized possession, which was a battery-operated tape player, for which she had one tape, which was Chariots of Fire.
So we started listening to Chariots of Fire. And in the meanwhile, I was given various shamanistic objects I had to hold with my hands and drop. I then had to hold them with my feet and drop them.
And they would say, “Oh, this augurs well. This augurs badly.” There were five assistants to Madame Diouf who had all gathered around.
And we spent the morning like this. We’d started at about eight o’clock, and at maybe about eleven, eleven-thirty, they said, “Well, now it’s actually time for the central part of the ritual.”
And I said, “Oh, okay.” And the sound of drumming began — the drumming I had been hoping for. And so there was all of this drumming, and it was very exciting. And we went to the central square of the village, where there was a small makeshift wedding bed that I had to get into with the ram. I had been told it would be very, very bad luck if the ram escaped, and that I had to hold on to him, and that the reason we had to be in this wedding bed was that all my depression and all my problems were caused by the fact that I had spirits. In Senegal you have spirits all over you, the way here you have microbes. Some are good for you. Some are bad for you. Some are neutral. My bad spirits were extremely jealous of my real-life sexual partners, and we had to mollify the anger of the spirits.
So I had to get into this wedding bed with the ram, and I had to hold the ram very tightly. He, of course, immediately relieved himself on my leg.
The entire village had taken the day off from their work in the fields, and they were dancing around us in concentric circles. And as they danced, they were throwing blankets and sheets of cloth over us, and so we were gradually being buried.
So I sat there, naked and completely covered in animal blood, with flies gathering, as they will when you’re naked and covered in animal blood. And I drank a Coke.
It was unbelievably hot, and it was completely stifling. And there was the sound of these stamping feet as everyone danced around us, and then these drums, which were getting louder and louder and more and more ecstatic.
And I was just about at the point at which I thought I was going to faint or pass out. At that key moment suddenly all of the cloths were pulled off. I was yanked to my feet. The loincloth that was all I was wearing was pulled from me. The poor old ram’s throat was slit, as were the throats of the two cockerels. And I was covered in the blood of the freshly slaughtered ram and cockerels.
So there I was, naked, totally covered in blood, and they said, “Okay, that’s the end of this part of it. The next piece comes now.” And I said, “Okay,” and we went back over to the area where we had done the morning preparations.
And one of them said, “Look, it’s lunchtime. Why don’t we just take a break for a minute? Would you like a Coke?” I don’t drink Coke that much, but at that moment it seemed like a really, really good idea, and I said yes.
And so I sat there, naked and completely covered in animal blood, with flies kind of gathering, as they will when you’re naked and covered in animal blood. And I drank this Coke.
And then when I had finished the Coke, they said, “Okay, now we have the final parts of the ritual. First you have to put your hands by your sides and stand very straight and very erect.” And I said, “Okay,” and then they tied me up with the intestines of the ram. In the meanwhile its body was hanging from a nearby tree, and someone was doing some butchering of it, and they took various little bits of it out. And then I had to kind of shuffle over, all tied up in intestines, which most of you probably haven’t done, but it’s hard.
I had to shuffle over and take these little pieces of the ram and dig holes, and put the pieces of the ram in the holes.
And I had to say something. And what I had to say was actually incredibly, strangely touching in the middle of this weird experience. I had to say, “Spirits, leave me alone to complete the business of my life and know that I will never forget you.” And I thought, What a kind thing to say to the evil spirits you’re exorcising: “I’ll never forget you.” And I haven’t.
So anyway, there were various other little bits and pieces that followed. I was given a piece of paper in which all of the millet from the morning had been gathered. I was told that I should sleep with it under my pillow and in the morning get up and give it to a beggar who had good hearing and no deformities, and that when I gave it to him that would be the end of my troubles.
And then the women all filled their mouths with water and began spitting water all over me — it was a surround-shower effect — rinsing the blood away from me. It gradually came off, and when I was clean, they gave me back my jeans. And everyone danced, and they barbecued the ram, and we had this dinner.
And I felt so up. I felt so up! It had been quite an astonishing experience. Even though I didn’t believe in the animist principles behind it, all of these people had been gathered together, cheering for me, and it was very exhilarating.
And I had a very odd experience five years later, when I was working on my current book, and I was in Rwanda doing something else altogether. I got into a conversation with someone there, and I described the experience I had had in Senegal, and he said, “Oh, you know, we have something that’s a little like that. That’s West Africa. This is East Africa. It’s quite different, but there are some similarities to rituals here.”
He said, “You know, we had a lot of trouble with Western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide, and we had to ask some of them to leave.”
I said, “What was the problem?”
And he said, “Their practice did not involve being outside in the sun, like you’re describing, which is, after all, where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again when you’re depressed, and you’re low, and you need to have your blood flowing. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgment that the depression is something invasive and external that could actually be cast out of you again.
“Instead, they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to get them to leave the country.”
Excerpted from the book The Moth, edited by Catherine Burns. Compilation copyright © 2013 The Moth. Published by Hyperion.