Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Today's Puzzling Statistic

According to Italian photographer Andrea Frazetta, three quarters of the shamans in Peru are frauds:
Frazzetta hopes to tell an honest narrative that explores the complexities of the unusual profession. Curanderos treat such maladies as fear and evil eye energies, as well as addressing concerns relating to work and travel. Many of the ceremonies include the use of a small animal— a guinea pig, a black hen, or a white dove—who is believed to take on the illnesses of the patient. After being rubbed over the bodies of the suffering, the creature is killed, and his or her entrails are used as a diagnostic tool. Nestled in plain sight throughout the streets of Lima, these generations of shamans and their sometimes shocking ritual practices toe the line between cultural fixture and anomalous spectacle, inspiring ethical questions and often contradictory feelings. . . . Unfortunately, an estimated three quarters of healing practitioners are frauds, exploiting the trust of their patients.
I wonder how you transfer an illness to a guinea pig in a fraudulent manner?


G. Verloren said...

On the matter of "how you transfer an illness to a guinea pig in a fraudulent manner", I believe you've mistaken the meaning of the line you quote. It receives vital context from the one which directly precedes it:

"At one time, the parliament of Peru considered a bill that regarded curanderos as doctors. Unfortunately, an estimated three quarters of healing practitioners are frauds, exploiting the trust of their patients."

The author of the article isn't saying three quarters of shamans are fakes (although that could well be, if you want to hold them to the actual historical traditions of their people's shamanism), but rather that three quarters of all "healers" in the country are shamans, and by dint of being shamans are instantly "frauds" who "exploit" people.

The author isn't commenting on there being frauds among the shamans, they are instead editorializing, flippantly dismissing the entire shamanic tradition wholesale - exactly the sort of toxic, elitist thinking that keeps native communities from trusting modern medicine.

The author is more concerned with crassly laughing at and mocking another culture's spirituality and metaphysicality, than they are with finding ways to work with their extant belief system to instill trust and acceptance of modern medicine among some of the world's most at-risk populations.

G. Verloren said...

The thing to remember about shamanistic healing practices is that they aren't chiefly about medicine - they're chiefly about psychology.

Most of the anthropologists I've spoken to who've worked in the field with cultures that still employ shamans have stressed that the mentality of the people in these cultures is not a mirror to our own, and that they often think in entirely different ways than we do.

One anecdote I remember vividly was from an anthropologist living with a native Meso-American population, among whom there was an arthritic elder. On one particularly bad day of pain, the sympathetic anthropologist offered the suffering elder some aspirin, stressing it was not a cure. But when the pain miraculously disappeared, the elder came to them crying with joy, thanking them over and over for having "cured" them. The anthropologist tried to explain that the medicine had to be taken every day to work, but the elder would not hear of it - until the pain came back the next day.

Naturally the elder asked for more - a whole lot more. They believed that if one pill could give them respite from the pain for a day, then one hundred pills could do the same for a hundred days. Again the anthropologist explained that it didn't work that way, that it had to be taken every day, but the elder would only reluctantly accept this. The anthropologist wisely hid the aspirin, and not long later caught the elder in their room trying to find it and self medicate. Naturally the elder was ashamed of trying to steal, but the they said they had no choice - the pain was simply so terrible, and they could not live without relief.

Of course, it did not stop there. The elder came back daily begging for relief. And as will happen in a small village, word traveled of the miraculous curative, and soon others came asking to be cured of other problems.

The anthropologist went to the village shaman for advice, since eventually even the best hid items are found by curious and desirous minds. They decided to perform a joint ceremony, to instill in the elder a sense of the power and danger of the aspirin - to properly convey that too much would make them ill, or could kill them.

The shaman made all the usual ceremonial preparations. The elder was then called into the presence of the spirits, and was made to witness the preparation of two different potions, one with a normal dosage of aspirin, the other with a moderate overdose. The shaman then ceremonially fed the two preparations to a pair of wild rats that had been captured for the purpose. The one fed the larger dosage soon showed signs of great distress, and rapidly expired.

Naturally, the shaman had secretly poisoned the second preparation with a local curare, but to the elder, the dangers of too much aspirin were made abundantly clear. They apologized profusely to the anthropologist for not having believed them, and swore to only ask for the safe amount. Soon, the whole village knew of the danger, and treated the anthropologist with a new reverence.

There is a potential syncratism between traditional treatments and modern medical ones. The two systems are not mutually exclusive, nor diametrically opposed. The best doctors and medicine in the world mean nothing if you cannot convince someone to trust them.

Simply telling a lifelong believer of a shamanic tradition that "No, your beliefs are nonsense, you superstitious fool!" isn't going to instill in them any real faith that you or your modern medicine is worth a damn. Mind is often simply more powerful than matter, and you can't discount and trample over the traditions of a people who have known nothing else for as long as they can remember.

John said...

I am not sure that's what the writer means; certainly the photographer who took these is a great supporter of curanderos and does not think they are frauds. I suppose the distinction could be between the ones who genuinely follow and believe in the old tradition and those who just recite mumbo-jumbo for money, but if you read deeply into shamanism you discover that shamans have always accused each other of being frauds, and there is an element of showmanship and trickery in most shamanic work. (Because, yes, of the psychological dimensions of the healing.) I am amused by the way the statement changes meaning if you shift from an inside perspective, as a believer in shamanic healing, to a skeptical one.