Witch doctors and the chill

Some random, weird happenings from the past several months:

1) Witch-doctors. One of my Kyrgyz language teachers is the daughter of a traditional healer-shaman who, thanks to his Soviet university education, also holds multiple degrees in civil engineering and specializes in irrigation systems. And he’s an alcoholic. I think because of her upbringing, she’s rather superstitious. For example: she complains about being drained by the ‘evil eye’ (“All these students watching and admiring me all day … it sends a negative energy”), from corners (apparently corners – of rooms, of staircases – zap her with their special energy), and from computer waves (“I bought this $600 pendant to ward off the computer radiation; here – look at how it increases your strength,” she said, as she put it on me and then proceeded to poke and prod me and argue that her inability to do real harm was evidence of the pendant’s strength … this woke me up from my early-morning-class-stupor).

Many people collect herbs to make healing teas and food additives.

Many people collect herbs to make healing teas and food additives.

This language teacher is also by far one of the most intelligent and gifted teachers I’ve met, received perfect grades in university, and is now looking to get a PhD in South Korea … like her father, she’s a fascinating, confusing mix. I’ve also found many of her superstitions to be widely held (if less vociferously defended).

2) Getting sick. In traditional medicine, there are two causes of illness: “the chill,” and “the evil eye.” I caught a cold (cause = the chill) and mentioned this to my host mom. She ran out the door (“I’m not thaaat contagious,” I thought to myself), but two minutes later came back with a smoking pine sprig, walked to the four corners of the room, blew smoke into them all the while chanting a prayer (in Arabic, so I assume it was an Islamic prayer of some sort). “You’ll be better in the morning. It will purify the chill,” she said. And she was right. I woke up fully healthy in the morning. Side note: simultaneous invocation of Shamanism (i.e. twig burning) & Islam (prayer in Arabic) is widespread in Kyrgyzstan.

3) Actual work. The least exciting of the topics, but for you serious types: despite all appearances, I’ve been doing research (I swear). This has in some ways been exceedingly discouraging: it took me a week to translate one relevant law into English … there are 20 some laws to go; while translating, I discovered that the official Russian and Kyrgyz versions contain different provisions – and confirmed this with native speakers – leaving me quite annoyed; I’ve found that in Bishkek, no one believes me when I say that the informal, traditional courts that I’m studying exist (indeed, they only believe me when I show them the law authorizing the courts, and they’re shocked); and my first research assistant got hit by a car (she’s fine. But still). Intriguingly, the Bishkek city and Kyrgyz national governments are currently debating whether to expand the traditional courts’ power (this power was strictly curtailed in 1996, when one such court authorized and carried out a death-by-stoning sentence).

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