Fourteen years ago, I suddenly got sick – a chronic illness that completely disabled me. From my background as an immunologist, I knew there was no cure for my condition. But I tried everything modern medicine had to offer and alternative medicine, too – naturopaths, homeopaths, chiropractors, faith healers. After awhile I realized my problem was that I had little faith. I mean faith in a general sense. I had little faith in modern or alternative medicine, in faith healers, or even in Jesus. Those who were healed by these methods had a blind trust, but I was much too skeptical.
Over the years my condition gradually improved due mostly to coping mechanisms – energy management, diet, exercise, life style changes, psychological and spiritual work. In short, I learned to live with my illness. I believe that menopause was also a positive factor. All these were preparation for my healing.
But it was an exotic indigenous ritual that broke through my resistance and led me to faith and healing. I live in Belize, which is a small country with a rich cultural diversity. Among these cultures is Garifuna, a matriarchal Amerindian/African culture with a strong, deeply spiritual heritage. For the past 8 years I have been involved with various Garifuna projects and events, experiences that have opened my worldview and overcome my skepticism.
I was invited to a dugu, a week long healing ceremony in the village of Barranco on the southern coast of Belize that was to take place in August of 1996. Barranco is a lovely village situated on a cliff overlooking the Bay of Honduras with the mountains of Guatemala and Honduras in the distance. I felt honored to be invited to this family event, but was concerned that I might be intruding. I tried to remain an interested outside observer, but by the last day I had discovered that at a dugu everyone is a participant, whether they want to be or not.
A dugu is an elaborate ceremony that requires considerable advanced planning. A large dabuyaba (temple) was constructed from natural materials – a thatch roof, palmetto stick walls, and a dirt floor. Pigs were raised and cassava was planted to make bread. A new dory (dugout canoe) was made for the ceremonial gathering of seafood. Participants raised their own roosters.
The ceremony involves drumming, dancing, and a thanksgiving dinner prepared in an intricate tradition to honor ancestors, whose spirits appear by possession of participants. Even though I was trying to be inconspicuous sitting in a corner, I was greatly affected. In the mali, the heart of the ceremony, the drummers, the buyeis (traditional priests), and the entire crowd of 250 people dance around to each direction, inviting the spirits of ancestors to come to the dugu. At each door – north, south, east, and west – the whole crowd sinks into a deep, reverent silence broken only by the slow beat of the drum.
At one point I wondered if my ancestors could hear these drums. I thought of my grandmother’s great-grandmother, Grandma Hollenbeck. I had finished a quilt that she started 100 years ago. I knew only that she owned a small grocery store, was a quilter, and smoked a pipe. That night I was sitting in the northeast corner when someone pointed out smoke coming in that corner, so everyone moved away. The next time I looked into that empty corner, I saw an old woman smoking a pipe, just like my image of Grandma Hollenbeck. I had never seen this woman before, nor had I ever seen anyone in Belize smoke a pipe. It was an answer to my question.
That night I woke up feeling very strange, like a cold, blue wind had settled down over me. I heard murmurs from the next room. Finally I got up to see who was there. I saw a woman sitting in a chair praying. She looked like my friend, Miss Petty. I knew she was not real, only an image given to reassure me. The murmurs were coming from little puffy clouds all around the ceiling – a couple dozen of them. I knew they were spirits.
The next day I told one woman of my experience and suddenly everyone knew. They were all saying, “Judy has spirits!” The owner of the house where I stayed was especially concerned. I was not afraid of these spirits, just interested, but everyone else was afraid for me. They all asked me what time I had left the temple the night before. It seems that one is supposed to get smoked by the buyei when leaving the dabuyaba after midnight. Otherwise, the spirits follow you home. I did not know this, but even if I had, I felt such things were irrelevant to me, since I was an outsider.
I had to move to another house that day because the owner’s son was returning and needed the house. The spirits moved with me. That night every time I closed my eyes to go to sleep, I heard the murmuring and felt like I was in the big dabuyaba. That went on for two nights. Finally, the others insisted that we had to get rid of those spirits. I was given an herbal bath and the house was smoked with copal. I never experienced the spirits again.
Two years later I was thrilled to be invited to another dugu in Barranco. I had thought the first was a once-in-a lifetime experience and I had been given another opportunity! That August I was not feeling well, but I dragged myself to Barranco, moving very slowly as usual. I arrived a week before the dugu started so I could rest up for the event. On Thursday the women were meeting at four o’clock to clean the dabuyaba. I didn’t feel like moving at all, but pushed myself to go to the dabuyaba. I thought maybe there was something I could do sitting down. Anyway, I hadn’t gotten out to see anyone since I arrived. I walked in the dabuyaba and suddenly felt strong. I saw that bottles needed to be carried out, so I did that. Then I helped sweep the dirt floor. And, finally, there was sand to spread around over the floor. An hour and a half later I was still on my feet. I was stunned – I hadn’t been able to do anything like this for fourteen years!
The next night there was a rehearsal for the dugu, which meant drumming and dancing. Once the drums started, Miss Petty said, “Come on, Judy, let’s dance.”
I didn’t know if I could do the dance, but I had watched it for a whole week at my first dugu two years before. Following Miss Petty, I caught on pretty quickly. I danced the first set and halfway through the second before my legs felt like they would give out. After that, whenever my legs felt like they were going to collapse, I said a little prayer, “just let me get through this dance.”
I don’t think I had ever before asked for specific help like that. It really worked! My legs continued to get stronger and many of my other symptoms disappeared, especially the most debilitating ones like fever, mental confusion, and profound exhaustion. I danced through the entire dugu!
Everyone marveled at my miraculous recovery and my faith in the healing powers of the dugu. They protected me from the spirits this time, making sure that I got smoked whenever I left the dabuyaba. I told them that experience with the spirits at my first dugu was very important for me. It showed me that the spirits are real and prepared me to be a real participant in my second dugu. I was prepared to ask for specific help and had the faith that it would come.
I feel no conflict between my experience at the dugu and my Quaker practice. I felt led in the Quaker sense to work within the Garifuna culture. The Garinagu (Garifuna people) are so deeply spiritual that I am always inspired by their presence. My personal ritual is to do yoga, read and meditate out on the pier at sunrise and sunset each day. My agenda for the day comes out of this quiet time. I also maintain an altar with candles and objects that people have given me. I am extremely grateful for my new health and energy, which I am trying to use in a manner that is Spirit-led.Judy Lumb