The Medicine Comes from the Poison

Yayra Sumah

Yayra Sumah is a PhD candidate at Columbia University. She researches Congolese (DRC) history, the politics of decolonization, and the ontology and epistemology of Central African healing. Her interests include poetry, art, activism and cultural criticism. She has written for Borderlines (CSAAME), SUNU: Journal of African Affairs, Critical Thought + Aesthetics and Paletten Art Journal.

Strangler fig tree (Kikongo: nsanda; Latin: ficus thoningii blume) in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Nsanda embodies all the Kongo ancestors across the generations. Image courtesy of the author. Copyright Yayra Sumah.

The title of this piece is a translation that I am offering, of a Kikongo proverb which was entrusted to me by a Congo spiritualist – the original of which I omit out of respect of custom.

When I first interviewed this Tata (Kikongo for ‘father’) to ask him about the history of Belgian colonialism in Kongo and the twentieth century anticolonial healing movement of Simon Kimbangu, he said this proverb to me with gravity: “The Medicine Comes from the Poison” as a way to teach about how Kimbangu’s movement had reversed and transformed the poisonous meanings which had been imposed by the colonizer’s religion – Christianity – in using its concepts and structures to covertly call on their ancestors and be empowered to overthrow the colonizer.

I write this proverb with capital letters to signal that it is not an ordinary phrase, a common set of words, nor a universal expression. Like any sentient being on this planet, a proverb is a spirit – a personality or a form of consciousness with its own unique fingerprint. Proverbs form part of the spirits or the energies which are used to build up the strength of a tribe. It is a conscious vibration which can attract other thought-forms, happenings or events, images, tastes, associations and memories to our bodies and minds. A proverb allows us to see what is hidden in the realm of the unknown. Naturally, Tata’s language was full of such proverbs because he was learned in his own clan and culture, and knew how to use different proverbs at the right moment and the right time to transmit wisdom to the younger generations, and even to a stranger like myself, an immediate descendant of Ewe and Akan tribes whom he nonetheless saw as a Kongo person.

Proverbs have their own ‘birthmarks’ in the linguistic colors which mark their locality, lineage, language and herstory. No two proverbs are exactly the same, because no two tribes are exactly the same. Coming from two different warring tribes myself, I know that not all ancestors are connected. Indeed, slavery and colonization are the reasons why Africans have spirits within them which are at war with each other, as colonizers weakened tribes by studying them, raping them, and breaking the customs which regulated inter-marriages to cause the chaos of merging. Colonization is the reason why many Africans today no longer follow the rules of their tribes and customs, and it is the reason why people think that tribal property is a free-for-all. But the spirits of the tribes are the foundation of spirituality and ritual practices, and one must know the difference.

The Medicine Comes from the Poison is a powerful proverb with a poetical structure which entails a dualism similar to the structure of a ritual ‘Call’ and ‘Response’. In this case ‘Poison’ can be seen as having a dialectical, sympathetic, or alchemical relationship to ‘Medicine’. Tata would often pause deliberately, stall or ask rhetorical questions, drop his voice or use glottal stops as a way to play with time and expand the spoken word. His phonetic emphasis, the tonality of his dialect, and the gestures and facial expressions performed all came together to make the proverb a true reverberation of spirit, channeling the past, present and future across many lifetimes and dimensions. The wisdom of the Medicine Comes from the Poison unfolds with time into many polyphonic readings, and these are also portals into knowing and understanding the lessons of life.

So it came as no surprise then, when on January 7, 2021, I shared this proverb for the first time with the co-curators of the #Healing program – Maya V. El-Zanaty, Esther Poppe and Alessandra Pomarico – and they expressed how, although it was new to them, the proverb also felt old and familiar at the same time. It had triggered a certain thought-process, a feeling, a connection of dots and a weaving of the various threads of the past. The proverb immediately became part of the inspiration behind the title of our curatorial introduction, “Our Songs, our Medicines.”

“Our Songs, our Medicines” was created as an introduction meant to match the ritualistic focus of #Healing. As a consequence of Covid-19, the #Healing program as it should have taken place in Dakar at Raw Material Company and Écoles des Sables had been cancelled. Many of the artists and healers in Dakar were therefore no longer ‘visible’ in the online program. We searched for a way to make their presence known and their voices heard. At the same time, we also wanted to avoid racist tokenism by squeezing a shallow, representative ‘slice’ of an African tradition into the structure as a way to ‘spice up’ a program. So rather than shoehorn all the Dakar contributors into a thirty-minute opening, we offered a relatively minimalistic, but specific invocation. It was done in the spirit of a divination, where we asked one question: ‘what does it mean to be healed?,’ anticipating that each of the online programs would answer it in its own unique voice and distinctive tone.

The invocation was a co-creative offering which used music and poetry to travel across waves and carry vibrations of healing. I began by calling on my ancestors in my languages of Twi and Ewe, naming their geographies and asking them to lead the way, but key words in my discourse, such as “gesture”, “process” and “container” were taken from our collectively written proposal which we had submitted for this edition of the New Alphabet School. We had revised this proposal several times, laboring over the right choice of words and the correct framing of the project, and to root the project in Dakar. We also integrated a very important concept from the founding editor of Chimurenga magazine, Ntone Edjabe, of holding a space for a specific audience to come together as “a process [called] ‘radio’.” The blurb of our curatorial introduction, which was written by myself and revised by HKW’s editor Anna Etteldorf, was also integrated into the invocation that preceded the reading of Biragou Diop’s poem ‘Les Souffles’, by Maya, Esther and Alessandra, which was accompanied by my singing of Eduma Yee Yee (‘The Work We are Doing’) by Abena Gyamfua.

This song was also a call and response in the genre of the Akan music called nwomkro – funeral dirges sung exclusively by women. The song itself is about death. It divines by asking a question to those who have departed: “The work we are doing, for whom are we doing it? Why are we doing it? The work we are doing, are we doing it for death’s sake?” Indeed, death and our relationship to it has everything to do with healing in African and Afro-diasporic ritual practices. The ancestors, born or yet unborn, are the ones who lead the way when it comes to doing the work of healing. As Birago Diop says in Souffles, “the dead are not gone,” even if, for many in Western society today, death remains the bitter poison that no one wants to drink. But the dead are our sources of medicine. Ancestors lend their consciousnesses in the service of the work. A healer is a person who is receptive to their thought-forms to create the energetic medicines out of the earth and the galaxy, the watery darkness which gives birth to all living things.

Energy is always connected to a specific location or landscape. Tata taught about the importance of knowing where the graves of the chiefs lay, where wars had been fought and where the sacred fig trees of the village had been planted. No two tribes or clans and their spiritual practices are exactly the same because no two geographies are exactly the same. Indeed, this is the basis of real ancestral knowledge and wisdom, but colonization is the reason why many think that knowledge about ancestrality is simply a matter of textbook academic research.

From the very beginning, the question of the specificity of local knowledge and healing traditions in their different contexts in Africa and the African diaspora was the starting point of the #Healing program. In our written proposal we had asked ourselves, “what do we mean by healing, in which tradition, and from which perspective? With whom are we focusing on healing? And why?” Now, more so than ever, in our era of Covid-19 ‘healing’ is a word that needed to be explicitly defined because it has proliferated and intensified with biomedical and talk-therapy meanings. From the start, we realized that a framework which was centered on the work of healers was of utmost importance. This had to be grounded first, and unapologetically so, in the black experience – in the histories of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora, across oceanic ley lines and tectonic plates. Healers were to be our guides. Eventually, we also decided that ritual had to be at the heart of the program’s conceptualization. Ritual as a key technology of healing became the organizing principle for the program, informing the selection of the many artistic, spiritual, and theoretical contributions we received. #Healing as it stands in its online format is a topography of ritual and its different calls and responses. It is a collective journey of wading through the mud, skipping across the oceans, and treading carefully on the hot coals and quicksand of our intergenerational trauma. The spirit of colonization is the poison and the parasite which is feeding on our psychic wounds, and #Healing begins and ends with a conscious act of calling in the elements of air and water to help us hold that grief.

#Healing thus begins and ends with water and with sound waves. We have the analog wave, represented by the ancestral Ewe bell in the curatorial opening. Then we have the digital wave of the multilayered DJ set performance by sound artist and poet Ibaaku at the program’s closing. I point to waves here intentionally, not in the least because of that intricate lecture which was delivered by Lionel Manga, entitled ‘We are Waves’, but because water is also always the place where ancestors reside. When our ancestors were rippled across the oceans during the forced journeys of the Transatlantic slave trade and when they “jumped off the deck, to leave footsteps on the seafloor”, to quote Lupe Fiasco’s ‘WAV Files’, we know that what they really did was return home to their galactic and earthly waters. The oceans are our graves, and they carry our memories. “My bones is why the beach is white” Fiasco sings and raps, reminding us that the DNA in our bones has been calcified but also revived, in the life of the seashells, corals and creatures of the deep.

The journey between these waves and soundscapes in #Healing involved a navigation of many the intersections and crossroads of the ocean. Transatlantic Sounds demonstrated the sonic texture of these intersections in the Caribbean, Atlantic and Pacific coasts. It made visible the rootedness of diasporic Africans and their ancestral vibrations and frequencies, as well as the uniqueness of their voices and cultural divergences in the ‘Sound Marathon’. The workshops that #Healing offered, which were the ‘Ancestral Altars’, ‘The Body Divines’ and ‘Mending Broken Worlds,’ continued in this same spirit of naming and respecting specific perspectives, resisting the “[universalization] of indigenous knowledge”, calling forth specific participants, like those who “[identified] as having been schooled in a colonial state education system”, or those who were willing to look within “the inner and outer space of [themselves]”. All this notwithstanding, it can be said that #Healing also journeyed by precariously walking the line of over-exposure and enclosure.

While conceptualizing the program in its onsite version for Dakar, we wanted to respect the intimacy and secrecy inherent to healing practices. #Healing had a serious commitment to maintaining opacity, which meant the respect of the prohibitions against sharing certain things out of ancestral knowledge, wisdom or ritual practices. Now that #Healing was online for the whole world to see, we grappled with the issue of how to maintain a protected space in the face of faceless anonymity. How to share without being retraumatized? It is often the case that enclosure happens within the space of that tension between universality and particularity. This tension of course, is present at each iteration of the New Alphabet School when it travels around the globe. If knowledge is humanistically represented as universal, then it is easy to pretend that it could have originated anywhere, and in any place, which is a disrespect of ancestral customs and the boundaries of tribes, clans and their spirits. Healing knowledge can be made into a “floating signifier”, to use Stuart Hall’s words, when it is subject to the violence of colonial liberalism.

Colonial liberal violence has historically deployed discourses of sameness and difference to dominate other peoples and cultures. Ideas such as the universal movement of human nature through ‘History’, as the natural pursuit of ‘Reason’, and as the exercise of the rights given by the ‘Law of Nature’, have been a source of justification for trampling whole identities and cultures underfoot while simultaneously commodifying and appropriating them. Colonizers steal even as they degrade those who they have just stolen from. They wound and feign surprise by describing the ‘natives’ they encounter as Others who are irrational or emotionally unstable, failing to understand simple things. They “eat the Other”, to use bell hooks’ phrase, when they travel the world to ‘learn’. They respect no boundaries as they seek opportunities to incorporate and reinvent whatever they can, never taking “No” for an answer. They manifest the same energies of Francisco de Vitoria’s De Indis (1532), when he declared that,

“…if there are any things among the barbarians which are held in common both by their own people and by strangers, it is not lawful for the barbarians to prohibit the Spaniards from sharing and enjoying them.”

The ancestors will judge. When their descendants are being poisoned in the name of healing, and they call, the ancestors will act on that ethical principle which finds expression in the thirteenth century ‘Hunters’ Oath’ of the Mande peoples: “Each life is a life, any wrong done unto a life requires reparation.” For decolonization to become a reality, we must have a foundation in the real laws of nature – in our ancestors and spirits.