A few days later, grandma was in a way better state than she had been when we went to MaNgubane’s. Her faith in God seemed revived. When we prayed, she thanked God that I was not having the nightmare anymore. Meanwhile, I was conflicted by the whole thing.
“It’s complicated, Sbu,” Themba said as we walked to school. “But I’m glad Gogo took you to a sangoma before it was too late.”
“But if muthi works better than prayer, then why are we still praying every night, Themba?”
“Why are you asking me? Ask Gogo.”
“If anything, I think the only reason I’m not having the nightmare is because I don’t sleep long enough to dream,” I stopped walking and looked at Themba. “I’m exhausted, bro.”
“Hang in there, Sbu. It’s going to be okay,” he said and patted me on the shoulder, and we continued walking.
* * * * *
“Sir, can I take the lesson standing instead?” I asked Mr Mahaye, my maths teacher.
I had told him that an intense headache was the cause of my absence from school the previous day. He had bought that story, which is why he suggested I go home when he saw how sleepy I was.
“No, Sbusiso, I’ve never seen you like this. You’re not okay. Go home, drink some pain pills and rest. I’m sure you won’t be left behind because you know what I’m teaching anyway,” said Mr Mahaye.
I considered telling him that I had to get used to being sleepy in class because of the ritual, but I didn’t. As I searched my mind for a simpler excuse, the bald headed and round bodied man (we nicknamed Oros), just stood there, waiting for me to leave. Of all the teachers in school, Mr Mahaye liked me the most. We had more of a father-son relationship than a student-teacher relationship. I knew he’d give me anything I’d ask for. He’d given me lunch money several times before.
“I need to stay, sir, so I can at least get all the homework from today’s classes,” I said.
“No, Sbusiso. You are not well. Come on, let me drive you home,” Mr Mahaye insisted.
* * * * *
“You live very far from school, Sbusiso,” said Mr Mahaye as he turned into the gravel road that leads home.
“It’s not that far if you walk it every day, sir.”
He laughed. “That’s like saying being sick is not that bad if you’re sick every day.” He stopped the car on the side of the road.
I thought about what Mr Mahaye had just said and concluded he was spot on. I had been born with HIV, and that had made my illness something I could actually manage. I imagined people who had recently been infected were more devastated than I was.
“I’m telling you, sir, don’t doubt a human’s ability to adapt,” I said.
“That’s true, Sbusiso. But just make sure you’re sharp in class tomorrow.”
“I will,” I lied, to avoid explaining my situation to him and sounding superstitious. I knew I wasn’t going to stop doing the ritual but I hoped I’d quickly adapt to getting by with little sleep. Stopping was an idea I wasn’t ready to pitch to Grandma, and I myself was afraid of the nightmares returning.
In the days that followed I pretended to be sharp in all my classes. I slept during break-time and ate secretly during class. Themba gave me two locked phones and I didn’t get time to fix them until their owners asked for them back.
Teachers began to notice that I wasn’t myself but I kept telling them I was fine. Then, a week and a half after I had started doing the ritual, I got 62% in Mr Mahaye’s maths test.
For other students 62% percent was good enough, but not for me. I had not gotten less than 75% in maths since I entered high school. Mr Mahaye didn’t say anything to me in class; he just handed out the papers, taught, and left. But at break-time, right when I was about to doze off, Mr Mahaye sent a Grade 7 learner to call me.
“Sbu,” Themba called out. “This kid says Sir Mahaye wants to see you in the staff room.”
Mr Mahaye stood outside the staff room with an open lunchbox in one hand and a half-eaten sandwich in the other. He shared his lunch with me as we talked, and he managed to corner me into telling him the truth.
“At this point, I feel trapped,” I said. “I have to consider Gogo before I make any decision. The suffering I saw on her face every time she woke me up from the nightmares makes me want to do anything to not have the nightmares again. But I can’t study, pray, and do the ritual all at the same time.”
“That’s…” he began, but didn’t seem to have anything to say.
“But I’ll be okay, sir, I promise. I’ll figure out how to study as much as I used to,” I said.
He leaned on the wall and looked away from me. “You know, Sbusiso, I’m not a Christian. I also don’t believe in ancestors and witchcraft. That means I can’t give you advice that will make sense to your grandmother because she believes in what I don’t believe in. But I can try to help you see this like I see it, if you want,” he said.
“I’m listening, sir.” I leaned on the wall next to him.
“If you have chosen to believe that you’re being bewitched, you’re in a lose-lose situation. The thing about the human mind is that whatever it believes, it makes real. Since you want to be a doctor, you’ll soon learn about the placebo effect. It has been proven many times, with non-fatal conditions, that if a doctor gives a patient a pill that has no effect, but he tells the patient it will heal him, the patient really does get healed. But only if the patient really believes the pill will heal him. The mind is powerful. Do you understand?”
“That’s really interesting, sir. Please go on.” I wanted him to tell me more.
“Right now you doubt everything, and that makes you vulnerable to anything. You should have courage. Just decide what it is that will benefit you the most when you believe in it, and focus all your mental energy on it. Is it studying, praying, the ritual … or doing all of it as Gogo says?” He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “There’s no easy solution. But you’re a smart boy, Sbusiso. I’m sure you’ll make the right decision.”
Mr Mahaye left me standing there and went inside the staff room. I thought about the words he’d said. But I still couldn’t get myself to decide on anything else besides doing what wouldn’t hurt Grandma.
A few minutes later, I sat down at my desk to take a nap, and the bell rang. I struggled to stay awake through the rest of the day and continued to struggle in the days that followed. I kept believing in my ability to adapt and hoped I’d soon get used to sleeping just three hours every night. I still couldn’t stop the ritual.
Tell us: The ‘placebo effect’ is a real thing proved by scientific experiments (Google it!). Looking back, have you ever experienced anything like this?