Read time: 8 mins

The Invisible Language

by Mia Couto
18 June 2020

Translated from Portuguese to English by David Brookshaw


The medicine man, Mário Mabasso, disinfects his hands with sanitiser before knocking on the door of the Ministry of Health. Behind him, there are half a dozen men and women, all wearing masks made from capulana cloth. They are in the centre of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. For them, the city has another name: Xilinguine, the place where one lives alongside white folk. They introduce themselves as representatives of the Association of Traditional Doctors of Mozambique. They belong to the world of orality, and they know that on this other side of the world, what counts is the written word. That is why the petition they have come to deliver is written on a sheet of paper as follows: ‘We, healers and herbalists, wish to request your guidance in the face of this new illness. Our ancestors, whom we consult in order to receive the fruits of their knowledge, do not know anything about this matter, and cannot help us.’

Mabasso curls his fingers, conch-like, and claps his hands to salute respectfully the important people receiving him. He delivers the paper to the minister and remains with his hands outstretched as in surrender. He does not know what to say either in Portuguese or in his mother tongue, Changana. The voices that guide him dwell in his ancestry and he stumbles when he attempts to speak to the dead in order to explain what is happening now among the living. There are no words in his language for ‘virus’, ‘asymptomatic’, ‘flattening the curve’, or ‘quarantine’. There is nothing in his gregarious and physically tactile culture that suggests confinement or social distancing.

When he takes his leave of the notables, Mabasso repeats the salutation, which everyone uses in the country: ‘we are together’. The minister smiles condescendingly and replies: ‘together, but separate’. The medicine man contains himself: he wants to assure the dignitary that he has faithfully fulfilled the requirement to keep away from other people. Admittedly, he has difficulty in keeping away from his own shadow, which has been his main source of contamination for a long time. Shadows are souls, they travel of their own volition through bodies, through time. Our soul belongs to all living beings, all the dead. The medicine man wanted to say all these things. But he knew he would not be listened to. Or, worse still, those educated folk would smile condescendingly.

Followed by his colleagues, Mário Mabasso walks off down the corridor and, upon leaving, washes his hands once more with soap and water at a dispenser, in addition to immersing his only pair of shoes in a basin full of disinfectant. He does all this with some bewilderment: at home, which is also his consulting room, patients take their shoes off at the entrance. Without shoes, their feet once again caress the floor of the house, and return to their childhoods’ original terrain.

The medicine men are worried: the rich countries, where powerful white folk live, are reduced to kneeling before an invisible creature. If this creature does not take his shoes off when it enters the homes of rich nations, what strength will we poor nations have to combat it? And what illness is this that has a number in its name? And what malady is it that steals our chest and travels faster than the wind?

Hardly have they got as far as the street than he and his companions forget the new rules of the world: they join together as of one body, hand in hand, as they contemplate, frustrated, the imposing buildings of the Ministry of Health. Their gaze expresses the same hopeless perplexity that infests all humanity. Even the edifice housing the ministry looks downcast: it had more resilience and was better equipped before the state was required to embark on a policy of cost cutting, a neoliberal solution presented as a condition for the Mozambican economy to be ‘helped’. There was a time when Mozambique boasted one of the best public health systems in the whole of Africa. The rate of coverage for the BCG vaccine was almost 100 per cent. Health was not a luxury; it was not limited to the wealthy areas of the city. That model collapsed. Here and throughout most of the world.

At the chapa bus stop, the delegation of medicine men frees itself provisionally from its masks. Its members regain a face, become more like who they always were. As if they knew that the mask was born on the stages of ancient Greece and served to cause the actor’s voice to reverberate and, above all, to construct, in each individual case, a character’s soul. These medicine men are actors with a script that begins at the end and works backwards: the masks depersonalise them, replace their individual identity with a sudden collective character.

There is no evidence among these people of submission or any feeling of inferiority. They have learnt not to be ashamed of their belief in invisible forces. Those who live in modernity are more pragmatic: they need to see in order to believe. But it is not always so. All the university graduates working at the ministry believe in invisible entities: none of them doubt market forces, they believe in ultra-violet rays, they believe in the power of radiation. In the Northern Hemisphere, belief in the invisible is a manifestation of knowledge. In the South, it is proof of one’s ignorance.

Maybe Mário Mabasso and his friends possess one advantage. In their cosmogony, they do not panic in the face of the unintelligible and the unpredictable. The knowledge these people seek is not that which ensures power or dominion over nature. In fact, in none of the languages of Mozambique is there a word for ‘nature’. The great purpose of knowledge is equilibrium. The new illness is not seen as an invasion. But as an imbalance. They hope that, one day, they will be able to engage this new coronavirus in conversation. Maybe this tiny creature is attacking us simply because it feels as lost as we humans do.

When they lose a patient, medicine men ask: whom did this person die of? They do not ask, as might be expected, ‘what did this person die of?’ ‘To die of someone’ is a question that makes sense in a world where another frontier between Life and Death exists, one between things and the creatures who are bearers of a soul. In such a world, everything is alive. In that world, the dualities between the body and the soul, between the somatic and the psychological, matter and spirit, are all absent. In such a system of logic, illness is thought of in a different way. Illness is not a ‘what’. It is a ‘who’. It does not only express a physical condition, but a battle of wills. In the Western tradition, the doctor reads signals. The therapist in African tradition reads symbols. He is the translator of silences. In the Western tradition, the doctor assumes that he is treating a sick patient. The African therapist convenes a dialogue between the forces that prevent an illness and those that bring a cure. The medicine man is a tuner of silences.

In the case of Mozambique, people have a particular way of complaining when they are suffering. Someone who is in pain says: ‘I am feeling my body’. What this person is saying is that their body is talking to them. And that their body is alerting them to the fact that it is in a state of dissonance with the world. One’s state of health is not determined so much by hormones as by harmonies. These harmonies are created through transactions between the world of the living and the dead. Put in another way, the human body is not limited to its own skin. We exist within and outside our bodily limits, we are a travel agency dealing in journeys between our body, our home, and the world.

The medicine men now cross the wide city avenues. They space themselves out as they take their seats on the bus. They don’t share their places: each one occupies a whole seat. That is why they have to talk in loud voices. One of them asks the others whether they understood when the minister spoke about the pangolin as being a possible cause of this illness. Everyone confirmed this in their shared silence. The Chinese should have called us when they received the halakuvama, one of them said. Halakuvama is what pangolins are called in the languages of southern Mozambique. There is a predominant belief that this animal is the postman of the gods. It comes down from the skies bringing messages that can only be delivered to medicine men and kings. These messages almost always speak of disaster, they speak of drought, famine, and epidemics. In this case, the announcement confirmed the latter.

Mário Mabasso is relieved. At least he told the minister that this type of robbery should be forbidden, this illegal trade that caused these divine messengers to end up in China. One of the female healers, the one sitting in the front seat, is angry. Those who poach and then sell pangolins are disobeying the most ancient commands: one must not touch these animals, which are furnished with scales precisely in order to conceal the secrets passed on to them by the gods. The interdiction is even more rigorous: one should not even look these timid, silent messengers in the eye. Everything had been violated, and the gods are angry at the interference in their correspondence.

The medicine men return to their homes, which are always far from the city of concrete and cement. For the first time, they are left with the impression that the rich areas and the poor areas are joined in a single feeling: fear. There may be walls separating the privileged from the dispossessed. But there is no wall separating this fear. Along the highway, Mário Mabasso peers out at the expanse of red sandy earth. The paved highway has been left behind, and now the roads are made of sand that stretch away out of sight. The medicine man looks at this endless ground and thinks: this is the sky where our ancestors live. And it is in this soil that pangolins dig burrows in which to rest from the journeys between dust and clouds.

At last, Mário Mabasso crosses the front yard of his house and kneels down to touch the earth. He does what halakavumas do: his fingers, placed on the sand, listen. He lets his hand release itself from his body, like a canoe on a river of silence, so as to placate the invisible virus that has brought the planet to a standstill.

Illustration by Isuri

About the Author

Mia Couto

Mia Couto was born in 1955 in Beira, Sofala province, Mozambique. He lived there until he was 17, when he went to Lourenço Marques to study Medicine. He interrupted the course to start a journalistic career that went on till 1985. On his own initiative, he returned to university to study biology, graduating in 1989. […]