There are many names for it: catching jumbie, antebanta, catching spirit...or, for the pseudo-intellectual who doesn't want to sound backwards, there are euphemisms like “sickness” or “the problem.” In American terms, teenagers at the high school in my village are believed to be possessed.
One girl jumped off a second-story balcony. (She was uninjured.) Others have tried to rip their clothes off, have said strange things, wriggled around on the floor like a snake, claimed to see or feel things that aren't there, or have become physically violent. Most withdraw, some into a completely nonresponsive state. Some cry or feel physically sick.
Bullshit, right? A Westerner might say that these students are simply faking it for attention. One case and it could be epilepsy, but with dozens of students affected, it must just be a ploy to get out of class.
Honestly, I don't know what to believe. The first girl to be affected, months ago, was a student I knew well, and I assumed that it was a psychological issue, perhaps the result of some trauma that no one knows about. When so many students were affected, part of me scoffed at the idea of a spirit controlling what a child does. I didn't take it very seriously. But then I was at the school when a student “got sick,” and I watched him as he laid down and gradually stopped responding to anything, finally arriving at a state where not even his eyes were moving. If he was acting, he needs to be nominated for an Academy Award, because it sure looked real to me.
I encountered it firsthand again today. The new thing now is “little people”...several children have claimed to see people a foot or two tall around the village. THAT I couldn't help but laugh at. Then today, two boys “saw a little man come out of the blackboard” (mind you, another teacher interrupted my class to bring this to my attention, because she didn't know what to do). Subsequently, the boys started acting strangely. They were sent home but came back after lunch, and one boy, about 11 years old, “relapsed.” The teacher came to me, exasperated and probably a little scared. She was supervising two classrooms, the boys' class teacher was absent, and she just didn't know what to do about it. I figured I couldn't just leave the kid freaking out, so I left my class and walked over to find him standing in the sand with tears running down his face while the rest of the class watched on. Uhhh. Peace Corps training didn't cover this.
So I shooed his classmates away, and, agnostic that I am, instructed the kid to bless himself and say the Our Father. I didn't really know what else to do. That's how the Ministry of Education handles it—they send in people to pray for the kids. (One woman suggested wiping the whole school down with garlic water. I'm not sure if that plan was actually executed.)
My proximity to this situation isn't making me believe in the supernatural. I wouldn't bet my life on the non-existence of spirits, but I think it's about a million times more likely that there's a scientific explanation for this phenomenon that we just don't understand. There's apparently something known as “teenage hysteria” that this completely fits into...unfortunately, psychologists aren't too sure about what exactly causes it. (Google for more information. It's pretty weird.)
Anyway, the one thing I am fairly certain about when it comes to kids catching jumbie is that it's all in their heads. So, to fix it, you need to work within their patterns of thought. If the kid believes he's possessed by a demon, make him pray. It worked, sort of—I couldn't get him to walk or talk before we prayed, but he whispered the prayer along with me and afterward I was able to walk him over to the side to sit down. Fifteen minutes later he was playing with his friends again. Kelly Cahill, Peace Corps Volunteer and Exorcist? I need to start carrying around a Bible and a vial of holy water.
It takes a lot of mental effort to not scream “I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON AND IT'S WEIRD BUT IT'S NOT SPIRITS!” when people are talking about antebanta. I try my best to be culturally sensitive and only when asked do I share my opinion that it's baffling but, I'm certain, psychological. This afternoon the side of science/reason/logic got some points when the first set of boys who saw the little men (they weren't psychologically affected) were interrogated and admitted that they made the whole thing up. Almost makes me admire the 13-year-olds who managed to freak out a whole village full of adults. Hey, there's not much to do in the mission, they gotta get their laughs somehow...