On the quest for help: From kitchen cabinets to clinics to holy places

Excruciating pains slowed many of the women survivors of war down, bound them to their couches, frustrated interactions with their children, and meant that work was left undone. To endure their sickened bodies and be able to carry on, they reframed their pains into health problems and, in this process, created spaces for alternative bodied actions and interactions. Initial reframing usually occurred through unspectacular, unnoticed activities as women in Krusha e Madhe and Pastsel made use of what was at hand: their kitchen cabinet became a source of different dietary options such as herbs that were taken to soothe them, in the home the handcrafted baskets whilst the yard became a place to busy themselves, and, thereby, relax.  They ate cloves of garlic, drank yoghurt, and ate spoonfuls of flour to lower blood pressure and alleviate headaches. As she was cutting up a clove of garlic, Adelina[1] leaned over to me explaining, “I eat garlic and drink yoghurt every morning. My blood pressure goes down in no time.” She doesn’t like to take medication as she is convinced that its effects are short-term and can lead to additional health problems. Other women resorted to drinking strong coffee and sherbet [water with sugar] to increase blood pressure and ease dizziness. Feelings of nervousness and worry were mostly alleviated with handicraft, walks around the house, and work. Robertina detailed in our conversation, “Whenever I feel nervoz, it helps me to work. I get up and go to the stable to milk or feed the cow. While I am working I can feel how the stress and fear passes.”

Handicraft and work outside made women feel less stressed, fearful, or helpless as the controlled and repetitive actions gave them a sense of stability and mastery of unruly, painful memories and thoughts. At the same time, it allowed them to socialize their illness through activities that formed part of the dominant gender order by looking after their homes and, by extension, taking care of their families in their roles of mother, wife, or widow. However, these same actions could also have counter effects in that they themselves triggered feelings of nervousness, worry, sadness, and loneliness.

I first began to understand this interplay when I was admiring elaborately crocheted doilies that four widowed women had spread around me on the floor. As we chatted about different crocheting techniques, one of the women interrupted the conversation saying, “we would lose our minds if we [couldn’t] work handicraft. It takes your mind off things.” Her mother-in-law picked up the thread, “If we couldn’t do handicraft and the work outside in the yard, we would lose our minds. I lost all my sons and my husband. The mortal remains of only one son were found.” She started to cry and repeated sobbingly, “I buried just one of my sons. The others are still missing.” While handicraft was a relaxation technique that helped the women not “to lose one’s mind,” it was also a reminder of losses and hardships. As women reflected upon why they engaged in such activities in the first place, memories surfaced of their family members who had been killed and, related to this, thoughts about their own social status as widows and bereaved mothers.

As symptoms were never quite subdued, women sought additional means to control them. Long-lasting pains led them to combine and negotiate elements from diverse medical specialists and traditions. The first ports of call were usually the public or private clinics of general practitioners where they hoped to receive painkillers and “calming pills” for their pains brought about by nervoz [nervousness] and mërzitna [worries]. As Lorida prepared for the anniversary of her husband’s death, she felt such sadness and uncontrollable nervousness that she had gone to visit one of the village doctors to get an injection to calm her down. With despair in her voice she told me, “Nothing, nothing, nothing works for me! I try to get my nervousness out of my body by crying. But nothing helps until I go to the doctor and receive some drops in the water or an injection.” To receive more specific diagnoses and, thereby, a very different frame of reference that allowed for the dispensation of stronger medications, women sought out other specialists ranging from cardiologists and oncologists to neurologists and psychiatrists and visited laboratories to request blood tests and x-rays.

In cases where their pains coincided with unsettling and difficult to explain chains of mishaps that hampered them and their families from moving forward in life, some of the women approached traditional healers to rule out or confirm evil influxes through msysh [evil eye] or t’bone [spell] and visited holy places to pray and bring offerings to alleviate their physical pains, worries, grief, and stress. I was told, “Before I go to the tyrbe or the teqe[2], I feel very weak and after entering I feel much stronger. I feel sort of relieved, calm.” At the same time, there was skepticism as women wondered whether there were in fact healing powers to be found at places of worship and magic. “Maybe it doesn’t work at all,” Vjosa contemplated and then reflected, “but, when you believe that it does, the pain goes away. After all, God created those places, so I might as well use them.”

Seeking help from diverse specialists and traditions simultaneously was not something that women perceived as contradictory or problematic per se. Instead, it was precisely the simultaneity that was considered to be an appropriate way to mediate between emotional and physical symptoms and socio-political ills. A middle-aged woman from Pastasel explained this to me by outlining her own health-seeking pathway.

I had strong headaches and went to a healer who, first, measured my head to see whether it was split and then tied a scarf around it. She knotted the scarf on top of my head placing three spoons in the knot. Next she started to twist the knot in order to tighten the scarf. After each twist, she removed a spoon. After she was finished with the treatment, I went to the doctor. The doctor checked me, analysed my blood, gave me an injection and asked why I felt nervoz. I couldn’t tell him why I felt nervoz since I couldn’t think of any conflict in my family. After the treatment of the healer and the injection of the doctor I felt much better. You have to go here and there in order to be cured.

Her outline brings to the fore a creative response to an immediate crisis of sickness by combining diverse and possibly competing medical discourses, explanations, and practices that, together, addressed both the body (by closing a cleft in the scull) and the mind (by administering medication to calm the nerves). Such pluralism in interpreting symptoms and, connected to this, health seeking is of course not particular to the Kosovar context. Pretty much everywhere in the world, it has been shown that the body and suffering are conceived in multiple ways mediating between bodily experiences, the local moral order, and supra-local institutions and ideologies. Consequently, all of us recourse, in one way or another, to multiple brands of treatment to handle our pains and hardships. What remains less well understood is who and what shape health-seeking journeys and how these journeys and personal interactions affect the political and moral interpretations and meanings of symptomspeak.

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

[1] All names are pseudonyms

[2] The teqe is a building designed specifically for gatherings of a Sufi brotherhood. A tyrbe is a tomb – a relatively small mausoleum where Sheh’s or other charismatic persons are buried.

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