The shamans said Maria would die, and she did.
Missionary Andrew Ferguson and his family were in a Southern Tepehuan village in Mexico over Easter. Many people in the village came down with a virus, including most of the Fergusons and Maria, the young daughter of Faustino.
“Faustino is a neighbor,” Andrew wrote. “We’ve known him for close to five years and he has helped me a lot with building our house and also with learning Tepehuan. We’ve become good friends and spend a lot of time together.”
Faustino visited Andrew and his wife, Anne Marie, to ask for some Tylenol to help with Maria’s fever. “We gave them some and suggested they take her down to the clinic. They said they would, but they didn’t and she got worse.”
Soon Maria would not eat or drink, and was vomiting, so the Fergusons gave Faustino and his wife, Theodora, a powder that is mixed with water to crate a serum for dehydrated children.
The following day, Faustino’s aunt told the Fergusons that Maria had died.
“We felt terrible. How could she be dead? It was the same virus our kids had and they weren’t fighting for their life,” Andrew wrote.
But Maria was not dead. She was near death. Her parents told Andrew not to bother taking her to the clinic since the medicine there “is no good.” They did not want him to try to take her to the hospital in the nearest city — a full day’s drive away – because they did not think she would make it and they did not want her to die away from the village.
Andrew went to the clinic himself, where the nurse told him she did not have any intravenous needles small enough to rehydrate Maria, but gave him a syringe and suggested he use it to give her fluids by mouth.
Andrew returned to a dark scene. “The grandmother has Maria in her arms and everyone is very somber. Maria’s eyes are rolled back and every faint breath is an agony for her,” he wrote.
Praying, Andrew squeezed a little fluid into Maria’s mouth. She swallowed, and he was able to help her drink more. “Meanwhile the grandmother has some special leaves with which she furiously rubs the child up and down. Obviously a spiritual connection but in the end, just causes more discomfort,” Andrew wrote.
Maria began to respond to the liquids, opening her eyes and breathing a little easier. But she was still in mortal danger as Andrew needed to return to his house. He showed Maria’s family how to use the syringe before going home.
When Andrew returned Maria did not appear to have improved, and no one had used the syringe. They told Andrew she didn’t want it, but when Maria cried out for her mother and asked for water, Andrew began giving her serum again.
Maria’s grandmother became agitated, then angry. She accused Andrew of hurting the child, and wanted him to leave her alone. He felt forced to comply with the family’s wishes. Andrew watched, praying, and a couple of times asking to give her more serum, to no avail.
“Faustino was just sitting there. The mother was sitting in the corner crying, the grandmother was muttering away about what the shaman had said. It was like they had already accepted she was going to die and were just waiting. I didn’t want to watch,” Andrew wrote. So he went home, leaving the syringe and once more encouraging Maria’s parents to use it.
‘The child is gone’
The whole Ferguson family gathered and prayed for Maria. Not two hours later they got word that she had died.
They went to pay their respects, and heard all the Tepehuans saying, “Jii go alhii” – “The child is gone.”
“There seemed to be less grief shown now that she had died than before,” Andrew wrote. The Fergusons went home.
Later that day Faustino came to Andrew’s house. As they chatted over coffee, Andrew understood why Maria’s family had thought she was dead before he had come to treat her.
Two Southern Tepehuan shamans had told the family that Maria was cursed and could not be saved. Then a third shaman told the family she had seen a vision of Maria’s scarf in the burial grounds, signifying that it was already too late – Maria would die.
“That’s why they wouldn’t give her the medication,” Andrew wrote. “They courteously allowed me to give her serum for a while, but wouldn’t themselves when I was gone. Maria was already dead — the shamans had said so.”
Culture plays out in life
Andrew and Anne Marie know the Southern Tepehuans have a completely different outlook on life – and death – but they were still shocked and saddened by Maria’s death.
“We expected it and have been trained to identify and incorporate it as we seek to communicate cross-culturally, but even with the expectation and training, we find ourselves surprised by how different their world view is from ours.
“We never imagined though how serious the ramifications could be. … Yes, it’s pretty cool learning how another culture thinks and acts, until it costs the life of a child.”
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