Witch-doctors and Pretty Pink Ribbons

pretty pink ribbon around my right ankle

Peace Corps Kenya has a tradition (which we admittedly stole from Peace Corps Thailand). About three months from out Completion of Service (COS), we hold a COS workshop and it is during this workshop that the tradition takes place. Without getting into the specifics of the ceremony (because it’s a super secret ceremony), the end result is that we all end up tied together by a ribbon. We are not to remove this ribbon until we return “home” (whatever that means to you) and tumesifiri salama (we have traveled safeyly).

Our particular ribbon just so happened to be bright pink, or maybe electric fuscia, with gold thread through it.

Hot, I know.

There are some traditions that I appreciate and some that I despise; this particular tradition struck to my core because I am full believer in the power of “reminders,” or little items that are constantly present on our body, lest we never forget. In more fantastical terms, these reminders have morphed into talismans, or to the Harry Potter generation, horcruxes. What these items do is they allow us to tap our own inner strength, our power of mind, so as to embolden ourselves with a sense of belonging, one of the most important aspects of our highly social nature.

Needless to say, I walk around with a Pretty Pink Ribbon tied to my right ankle.

It turns out, the ribbon also brings it’s own Kenyan culture-specific protection as well, not only emboldening myself, but also instigating preconceptions in those around me: I’ve been to the witch doctor.

The coastal regions of Kenya, particularly the regions of the Mjikenda, are steeped in sorcery, spells and witchcraft. Living on the NYS compound, I am not particular exposed to heightened levels of this tendency, but I do remember the stories a fellow volunteer would tell me of her more remote coastal village, including women casting spells by dancing naked with octupuses on nights of the full moon. Yes, it really does happen, and may explain why immolation is our favorite means of mob-justice: not even a demon can escape wrathful fire.

On several seperate instances I have been informed that my Pretty Pink Ribbon is a sign that I have visited the witch-doctor, and though nobody seems to be able to tell me anything specific, people are cautious of me. After having “integrated” for two years, I am appreciative of the breathing space it gets me, especially while waiting at the cattle pen for the ferry. And for those who are brave enough to ask me why I wear a ribbon, I get to talk to them about Peace Corps and the work we do, and traditions we have. It’s a win-win. Those who are fearful and afraid of change stay away. Those who are curious about the weird mzungu approach and respectfully inquire.

My advice to any Coast volunteers looking for some piece of mind once in a while: tie yourself up in a Pretty Pink Ribbon and enjoy the space.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Witch-doctors and Pretty Pink Ribbons

  1. takinthelongway

    Hadn’t heard about the octopus thing. Wonder what it’s supposed to do?

    Nice ribbon, sweet post 😀

  2. Andrew Carroll

    I think it is a sign of too much Latin when I read immolation and think- “how is sprinkling someone with sacred meal mob-justice?”

    sweet ribbon though.