CHAPTER IV. On the Abyssinian border. A new school of medicine - Sacred shrines and epidemics.
We left the camp of Abou Sinn on the morning of July 25th, and in a few rapid marches arrived at Tomat, a lovely spot at the junction of the Atbara with the Settite.
The Settite is the river par excellence, as it is the principal stream of Abyssinia, in which country it bears the name of "Tacazzy." Above the junction the Athara does not exceed two hundred yards in width. Both rivers have scooped out deep and broad valleys throughout their course. This fact confirmed my first impression that the supply of soil had been brought down by the Atbara to the Nile. The country on the opposite or eastern bank of the Atbara is contested ground. In reality it forms the western frontier of Abyssinia, of which the Atbara River is the boundary; but since the annexation of the Nubian provinces to Egypt there has been no safety for life or property upon the line of frontier; thus a large tract of country actually forming a portion of Abyssinia is uninhabited.
Upon our arrival at Sofi we were welcomed by the sheik, and by a German, Florian, who was delighted to see Europeans. He was a sallow, sickly-looking man, who with a large bony frame had been reduced from constant hard work and frequent sickness to little but skin and sinew. He was a mason, who had left Germany with the Austrian mission to Khartoum, but finding the work too laborious in such a climate, he and a friend, who was a carpenter, had declared for independence, and they had left the mission. They were both enterprising fellows, and sportsmen; therefore they had purchased rifles and ammunition, and had commenced life as hunters. At the same time they employed their leisure hours in earning money by the work of their hands in various ways.
I determined to arrange our winter quarters at Sofi for three months' stay, during which I should have ample time to gain information and complete arrangements for the future. I accordingly succeeded in purchasing a remarkably neat house for ten piastres (two shillings). The architecture was of an ancient style, from the original design of a pill-box surmounted by a candle extinguisher. I purchased two additional huts, which were erected at the back of our mansion, one as the kitchen, the other as the servants' hall.
In the course of a week we had as pretty a camp as Robinson Crusoe himself could have coveted. We had a view of about five miles in extent along the valley of the Atbara, and it was my daily amusement to scan with my telescope the uninhabited country upon the opposite side of the river and watch the wild animals as they grazed in perfect security. We were thoroughly happy at Sofi. There was a delightful calm and a sense of rest, a total estrangement from the cares of the world, and an enchanting contrast in the soft green verdure of the landscape before us, to the many hundred weary miles of burning desert through which we had toiled from Lower Egypt.
Time glided away smoothly until the fever invaded our camp. Florian became seriously ill. My wife was prostrated by a severe attack of gastric fever, which for nine days rendered her recovery almost hopeless. Then came the plague of boils, and soon after a species of intolerable itch, called the coorash. I adopted for this latter a specific I had found successful with the mange in dogs, namely, gunpowder, with one fourth sulphur added, made into a soft paste with water, and then formed into an ointment with fat. It worked like a charm with the coorash.
Faith is the drug that is supposed to cure the Arab; whatever his complaint may be, he applies to his Faky or priest. This minister is not troubled with a confusion of book-learning, neither are the shelves of his library bending beneath weighty treatises upon the various maladies of human nature; but he possesses the key to all learning, the talisman that will apply to all cases, in that one holy book, the Koran. This is his complete pharmacopoeia: his medicine chest, combining purgatives, blisters, sudorifies, styptics, narcotics, emetics, and all that the most profound M.D. could prescribe. With this "multum in parvo" stock-in-trade the Faky receives his patients. No. 1 arrives, a barren woman who requests some medicine that will promote the blessing of childbirth. No. 2, a man who was strong in his youth, but from excessive dissipation has become useless. No. 3, a man deformed from his birth, who wishes to become straight as other men. No. 4, a blind child. No. 5, a dying old woman, carried on a litter; and sundry other impossible cases, with others of a more simple character.
The Faky produces his book, the holy Koran, and with a pen formed of a reed he proceeds to write a prescription - not to be made up by an apothecary, as such dangerous people do not exist; but the prescription itself is to be SWALLOWED! Upon a smooth board, like a slate, he rubs sufficient lime to produce a perfectly white surface; upon this he writes in large characters, with thick glutinous ink, a verse or verses from the Koran that he considers applicable to the case; this completed, he washes off the holy quotation, and converts it into a potation by the addition of a little water; this is swallowed in perfect faith by the patient, who in return pays a fee according to the demand of the Faky.
As few people can read or write, there is an air of mystery in the art of writing which much enhances the value of a scrap of paper upon which is written a verse from the Koran. A few piastres are willingly expended in the purchase of such talismans, which are carefully and very neatly sewn into small envelopes of leather, and are worn by all people, being handed down from father to son.