Stranger in the Village of the Sick Essay - Critical Essays

Stranger in the Village of the Sick

In 1977 Paul Stoller, while doing anthropological research among the Songhay people in the Republic of Niger, became an apprentice-sorcerer. More than twenty years later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), a life-threatening illness. This fascinating and thought-provoking book is the account of his experiences as a cancer patient and how sorcery and memories of his sorcerer-mentor, Mounmouni Kada, enabled him to cope. Stoller, a university professor, is unapologetic about his fear of cancer and medical treatments and procedures. Even with the support of family and friends, cancer is a lonely experience—the world becomes divided into the “village of the sick” and the “village of the healthy.”

Stoller is also unapologetic about his belief in sorcery and its power to heal and sicken. The idea that incantations, rites, and potions can influence the outcome of affairs is a belief many readers, and certainly, the medical establishment will not buy. Nevertheless, this is an honest, insightful, and touching book, as Stoller describes in graphic detail and dry humor his day-to-day experiences as a new cancer patient encountering the medical system—the shock of learning that he had a life-threatening disease after fifty-odd years of good health, his pain and weariness during treatment, and the uncertainties of remission. Like a sorcerer, he took pragmatic steps to adjust to his ordeal, performing personal rituals (wearing “lucky” clothes, listening to favorite music) and using his illness creatively to put suffering into a larger perspective and to gain humility with respect for his place in the scheme of things. Stoller has made the experience of cancer a journey of discovery and growth.