Bandages and “Belum”

Njeri Gachihi – Past Participant Facilitator 2016

The past weeks have come with their shares of pleasures and pains. After visiting Stonehenge one Saturday, I woke up with a swollen and painful ankle. I thought it was not serious but after straining through long sessions on Monday, I had to sit at home with my leg bandaged and propped up the whole day. It was quite interesting because I could not remember twisting or injuring it in anyway.  The ITP team supported me and sent me well wishes and within one day I was able to go to work though I was not only ‘limpy’ but much slower. By the end of the week I was very well and I wondered why! Then I remembered a note I had received from one of the participants… It read:

“For over a hundred years, a few significant objects from Sarawak of Borneo have been displayed in the Pitt Rivers Museum when they left home in 1905 or earlier. One of the objects is Belum, the healing figure tucked in a closed showcase. Belum is a medium to cast away disease, a practice by the Melanau community in Sarawak hundred years ago when they were practising their traditional religion. Belum is made of wood or of sago pit. It is floated away into the sea or river, symbolising that the ailment has been cast away from the sick person. They believed the spirit making the person sick will enter the belum and when the belum is floated away by the shaman, so goes the disease.

Belum are in many various form such as crocodiles, human figures, dragons, snakes and many more depending on the kind of ailment. There are two belum in the Pitt Rivers Museum but the one of human figure with headdress attracted me, as it was made to cure a swollen leg due to the tiredness of walking in the jungle. This belum reminded me of Njeri instantly, who is suffering from ankle pain. I told Rebecca, who so kindly accompanied me to the Pitt Rivers Museum, to take a photo of the belum and post it to Njeri with a dire hope that her leg will be healed! The original context of the belum when it was made was for the tropical jungle but since it has travelled thousand miles from Borneo shores to the concrete jungle in Oxford, I hope the supernatural power of this belum is still effective today and heals Njeri’s ankle! Amen!” Dora Jok, Malaysia

As a medical anthropologist, I am now so convinced that Belum was a powerful tool in treating ailments and its power is still stored within the object. It is a reminder to all that objects and sites should be held with respect since they still carry with them their elements even when stored in a showcase. Thank you very much Dora for easing my pain and saving me from a newly acquired nickname – ‘Limpy’!