In mid-June of 2003, Raymond Mbe awoke on the floor of his dirt hut. A white moth had landed on his upper lip. In a half-sleep, he crushed it and the wings left traces of powder across his lips and under his nose. The powder smelled of burnt rubber and when he licked his lips, he tasted copper. Outside the hut, his eyes constricted in the sunlight. A steady dull thud, like a faraway drum, filtered through the trees. “I hate that noise,” Raymond told me later. “The sound of pounding herbs with a big pestle. Every time I hear it, I know that a short time later they will stuff those herbs up my nose.”
Two hours later, Raymond’s nose burned as the green dust coated the inside of his nostrils. A muscular man in a white t-shirt cut off at the sleeves held Raymond’s arms twisted behind his back. Across a table from Raymond, a loose-jowled old man in a worn-out fedora had measured out three piles of crushed herbs.
“Inhale the rest of it,” said the old man.
“Please,” Raymond pleaded, “I have cooperated today. You don’t have to force me.”
Deftly, the man in the sleeveless tee twisted Raymond’s elbows upward, leveraging Raymond’s face level with the tabletop. Raymond considered blowing away the herbs. He found satisfaction in defying them, but already his arms burned with pain. He snorted up the remaining piles of green dust. Herbs mixed with loose snot and ran from his nostrils. The piles gone, Raymond’s arms were given a final yank and released.
“Oaf,” Raymond muttered and wiped his face with his shirt. No one paid attention; already the old man had motioned to an androgynous creature in rags to approach him. Four other patients st...