Voodoo in Mayangone

Me and my German girlfriend owed our first house (in Mayangone township) to our friend Birgit who had lived there with her boyfriend. After their relationship broke up, she didn’t want to stay there anymore. So we got a reasonably priced place to stay: 750 USD per month for a small two-storey house. We made a contract for one year and ‘inherited’ the maid, a middle-aged Karen woman named Naw Naw. She was resolute and hardworking and lived in a bamboo hut not far from our home with her husband and a daughter. After a short time, my girlfriend had taken the woman to her heart and she became her adviser in every respect in an almost alarming way. I didn’t like it at all, in my view she was a bit too nosy … After one year our landlord demanded a hefty rent increase. We were really shocked as we had invested quite some money and made a lot of repairs to the place. In his view the house was now worth more than before and we’d have to pay for that … But then rescue arrived from an unexpected quarter. Our gem told us that right next door there was a nice big house nearing completion and the builders were looking for a tenant. They originally wanted $2,000 a month rent, but with the advent of serviced apartments, the housing market was changing dramatically. So we got the house for 1,000! It was three times the size of our previous one. So we moved in and I lived there for a total of 16 years!

Naw Naw had received a month’s rent commission from the landlords – she was rich! Somehow you could tell that she didn’t feel like being a maid anymore. Apparently she was never particularly popular in the neighbourhood because of her boastful behaviour. She boasted that her mistress had given her great gifts, such as Armani plastic bags, with which she strutted about the neighbourhood as proud as a peacock. And now poor Naw Naw, the occupant of a miserable shack, had suddenly become rich! This aroused the envy of the neighbours – at least that’s what she thought. She suspected that an evil neighbour woman had hired a witch to harm her family. First the cat died. Then the daughter got sick. Eventually she found magic potions in her garden, which should hurt her – allegedly buried by the neighbours. One morning several dead mice were hanging on our garden fence. I didn’t care much and ordered Naw Naw to cut those things off and throw them in the trash. She, on the other hand, was terrified, and when she didn’t come to work a few days later, we went to her house because we were worried. Could she have gotten sick? To our surprise, we found her house empty! Neighbours told us that the whole family had fled head over heels that night! For fear of evil spirits! We later were told that they had bought a property near Yangon, but we never saw Naw Naw again! We found a new maid, much nicer and a better worker than the old one.

As Naw Naw’s story shows, the belief in ghosts and evil spirits influences the everyday life of the Burmese to an extent unimaginable for a Westerner. Above all, death holds many dangers in Myanmar – not so much for the deceased, but more for their families. The bereaved family has to perform a whole series of precisely

prescribed rituals in order to prevent the soul of the dead from haunting the survivors. The ghosts of women who have died during childbirth and those of small children seem to be particularly dangerous. No wonder: The former were ‘open’ while giving birth and the latter haven’t had the opportunity to develop their own personality and are therefore easy prey for the powers of darkness.

We had just moved into our new house when I woke up at half past five one foggy morning to a strange noise: What was that? It sounded like someone pounding a stake into the ground. Maybe my gardener? But why should he work at half past five in the morning? That wasn’t his style at all… Especially since it was hardly dawning. My girlfriend was angry: What are they thinking of making such a racket at half past five in the morning? I got up to confront the gardener, but when I looked down into the garden there wasn’t a soul to be seen. But the sound remained – strange! I tried to trace it and looked out of the bedroom window  at a large, undeveloped neighbouring property overgrown with plants. And what did I see there, right next to my boundary wall? Two men from the house on the other side of the overgrown plot. One was digging a hole in the ground with his hoe, and the other one was holding a bundle about fifty centimetres long wrapped in a chequered longyi. When I took a closer look, I couldn’t believe my eyes: A shock of black hair was sticking out of the bundle – these guys were burying a dead baby next to my compound! Believe it or not – a dead baby! When the pit was deep enough, they looked around furtively, and when they were sure that no one was around (they couldn’t see me…) they put the bundle in, covered it with soil, and went home.

I was shocked: was this the usual way in Burma to dispose of a dead baby? I went back to bed but was too excited to sleep. I racked my brain: What should I do? Call the police? Now you don’t want to make enemies in the neighbourhood right after you’ve moved in, and the baby wouldn’t come alive again from that either. I decided to ask some Burmese friends, but each of them was more than amazed when they heard the story. Everyone agreed that this wasn’t the proper way to dispose of a dead baby. Nobody wanted to give me any advice, everyone kept a low profile. I decided to ignore it, but memorised the exact spot where the baby was buried — you never know … Maybe it was an illegitimate child? Born out of wedlock? I later realised that the neighbours were so scared of the dead baby’s ghost that they even risked being caught in their criminal activities. Let the baby’s spirit haunt the bloody foreigner, what counts is that our family is spared! Not much later another bereavement occurred  in that house and shortly thereafter the neighbours moved out in a hurry. The house was left to itself and after some time it was completely overgrown with creeper plants. Finally the owners offered it for sale. Apparently nobody was interested, because when I moved out several years later, it was still vacant …