Within a month of her arrival in Cameroon in the spring of 1992, Leslie Horton, a physician and anthropologist, witnessed a dramatic episode that changed the course of her research--and her life.
While doing field work in a small village, accusations of witchcraft among young community members caused great upheaval in the town.
For Horton, the result was a dissertation in anthropology at UCLA, to be completed in September, titled " 'Eating Hearts': Witchcraft as Soul Murder." Horton's work explores the growing belief in witchcraft in a small town, a trend increasingly common throughout sub-Sahara Africa. Many scholars who have studied the region believe the practice is a response to the corrosive effects of modern development.
Horton, a 41-year-old Venice resident, views anthropology from a unique vantage point.
After graduating from UCLA Medical School in 1985 and spending several years in Los Angeles treating the homeless and mentally ill, she launched herself into anthropological field work and the pursuit of a doctorate as a way to gain a deeper knowledge of medicine.
She was recently named outstanding graduate student by UCLA's Alumni Assn. for her research in cultural psychiatry, and hopes to become a professor of anthropology while continuing her medical work.
The two fields complement each other, Horton said.
"Cultural understanding makes me a better doctor," she said. "I want to practice holistic medicine, where cultural, emotional and social factors are considered as well as biological and physical ones."
Horton's experience in Cameroon helped her conceive that goal. She originally visited the country to study the child-rearing practices of a small community. But within a few weeks of her arrival, the village erupted.
A 17-year-old boy, a smart and popular figure in the town, died from an illness despite treatments at the mission hospital. A village woman who was secretive and whose family had clashed with the boy's family was accused by teen-agers of being a witch and blamed for the boy's death.
Horton said the woman denied the accusation and survived a potion that her accusers believed was fatal to witches.
The youths, backed by the village elders, then drew up lists of suspected witches. Huts were burned and demolished. Pigs were slaughtered. (Many believe witches can transform themselves into pigs.) And suspected witches and their families were driven out of town.
Economic forces provided a backdrop for the destruction. The town's palm oil mill, a major supplier of jobs, had recently failed, leaving many villagers disappointed and angry. Adding fuel to the fire were British Broadcasting Corp. reports of the Los Angeles riots, which many teen-agers in the village interpreted as a worldwide call for youth rebellion against injustice.
Horton believes that the introduction of a modern economic system has destabilized traditional communities by loosening the authority of village elders in favor of other newly rich community members. In addition, she says, anxiety has increased as large factories have been introduced into the local economy, in which failures can produce chronic unemployment.
Horton explained that during such times, witchcraft is often blamed for any misfortune.
"Witchcraft is a common legacy of humankind throughout various historical periods," Horton said. "It often occurs during periods of deprivation, emptiness and loss."
Horton likens the rise of witchcraft in sub-Sahara Africa to what she believes is an increased use of scapegoats in economically troubled California.
"Look at how we view illegal immigrants," she said.
While Horton was in the village, she served the medical needs of the community and was greeted warmly, even while the burning and looting took place.
Since returning, Horton has won accolades for her scholarship. She was awarded UCLA's Hayman Endowment Fellowship, which was established this year to support research into the psychoanalytic aspects of ethnic conflict.
"She's doing a brilliant analysis," said Allen Johnson, a supervising professor of anthropology at UCLA. "In Cameroon she was plunged into a moment of enormous drama and as an anthropologist was lucky to be in the right place at the right time."
Horton believes she's on the correct path.
"My goal is to be a professor and a practicing physician, looking at the meaning of illness. It's a four-dimensional way of practicing medicine," she said.