Lyn and the Hantu

Lyn and the Hantu

“Hantu” is the word for a ghost in Malay.  There are many hantus, each with its only speciality.  For some reason, I remember hearing about the one, found at night, perched in trees, who would attack the unsuspecting traveler with her pendulous breasts. 

Lyn Dwyer (now Jacoby) and I were fellow Peace Corps volunteers in Malaya, later Malaysia from 1963 to 1965.  (A few months after our Peace Corps group arrived, Singapore, Sarawak, British North Borneo and the Federation of Malaya joined to form Malaysia on 16 September 1963.)

The Peace Corps was a little over a year old when our group began its ten weeks of training at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois in February of 1963.   Lyn was one of several nurses that Malaya has requested. She joined, having had considerable nursing experience both in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

All trainees, among other things, had to go through rigorous psychological/psychiatric testing.  In the written tests we had to choose between such inane questions as whether we would prefer “to mop a floor” or “wash the dishes.”  “Neither” was not a possible answer.  “Yes” or ”no” answers had to be given to such questions as “Do you feel like someone is tightening a band around you head?” and “Do you feel like you are the reincarnation of Jesus Christ?”

Believe it or not, some trainees were weeded out, perhaps by the test or it could have been on the basis of oral interviews with the psychiatrist.  However, we were not reassured by the psychiatrist either, who, during the interview with Mary Holm, went beserk when a bee got into to room.  Mary quietly opened a window and let the bee out.  The interview then continued. 

It is important to know that Lyn is not a “nut.”  She passed the tests and completed the training.  Yes, I passed the tests also.  Lyn’s comment: “Are we sure they didn’t send the sane people home and keep the rest of us?”

I remember the story of a training session for the nurses that contained a lecture on delivering babies in unsanitary conditions.  One thing that could always be relied upon as a last resort was to deliver babies on newspapers.  It seems that the ink on the newspapers created a more sterile environment than dirty cloth.  I don’t believe that the nurses were told where they could get a newspaper in a Malayan kampong (village).

Lyn’s Peace Corps assignment in Malaya, as a nurse, was assigned to work at the Bagan Datoh Health Clinic. On one of Lyn’s occasional visits to Kuala Lumpur, the big city with all sorts of tempting sinful things such as restaurants and movie theaters, she brought all of her empty spam cans to put in my trash.  By doing this, she could disguise the fact that she ate pork – a “no, no” in a Muslim kampong, where her trash would be gone through for something that they could recycle.

Lyn’s story: 

“Bagan Datoh was a one-street fishing village situated at the mouth of the Perak River.  It was surrounded by rubber estates, kampongs, and Chinese enclaves.  I was the only Peace Corps volunteer there, although there were two volunteer teachers in the town of Teluk Anson (now Teluk Intan) about 30 miles away.

“Because of the variety of groups of people, you could hear at least four different languages, but they all spoke some basic Malay.  I struggled along with some VERY basic Malay.  The Malay Registered Nurse and the assistant nurses spoke English (Thank God.)  We ran the Maternal-Child Health side of the clinic, providing antepartum and postpartum care and child care.  The government was trying to educate enough basic midwives (in order to get the local women to use them rather than an untrained kampong “midwife”) to put one every seven to ten miles in the kampongs.  They could cover the territory on a bike.  We went out routinely from the clinic in a van to see children in the kampongs.

“Now as far as hantus go I have a lot of memories. I spent a great deal of time with women in labor and it was dreadful because every window and door in the home was always firmly closed.  Reason: hantus liked to come in and steal the soul of the baby.  Kampong Malays (and virtually all of the Malays I worked with in the clinics) believed in hantus.

“And that was the root cause of my hantu story.  I had expressed disbelief in hantus, and my assistant nurses had told me that a hantu might extract revenge for that.  So, one Saturday afternoon I was riding my bike in Teluk Anson (a large town where Lyn was visiting – JHH) with Sheila and suddenly the bike stopped and I went right over the handlebars.  (I’m sure I hit a pebble or something,) 

“I did a nice 2-point landing on my face and left wrist. We were close to the hospital so we managed to limp over there.  They did X-rays of my wrist (which were negative) and cleaned up the scrapes on it.  My nose had a deep-looking T-shaped cut on it and when the physician’s assistant declared that he was going to pour gentian violet (that purple liquid) on it, we made excuses and ran.  I figured I was going to have an ugly scar but didn’t want a purple one! 

“When we got to Sheila’s building, a neighbor suggested we go to the office of a private Indian doctor who lived nearby.  We did and he cleaned up the nose and put a cream on it and gave me some to continue applying.  It had no name on the jar and he just told me it was “Indian” medicine.  It healed completely and with no scar.

“There’s another little mystery to ponder. He told us to come by his house in an hour which we did and he gave me a very strong drink of booze.  Probably not the best treatment for someone who had just landed on her head!

“About a week later I had a visit from Dr. Beaubien, the Peace Corps Doctor, and another American MD to check up on me.  On my mental status, I’m sure, although they told me they were just looking over the area.  Right.  I convinced them I did not believe in hantus so they didn’t take me away.

“When I reported the accident to the main Peace Corps Office in Kuala Lumpur (probably should have kept my mouth shut), I said it happened because “a hantu did it.” 

“I should end the story be saying that my assistant nurses did indeed believe that a hantu did it and spread the story all over the place.  It’s probably still being told.”