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  • Dina Rothschild

A Tribal Chief in My Life

In 1977, at age 41, I went to India as a WHO consultant to train physicians to survey research on chronic illnesses and disabilities in Orissa (now called Odisha). Exciting work, but with primitive living conditions in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa. It was a small village. 

I stayed in one of the three so-called hotels. My room was nothing more than a shack equipped with a weak ventilator that only made noise. The hotel served only bananas for breakfast. A chicken leg and boiled potatoes for dinner. To quench my thirst, I could only drink a bottle of Coca-Cola because of the water’s heavy contamination. 

WHO provided a few sterilization pills. I had to be careful using them only to wash my face and hands. The limited number of these pills made it impossible to take a bath. So, I abstained from bathing during the entire month of my stay. 

My precious possessions were my Swiss cigarillos and a bottle of good whiskey. In the evenings, I yearned for a shot of whiskey and to smoke a cigarillo.

Every morning, I hiked through a forest to reach the rural hospital where I spent the entire day. The weather was pleasant, but I needed to wear my leather suit, with pants and a jacket with long sleeves to protect me from mosquitoes and snakes. My colleagues warned me, “Don’t walk under trees because snakes often sit on branches and will attack you.”

My life was in jeopardy. If I ate something contaminated, a mosquito bit me, or a snake attacked and injected its poison into me. Despite all these dangers, I returned to the hotel alone each day before dark. Only a few times, a physician accompanied me when my work kept me late.  

One day at work, to my surprise, I noticed a man sporting a wreath of colorful feathers on his head and a nude torso. 

A physician nearby turned to me and said, “He’s the chief of a mighty tribe living in the mountains.” He pointed at the man wearing the feathers. “He comes to the Medical Center once or twice a year.”

I stepped closer.

The Chief spoke in his native tongue.

The doctor translated, “It surprised the Chief, a woman regarded as important as the doctors. In his tribe, women’s role is serving men, and they rarely wear any clothes. He can’t understand why you wear so many heavy clothes despite the heat.” 

Then, the Chief started making music with a pulsating string. 

“I’d like to learn about his tribe,” I said, fascinated by the Chief.

“He invites you to visit,” the doctor said.

“I’d love to,” I told him, keeping my eyes on the string. 

“The Chief’s invitation is very special,” the doctor said. “He never invited me or the other doctors.”

The Chief spoke again and laughed. 

“What is he saying?” I asked.

“You’ll have to take off all your clothes,” the doctor added, smiling.

Embarrassed, I shook my head.

“He wants to tell your fortune,” the doctor translated again.

I extended my hand, thinking the Chief would read it. 

But he just looked at me with his big, deep brown eyes and spoke.

The doctor translated, “After your father died, you had a hard youth and went through fear and hunger.” 

It was true. 

“You overcame your troubles with great difficulty, and you can now help others,” the doctor said. “You’ll die without pain after many years. From not being able to breathe or swallow,” he added.

The Chief covered his mouth to gesture my way of death.  


The encounter with this mysterious and powerful man gave me confidence. When my job ended, on the flight back, the pilot announced the airplane had technical problems. The plane kept shaking. We heard terrifying noises. A European man sitting next to me turned yellow from terror. 

“We’ll be all right,” I tried to soothe him. Strange, but I felt calm. Not afraid that anything bad would happen to me. 

We did not crash, but when we landed and got out of the plane, a herd of ambulances and firefighters ready to act with their hoses surrounded us. 

Still, I felt safe. I was bound to live long.

From then on, the tribal chief’s predictions strengthened and sustained me. I could survive anything. Like the attack of grasshoppers covering the car from hood to roof while we crossed the Sahara desert. The time in Nigeria, driving in a small sports car and going along a dangerous road surrounded by crashed automobiles. Or another time in Africa when the car we drove fell apart, and we wandered for hours on a highway under the burning sun. I couldn’t die there. Certain that my death would be without pain, as the Chief predicted.

But a question remains unsolved. What did he mean by “after many years”? In the late 70s, life expectancy in India was around 50 years. But I’m now 86 years old. Could “long” be stretched to include several more years? I sometimes wonder.

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