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Street View: A handshake, a pamphlet, a mystical world

Percy Zvomuya

Percy Zvomuya delves into a world beyond the city's bright lights - a mystical African world invisible to some but vivid to others.

Inner-city Johannesburg is littered with pamphlets selling almost everything under the sun.

Busy pavements and intersections in inner-city Johannesburg are patrolled by men and women who hand out pamphlets advertising this service and that product. The flyers are as varied as the guerrilla marketers who peddle them. Some are on glossy paper while others come on newsprint in lurid colours. A pamphlet whose top half is blood red bleeds out its colour into mauve before darkening again into a blue.

From what's on sale a few facts become clear: beyond the ken of the city's bright lights is a mystical African world, invisible to some but vivid to others.

The women paper peddlers are older, in their 50s and 60s, while the men are in their 20s and 30s. Aggressive and demonstrative – hand outstretched as if they're about to give you a handshake – they will noisily flip the leaflet into your hand at the precise moment that you are about pass them. It's a clever use of the psychology of the handshake; refusing to accept the leaflet can feel like spurning a handshake. Usually occupying one particular corner or patch of pavement, they are like drug peddlers who have to defend their turfs from rival dealers.

Their leaflets hawk everything under the sun. Well, almost. Do you have old or broken jewellery? Or medals from the Anglo Boer war? Stevovo Gold and Diamond Exchange wants it; they will pay R200 for that medal that sits in a trunk somewhere.  

One jack-of-all trades healer promises most things: s/he can help you win the Lotto, quit smoking, win a court case, get your old job back, pass exams, and bring back a lost lover; those who want "your lover to be yours alone" are welcome; or there's the remedy for women who "miss menstruation [or are with] abnormal periods".

Then there is someone who runs a place called Adams Clinic, who has been "legalised to import the formula cream which has been naturally pounded and squeezed from the roots of the mulondo tree used for thousands of years ago in Madagascar to make men's penis leading to more energy harder & stronger erections … [sic]. " This cream, the pamphlet adds, will "increase the girth and length to the size you want".

A Dr Kasule has a universal panacea for women; the good doctor has medicines that can "increase the size of [their] breasts, hips and bums". Those "women who want to have twins" or those who "can't see periods" or with "pregnancy problems" will be treated. Twins? Why twins? I didn't realise there was a fetish for twin children.

I religiously collect these flyers to keep track of "new" herbal products and see the ever inventive pitches of those hawking them. I also collect them to relieve the load of these urban warriors (the advertisers are paid by the number of pamphlets they move).

In all the years I have collected these, I have never been handed one that advertises abortions. These are normally stuck, anonymously as if in the quiet of night, at power substations and lamp posts, billboards and derelict buildings. The abortion notices always have a tear-away option on which is printed a number. I recently picked one up off a pavement on, I think, Harrison Street, in inner-city Johannesburg. "30 minutes abortion", it announced. "100% guarantee. Safe & pain free + womb cleaning. Students half price."

Pain free?

As I fold the leaflet, dirtied and sand-coarsened, to tuck it into a pocket I think of a yarn about an abortion gone wrong. The precise details of the story told to me by a friend are hazy, but I have got the story's basic outline.

Two lovebirds, barely into their teens, are in a relationship. They don't care about a thing, they are in love and nothing else matters. Until the girl (let's call her Anna) goes to her boyfriend (let's call him George) to announce that she's missed her period. Not very schooled in the ways of womanhood, she isn't sure what's going on.

I wasn't there but it's fair to imagine the conversation went like this:

Anna: I have missed my period.
George: (calmly) Ok.
Anna: I could be pregnant.
George: (agitated) What? Are you out of your mind?
Anna: I sometimes miss my period, so it might not be that.

Then a month later, they pick up the stub of the conversation.

Anna: I am sure that I am pregnant.
George: Are you crazy? It can't be mine. Go and be with your man. I had sex with you once. You can't get pregnant from sleeping with someone once. I can't be with you. What will my mother say?
Anna: (hysterically crying) Which men are you talking about? Wasn't I a virgin when we first had sex? What you are doing to me?

The following day, eyes red and heart bruised, she talks to one of the "clever" girls at her school about her situation. "You shouldn't worry," she tells Anna, "there's a woman who knows her herbs, who can give you a bark and help you dislodge the little thing inside you." Anna duly goes to the village doctor who dispenses the herb that expels the thing causing her tummy to bulge, to put on weight, to feel sick in the morning.

Soon after expelling the little thing, her brain cracks and she starts talking gibberish in her sleep. And then during the day. It gets worse: she won't bath; she won't go to school; she won't leave the house.

Anna's father takes her to the local hospital where a black doctor attends to her. He tries a number of remedies, with no success. Her head isn't there anymore, it's irretrievably lost – and Western medicine is, it becomes clear, of no use.

Why don't you try the African healers, the doctor advises, they might have a clue.

"I see blood," the sangoma cries out as soon as they enter his shrine, "I see blood. You 'killed' someone who can't be 'killed'," the sangoma declares. "Go and appease whoever you 'killed' and, only then, can I make the spoilt head right."

Hands held aloft, as if in surrender, the man declares that he has never killed anyone, that if he unknowingly did, then the punishment should come on him, not on an innocent child.

The sangoma repeats: "I see blood. I see blood."

Confused, they head home. He asks his wife what this could mean. Suddenly, like a lightning bolt, it occurs to the woman that there was a time when she thought her daughter was pregnant, and then, as if it had been a mirage, she suddenly wasn't. Perhaps she had an abortion. She confronts Anna with this knowledge and the daughter, her will weak and her head bent, doesn't put up a fight. She concedes that she had been pregnant and that she made it go away.

They go back to the sangoma, they relay the news.

You have to appease the family of the person you 'killed'," the sangoma tells the awestruck couple, and only then can she regain the use of her mind.

In haste, they begin consultations with the family of the boy, who is still in denial; and as soon as the traditional process of appeasement is set in motion, her mind begins to return to her. And when the process is complete, she becomes normal.

It might be quick, like the pamphlet says, but it's not always pain free. In the distance, above the din of the cars, you could imagine a giant printer whirring, spitting out yet more pamphlets: selling this, selling that …

Percy Zvomuya is the Mail & Guardian's arts and features reporter, who loves walking the streets of Johannesburg. Follow his column Street View to meet the characters he encounters.


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