Spirits walk with me

This is part one of our report on traditional healers. Read part two here.

Friday is discount day at the Faraday muti and traditional healers’ market in the centre of Johannesburg. Herbs line stone walkways inside the bazaar while customers mill around, buying mganu and mpata mpata—types of herb—from the primarily Zulu and Sotho sellers.

Vast warehouses and modern-looking brick buildings underpin the more traditional world of muti—traditional medicine—and African healing; a sign painted on a nearby wall reads “Inkolo [belief]”.

Down an alley, a clanging sound echoes as herb sellers sit on the pavement grinding together ingredients for a remedy, and the buzz inside the market blends with the peak-hour traffic on the nearby M2 highway. The air is heavy with a pungent, slightly wet and sharp odour; an earthy scent stays with one even after one leaves.

Using a machete to chop pieces of a white herb called vulakuvaliwe into smaller pieces, herbalist Thembi Vezi explains it can be used to induce vomiting, helping to cleanse the body of certain illnesses.

In a nearby stall, a vendor sells animal bones, skins and carcasses; a donkey’s head stands at the top of his pile of wares. Next door, maize bags overflowing with herbs frame the entrance to Johannes Jabulani Zikhali’s consulting rooms. Up a narrow staircase, his is the first of three rooms to the right. On the left, patients sit on a bench, awaiting their turn to consult with the sangoma.

Traditional healers are categorised into four main groups: sangomas, who are diviners; izinyanga, who are herbalists or traditional doctors; ababalekisi, traditional birth attendants; and ingcibi, traditional surgeons, according to the Department of Health.

There are approximately 300 000 traditional health practitioners currently working in the country, and 60% to 80% of the population consult them regularly, the department estimates.

“Traditional medicine has been utilised by the South African populations since time immemorial, long before the scientific allopathic medicine,” says Rose Mdlalose, director of human resources in the Health Department.

African traditional healing is greatly entwined with the spiritual, ancestral realm. “They are similar to the American Indian medicine man or shaman,” says University of South Africa (Unisa) Professor Anthony Minnaar, who does research into traditional healers.

Respecting the ancestors

At Faraday, the doorways to healers’ rooms are smaller and positioned lower than usual, requiring patients to stoop on entering, bowing in respect. “It’s about respecting the ancestors,” James Ntseho, who manages the market, says as we bend to enter Zikhali’s consulting room.

Inside, Zikhali sits cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by bottles of herbs and potions, with a bag of bones held in front of him. Removing our shoes, we sit down on the low wooden bench opposite him, a beige floral mat covering the concrete floor in front of us.

Speaking expressively in isiZulu, his eyes are wide, his stare penetrating; instructing us to pay close attention, his traditional sangoma beads are visible from under his army-shirt sleeves.

Ngiya thokoza [I am glad],” Zikhali says, removing his collection of animal bones from a small basket-weave pouch. Ntseho, acting as an interpreter, explains that he is greeting his ancestors. Zikhali says the ancestors only work when there is money, and after an initial fee of “R20 or more”, he is ready to begin.

Returning the bones to their pouch and shaking it, Zikhali makes a deep throaty sound, spits and empties them on to the greying mat in front of him. Choosing two off the pile, which he calls “female bones”, he shifts them to the side.

Shuffling the remaining bones through his fingers, Zikhali explains that he is talking to his ancestors, asking them about me. Pushing the bones aside, he studies them, instructing me to spit on the female bones he removed earlier and throw them back on to the pile. Mixing the bones again, he disperses them and studies the selected two.

The type and number of bones differ depending on the individual, Zikhali says, explaining that of the two he chose for me, one tells him my problem and the other looks for a solution.

The calling

Zikhali, who is in his forties, first got the calling to become a sangoma while living in KwaZulu-Natal in 1973. Following the path of his family before him, he was trained by his grandmother, who has since passed away.

Most healers, sangomas and izinyanga start on their path after a calling from their ancestors. “It happens when your ancestors tell you to be a fortune teller. They come to you in a dream; when they come to you, you have to do it,” says Mandlenkosi Mthiyane, another sangoma at Faraday.

The calling from the ancestors is usually accompanied by a period of terrible sickness, where the only way to be cured is for a healer to accept his or her destiny. These sicknesses manifest themselves differently; while Zikhali’s was physical, others can be mental.

“When I was becoming a sangoma, at 18, I went to stay at Sterkfontein [a mental institution]. I was sent there by my ancestors, until I was ready to leave and come here,” Samson Mvubu says. He is also a sangoma, as well as the chairperson of the Faraday muti traders’ committee.

A training period with a senior healer usually follows, as ancestors guide healers on what methods to use. The training period lasts anywhere from six months to a few years, according to Paulina, a Free State-born sangoma living in Newtown who did not want to provide her full name. During this time, Paulina says, the main focus is to practise one’s given skill. “Training is very hard … you have to focus and pray a lot,” she says.

She explains that healers can only use the specific gifts given to them by their ancestors. “Everyone doesn’t use bones; some use dreams, some use herbs, some use water. They [the ancestors] are telling you what to do.”

While Zikhali throws bones, Paulina works with dreams and visions, and Mthiyane uses a mirror and a stick through which he is able to see his patients’ problems.

  • Read part two of our report on traditional healers
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