In 2004, more than 500 traditional healers took to the streets in protest against the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). They accused the HIV activist organisation of promoting Western medicine as the only treatment for HIV and disregarding traditional medicine. Prudence Mabele, a founding member of the Treatment Action Campaign, was the main target.
“That was very interesting. I had to go and collect their memorandum. Antiretrovirals [ARVs] were still new in South Africa and, as a healer, I was taking ARVs,” she recalls, sitting in her office at the Positive Women’s Network in Johannesburg, where she is the director. “It was serious. It was hectic. I was scared. They all looked at me as a traitor. I remember them coming [down the street], toyi-toying and singing ‘phansi ngo Prudence’ [down with Prudence]!”
Mabele bounces excitedly in her seat as she mimics the toyi-toying of the traditional healers. Nothing reveals she’s a traditional sangoma: she’s wearing green skinny jeans, pink All Stars sneakers, her nails are manicured to perfection in shocking orange and her make-up is flawless.
But then she flips her dreadlocks over her shoulder, revealing the red, white and blue beads she wears around her neck. The beads are gifts from her elders and the only visible sign that she is a sangoma.
“They were saying that we [TAC] are more into ARVs than their herbs. But that was not the case. I am a healer; being on [medical] treatment helps me to stay balanced, it helps me to do all my rituals and it helps me to dance. It makes me feel good.”
Seeing others die gave her the will to live
Mabele says she does not advocate any alternative treatment for HIV as she has seen, first-hand, the destruction caused by Aids. When she first learned of her status in 1990, she looked for people she could share her anxiety with. But her search for a friend led her to hospital wards full of dying babies. It was during this time that she saw the need for a support group for women like her. In 1996, Mabele and five other women started the Positive Women’s Network.
“From the six women we started with, we began forming support groups in hospitals in Pretoria. The support groups were made up of 60 women. Out of those 60 women, two are remaining; 58 died. It was terrible, those days.”
Seeing others dying gave her the will to live. Because she could not afford proper treatment, Mabele would take vitamins and traditional mixtures to strengthen her immune system.
“Antiretroviral drugs were R7 000 a month at the time. I didn’t know anyone around me who could afford that. When I took those things [immune boosters], I would try my best to eat healthy. And I would consult traditional healers.”
When treatment became available for free in the public health sector, Mabele began using ARVs, and when she got her “calling from the ancestors” to become a traditional healer, more than a decade after she found out she was infected with HIV, she had already been on treatment for several years.
“I have seen ARVs save lives. If healers have refined their trees [herbs] and get it right and register it, I’ll definitely take their [treatment]. But it would have to be done in the right process because I wouldn’t want to put my life at stake for an experiment that is not even checked.”
Sangoma: Why I take ARVs
Her calling has been “like a journey. I was aware of it when I was eight when my grandmother, who was also a traditional healer, always took me along to dig for herbs.”
Relying on ARVs does not mean she has abandoned her calling.
“I do go to Western doctors but I also consult with my people [other traditional healers]. Both these elements can be used. Other people prefer acupuncture to gain holistic healing but that doesn’t mean they must stop taking their ARVs – as long as you don’t take herbs that interfere with your ARVs,” she warns.
Mabele is an activist by day and a healer by night: she consults her patients in the evenings and over weekends. But the immense challenges of simultaneously practising as a traditional healer and being an HIV activist don’t coexist easily.
“The two worlds are so far apart. As a traditional healer, I can’t go clubbing or have sex. You have to stay pure and focused. Yet my activist work takes my body and my mind everywhere. It’s hard to find the balance.”
Mabele has seen many of her close friends die because they had stopped taking ARVs because of remedies being advertised as alternatives.
“I know there is treatment fatigue – you get tired of taking pills every day. But ARVs are the only scientifically proven treatment for HIV.”
She recalls travelling to the United States for a HIV conference and had her belongings searched at the airport.
“They took my shoba out of my case and started pulling the beads off, checking for drugs. A shoba is like a diagnostic stick, the thing that you use when you talk to your clients and when you talk to your people [ancestors]. As a healer, once you talk to ancestors, you always carry your shoba. When you dance, you carry your shoba. So now, when you have the police undoing it like that, it’s like your stethoscope in the other world is being scrutinised.”
Following the calling has helped her to deal with the challenges of being HIV positive and being a traditional healer has helped her to deal with her personal problems.
“Whenever I feel annoyed, irritated or just down, I will just light my candles and burn my incense. I can just sit there quietly and pour my snuff and really communicate. I can talk to them [ancestors] as if they were really here and just offload or complain. Not that I don’t have friends to listen to me, but sometimes it helps to just start your day off with meditation.”
She says the importance of good mental health, particularly when it comes to HIV, has been disregarded by the government. She sometimes employs the methods she uses when consulting her clients in her advocacy workshops.
“Whenever people talk about the family member they’ve lost to Aids and they’re crying and they’re hysterical, I switch and I use being a healer. I know that I do much better than if I’m just me, if I’m just Prudence. If I’m gogo Nobantu at that time, I can see that there is a change. We are all able to communicate, even with those who are not there.”
The content of this story was originally published on 29 November 2013