As I climbed into the passenger seat of an old white Astra, township tour guide Mandy Mankazana inspected me, smacked her lips and murmured “sexy, sexy”, before hitting the gas to escort me to Alexandra township for a one-on-one African Sexual Healing Tour.
Leaning back, she ignored the phone vibrating between her legs and gave it to me straight: “White women need help. Black women, we’re born with it. White men, they will tell you – touch a Cadbury, you’ll never go Milky Bar again.”
In the early 1990s, Mankazana started taking tourists around Soweto as a personal and social “healing platform” to usher in a new, integrated South Africa. She likes to get to know her clients well beyond the usual chitchat. “My tours are quite intimate,” she told me. “People open up about problems like a low erection or a big vagina. I realised that European women don’t know the movements for tightening up and entertaining men.”
Perceiving a gap in the market, Mankazana designed a one- to three-day package, ranging from R2 700 to R9 000, that combines African medicinal healing techniques with sexual tips. The treatment has been going for a year, attracting 29 men and women from the white, foreign, middle-aged, heterosexual demographic. She calls the experience a “sexual safari” and, wearing a tan cap and khaki shorts, she’s dressed for the part.
We wound out of white suburbia into Alex’s dense street life, just missing a pile of wet cement as we roll into a narrow alleyway off 18th Street. Before entering the healer’s three-room home, Mankazana looked me in the eye. “After today, people will see you differently, you’ll be cleared of all your bad energy. They will only see a beautiful, bright woman.”
Spiritually cleansing vomit
On request that I didn’t use the sangomas’ surnames, Mama Sophie greeted me with arms spread wide across her bedroom doorpost. She consulted a floor-to-ceiling cupboard filled with recycled bottles and jars – “my pharmacy”, she called it – for step one of the process: the spiritually cleansing vomit stage.
With trepidation, I knelt next to the outdoor toilet, clutching a bucket-size mug filled with “secret muti” (umuthi, medicine) and relinquished my sexual fate to Sophie and her trainee, Irene. A litre of the herby water down, I still had no compulsion to throw up. Their silence told me that there is a strict order to this process – I wouldn’t be moving on until I had expelled my internal gunk. As I gulped the liquid, they egged me, urging me to stick my fingers further down my throat, finally resulting in the desired outcome.
Jessie Cohen goes through naked steaming in sexual guidance, the African way. (Photos: Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
It dawned on me that Irene had some internal complications of her own. While Sophie prepared the bedroom for stage two – naked steaming – Irene took to striding up and down the house with her eyes closed, marking each step with a long, croaking burp. I approached to ask whether she was okay, regretting the proximity as she opened her mouth to expel a deep, rhythmic rumble. Mankazana stepped in to explain: “The ancestors are catching up with her. She might be seeing things right now.”
Draped in beads, bones, faux-furs and mounds of multicoloured fabric, Sophie emerged from the candlelit bedroom, pointing at a large drum “You see that? Irene takes muti every night and, when the ancestors come out at three in the morning, she dances and plays that drum.” Pausing to adjust a tight, chunky headband, she beckoned me inside, belching protégée in tow.
Before stripping off to inhale a “top-secret” concoction of boiling, bubbling water, the healers offered to tell my sexual fortune. They yelled “harder!” as I blew into a small fur pouch, before tossing an array of dice, dominoes, marbles, shells, turtle teeth and chips of elephant bone into a pile on the floor. Irene piped up, delivering a smorgasbord of incongruent clichés: “You will marry an older man from your church. Your parents are very worried about you. All your dreams will come true.”
Pushing for something more personal, I shared a recent dream about an ex-partner. Sophie’s eyes lit up: “I can make him come back and even if he wants to go, he cannot leave. But it’ll cost, it’s a further treatment.” I tell them he is younger than me, but the clash with Irene’s earlier premonition did not seem important. An air of magical possibility hung over the dark, intimate space. Both sangomas gave slow, profound nods to back their promises, affirmed by heavy whispers from Mankazana. I found the idea of twisting another person’s free will to be rather disturbing and declined assistance in this suboptimal “happily-ever-after”.
The steaming experience was nothing short of unusual. I was curled over a bucket of boiling herbal water, buck-naked, beneath a transparent plastic covering in a strangers’ bedroom. After I sweated out my toxins, Irene gave me a thorough scrub in a bath filled with brown, grainy water, which was meant to make me itch badly but, aside from the urge to dislodge sediment from my bottom, appeared to have no effect.
Some of the secret muti put into the bath water to make you more able to satisfy your man.
At times, the tour seemed to offer exciting possibilities for a renewed appreciation of one’s body, teaching how to move more freely and increase sexual pleasure. The package prompts women to take charge of their sexual prowess, to loosen up and become less passive.
Back in the bedroom, Mankazana reclined on the edge of a double bed, grinning down at me as Irene spread my body on the floor for stage four: pelvic massage. The oil was blood red, for reasons she refused to share, and her touch was severe, focusing on my stomach and lower back.
When I turned over, Irene was gone. Mankazana remained perched above me like the Cheshire Cat. Cleansing complete, it was time for “sexual guidance the African way”. Leaning over me, she lifted my hips and led me in a slow circular waist movement. Sophie entered the room, cheering me on: “Yes! Yes! He’ll cry like a baby,” adding: “He’ll never stop calling you,” for good measure.
‘Vulture in the bedroom’
When I leave, Mankazana returned to a low, grave tone, encouraging me to be an active sexual partner: “You must be the vulture in the bedroom tonight.” Sophie handed me an old medicine bottle filled with a watery, red-flecked paste that smelled like peanut butter, instructing me to insert it inside my vagina for a tightening effect with the added bonus of “bad smell” extraction. “But don’t put too much,” Mankazana warned, breaking into laughter. “A German girl called me once and said, ‘Mankazana! the garage door is rammed shut’ – that’s how well it works.”
I was troubled by the male-pleasuring emphasis of the treatment and put it to her that gay women might feel alienated by her line of “African guidance”. She assured me the treatment is for everyone: “I would love to have a gay person. It’s rubbish that being gay is not African. It’s always been in the culture but it’s often hidden. We are all born physically different so why are we not accepting of sexual kinds of difference?”
The ritual ends with burning impepho, this time for sexual awakening.
Later on, Mankazana told me about Zulu rituals in hymen preservation and how the amaNdebele take menstruating girls for two-week sexual training when they “pull out and massage the clitoris”. Boasting difference to African cultures that cut the clitoris, Mankazana tells me that in South Africa they leave it in because “it’s what makes men happy”. She snaps at me for asking whether boys also get trained in pleasuring women, explaining that “it’s more for how a woman should satisfy a man. It’s part of a culture that you cannot question. Since the old days, a woman has to marry and be a good wife. It’s the way all over the world. A woman’s job is to satisfy the man and give birth and cook.”
Despite these contradictory outlooks, it can’t be denied the tour gives a sense of empowerment to Westerners who fit the prudish and physically uptight stereotype. Still, to package sexual techniques “the African way” attaches a homogeneity to sexuality affirmed by the heterosexual, one-sided lessons.
After inhaling burning impepho (Helichrysum spp) for a final flourish of sexual awakening, I left feeling sweaty and spaced, eager for a midday snooze and a dose of paracetamol. Mankazana’s first comment rang in my ears. Sexy, I felt not.