Daugthers of the moon
Ancient wisdom, mystical spirits, visions and dreams, complimented by natural forces, bones and herbs are the weapons of a sangoma, traditional healer of Southern Africa. In the City of Johannesburg, skyscrapers and shining towers throw a shadow over an ancestral religious practice. The sleeping forefathers of humankind thrive inside human passions and possess their priests in a violent entanglement that allows the healers to cure and bless their patients.
when the ancestors awake inside her, she will vigorously shake and loudly growl in a powerful and mysterious scream. The presence of the ancestors will take over her body, clearly announcing their arrival. Out of confusion and fear, she will consult the Elders and find out that she has a gift. An ancestral calling. She will become a letwasana, a student of traditional medicine, and she will graduate as a sangoma after six months of rigid training under the supervision of a gobela (an experienced mentor and teacher). Through her training, the letwasana will learn the code of conduct of a healer, the use and meaning of beads, the function of herbs and medicines, the so-called muthi. At the end of the training, the initiate will undergo an intense ‘graduation’ ritual called intwaso. This is how Mama Maria, a woman from the Pedi people born in the city of Phalaborwa, at the doorsteps of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, describes with dread and respect the ceremony of intwaso: “I am a Christian and I don’t support witchcraft,” she says, “but these spirits are real and I’ve seen my sister go through the sangoma initiation. They make you sick and you have to answer their call. During the ritual, she had to sacrifice a goat and drink its blood. It was scary and painful.”
We are in Johannesburg, a modern metropolis and the epicentre of Africa’s business. Downtown, in the shadow of the buildings of the stock exchange, banks, transport companies and international enterprises, hundreds of vendors crowd dusty streets trafficked by taxis and carts carrying recyclable rubble. Next to the taxi rank of Bree Street, the busiest in the city, a small shop sells herbs, animal bones and skins. Inside, you can find tools, rods, drums and clothes for the use of traditional healers and witchdoctors. In the neighbouring suburb of Marshalltown, the Mai Mai market hosts hundreds of stalls under an off-ramp of the M2 highway. Every stall sells muthi, raw and unprocessed herbs, animal body parts and potions of any kind used by the sangoma. A patient can use muthi (literally meaning ‘herb, medicine’) to receive the ancestors’ help in treating a disease of the body or of the mind, in enticing a lost lover, in killing an enemy or in gaining immunity during a robbery.
Muthi is the traditional alternative to western medicine and for centuries, the sangoma practitioners held the primacy over healthcare and religion. Today, the profession of a sangoma is regarded by modern citizens as evil and barbaric, thus forcing the healers and their clients into secrecy and social stigma. What’s more, some corrupted sangoma ‘witchdoctors’ employ their knowledge to serve evil purposes and are said to use poisons and
human body parts in their rituals, resulting in hundreds of muthi-murders every year.
However, ‘good’ traditional healers distance themselves and their alleged ancestral power from evil practices and swear to protect their clients in natural and effective ways. They use the active principles of herbs to provide healthy treatments and demonstrate a profound affinity and respect towards the nature of Southern Africa. Today, thousands of them offer to the people of South Africa modernised – however unofficial – healthcare and psychological aid. Furthermore, many of them are women and they represent a crucial denomination of female power in a gender segregated society.
Driving from Johannesburg to Soweto – a township of 3 million people on the South-West outskirt of the city – is a journey into a different world. Surrounded by hills made of mining dumps, the township was built during the apartheid race-based regime to contain the black population of the Gauteng Province. The landscape of Soweto is made of small townhouses with asbestos roofs and tin shacks, making it look like a humungous yet pleasant town