Daugth­ers of the moon

Nomad Africa Magazine - - Inside - Words & Pho­tographs: ALESSAN­DRO PARODI

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

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