Africans, especially South Africans, are very superstitious. Long before Christianity invaded the continent, Africans worshipped their ancestors – and in spite of Christianity’s best efforts (or maybe because of it) they still do.
“Appeasing the ancestors” was cited when bulls were slaughtered outside each new FIFA World Cup stadium in 2010. Yes, that’s right – blood was shed so that the South African football team could win a few games of football….
You may have noticed that they didn’t do very well, barely scraping through the first matches and coming nowhere near the Finals. Clearly, the ancestors were not appeased by the bellowing of the bull, his legs bound, having his throat slit by a cheetah-skinned witch doctor with a rusty knife.
When the ANC (African National Congress, the ruling party in South Africa) opened its Centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein in January, our President had to put on his skins, shells and feathers and perform the bull slaughtering ritual to please the ancestors. Unfortunately, the President is a bit old, and a bit unfit to carry the whole gory process through to its terrible conclusion. so a younger man had to do it. The ancestors were obviously not pleased by this either – the 1 million government-issue condoms supplied for the Centenary celebrations were withdrawn (pardon the pun) because they were all full of holes….. So much for “Protection!”
(As an aside: Why do they need to supply 1 MILLION condoms for a supposedly dignified political party to celebrate its 100th Birthday? Could those men who were planning to screw their way through the whole thing not have brought along their own condoms?? How lucky did they think they were going to get, anyway??)
This last week, the family of a dead South African singer, Khulekani “Mgqumeni” Khumalo, were told by a Sangoma (witch doctor) that they were to bring a pure white goat into Johannesburg central, to be slaughtered, to please the ancestors. This Sangoma said the singer was not in fact dead and she knew where to find him (even though he had died as a result of drinking a potion supplied by a different Sangoma in 2009 and been buried before their eyes).
Sure enough, a young man appeared, claiming to be the dead singer – and THOUSANDS of South African fans rushed to see him. The police had to be brought in to control the crowds! Never mind the fact that the imposter looked nothing like the dead singer, had a different name, and admitted that he couldn’t even sing! The family bought his story of being held captive as a zombie by witch doctors for the past few years – hook, line and sinker. One of the dead man’s wives even shacked up with the imposter!
Unfortunately for him, we have such a thing as DNA and finger-print identification. He has been identified, arrested and charged with fraud.
Such is the level of superstition and gullibility among South Africans – they are quite open to the idea that a man can rise from the dead…. Oh, wait a minute…I suppose that includes most Americans, a large number of the conservative British, and some older Europeans too.
And, this very weekend, a Sangoma in East London is performing her magical appeasement of the ancestors, murdering another hapless white goat. Why? To rid a woman of some bees that have set up a hive in a tree in her garden! That’s right folks – the ancestors can control the bees too.
So, what exactly is a Sangoma? She, or sometimes he, is a traditional “healer” who diagnoses illness through divination. She uses “muti” made from roots, herbs, bark, animal and HUMAN body parts to cast spells, perform rituals and tell fortunes.
A Sangoma realises she is being called to the Craft after suffering some illness such as a headache, stomach ache, neck or shoulder pain, or has a psychotic episode. She then goes to Sangoma School where she learns to respect the ancestors, how to gather and use muti, she bathes in the blood of sacrificed animals, and on graduation gets to sacrifice her own little goat and wear its gallbladder on her head.
We have about 200 000 Sangomas in South Africa, and they are the healer-of-choice for most of our population (80% of whom claim to be Christians, by the way). When you go to a Sangoma to diagnose and treat your illness, there will be loads of chanting, dancing, drumming and burning of plants to summon the ancestors. When the ancestor invades the Sangoma’s body she will go into a shamanistic trance, speaking in tongues and doing other scary stuff. If you’re lucky she may just “throw the bones” or interpret your dreams to tell you what’s wrong with you, instead of scaring the shit out of you with that whole spirit possession thing.
Once the ancestors have revealed to her what you’re suffering from, and figured out how to treat you, she will give you some muti – “medications” of sand, plant and animal origin, imbued with “spiritual significance” and symbolism – and send you on your way.
Unfortunately, these remedies are among the leading cause of unnatural deaths in South Africa. Even children are fed these “medicines” and die horrible deaths as a result. EVEN WORSE is the fact that men, women, and especially little children, are MURDERED to provide Sangomas with their muti!
THE TRUTH IS:
- Sangomas are not medically trained in any way
- they are not qualified to diagnose anything
- they are not qualified to treat anything.
- Their “remedies” are at best harmless herbs, but at worst FATALLY POISONOUS untested concoctions.
- Ancestor worship is pointless. Your ancestors are dead, they do not communicate with you through psychotic women in self-induced hypnotic trances!
What’s the Harm?
- Thousands of dead people with sand and herbs and crushed body parts inserted into various orifices?
- Little boys and girls murdered in the veld with their eyes, lips and genitals cut out?
- Women raped and murdered and their breasts cut off?
Do you need to hear any more?
Superstition, witchcraft, religious ritual and trade in human body parts… and all in the name of legally sanctioned “Traditional Medicine.”
This superstitious practise is so pervasive that Medical Aid societies in South Africa may soon be forced to pay their members out for visits to a Sangoma, and employers will have to accept “sick notes” obtained by employees who visit a legally registered Sangoma.
Many South Africans believe that muti is a better treatment for HIV/AIDS than anti-retrovirals (ARVs).
However, there is a danger of drug interactions if an HIV sufferer uses herbal products while taking ARVs, and the ARVs may be less effective as a result – but some believe this is just a conspiracy to undermine “traditional African medicine”. In spite of the clinical evidence, they would rather believe the promises of their Sangoma than those of their properly qualified medical doctors. Sometimes they stop using ARVs in favour of herbal “medicines”, or delay starting ARVs – much to their own detriment.
It’s no wonder southern Africa has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world….
Poverty and a terrible lack of education will ensure the Sangomas stay in business. The steady legitimising of the craft, and its acceptance in wider society as some kind of New Age shamanism, will also ensure their survival.
Will rationality ever prevail in a society like this one?
I sincerely doubt it!