Witnessing a South African healer at work

She lets out a piercing cry, her body starts shaking violently, her hands are clapping to the rhythm of large African drums - she is calling out to her ancestors. Thabiso Siswana is a traditional healer, known in South Africa as a sangoma.

The 24 year old is not your typical sangoma though - she is also a corporate administrator at Bidvest Bank, one of South Africa's best known and most prestigious institutions and has dreams of becoming a successful businesswoman.

Inside a high-rise office looking out into the Johannesburg business district, Ms Siswana dresses in smart tailored clothes, has manicured nails and long sleek hair extensions - nothing about her appearance says she has three ancestors inhabiting her.

“Start Quote

A sangoma is not a witch - a sangoma is pure and does good”
End Quote Makhosazana Moloi Thabiso Siswana's mother
"When I tell people that I am a sangoma they always react with shock. They say: 'How? You don't even look like one'. There are still many misconceptions about how we should look," she says with a broad smile. 

Ms Siswana is one of thousands of young men and women who are balancing the demands of a career with the calling to be a messenger for deceased ancestors, or "amadlozi".

Sangomas have played a central role in many African cultures dating back many years; they were seen as custodians of their communities and were consulted by villagers to heal the sick, communicate with the gods on their behalf and to protect villages from harm.

They are essentially diviners - a channel between the physical world and the afterlife.

What do South Africans believe?

  • About 80% of black South Africans consult traditional healers, who are believed to be a link between the worlds of the living and the dead
  • Many of these people consider themselves Christian
  • About 79% of South Africans are Christians
  • Largest denomination with 9% of the population is Zion Christian Church (ZCC), founded by Engenas Lekganyane
  • Shembe Church: 6% - combines Zulu tradition and Christianity
  • Catholic Church: 4.5%
  • Dutch Reformed Church: 4.5%
  • Methodist Church: 4.5%
  • Muslims: 1.45% - mainly concentrated in the Western Cape
  • Hindus: 1.22% - mainly in KwaZulu-Natal, where there is a large Asian community
Statistics SA, 2011
They believe that through a special "calling" known in Zulu as ubizo, they are able to access advice and guidance through possession by an ancestor, throwing bones or by interpreting dreams.
In today's South Africa, sangomas are often seen as unsophisticated, uneducated and backwards.
Despite this, they remain the first point of contact for physical and psychological ailments for about 80% of black South Africans according to authorities.

The trade in traditional medicines is a large and growing industry.
Sangomas are legally recognised, under the Traditional Health Practitioners Act of 2007 alongside herbalists, traditional birth attendants, and traditional surgeons.
At Ms Siswana's home in Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg, a small group of sangomas has gathered to share a meal.

It is a moody Sunday afternoon but the group is in high spirits - this will be their chance to summon deceased loved ones and possibly receive a message from them.
Ms Siswana says her "gift" is interpreting other people's dreams, as well as dreams that predict the future.
Chilling eyes

“Start Quote

We are Christians at home and we go to church like everyone else”
End Quote Thabiso Siswana Sangoma
On the weekend of her initiation last year, she was given a herb that put her into a trance, a state in which she needed to go looking for her sacrificial goat, which the elders had hidden from her within the surroundings of her home along with other objects. She was able to find them and this was seen as proof of her ability "see" beyond the physical world. 

"The ancestors guided me to where the items were, you do not graduate until you are able to 'see' through them. This skill is important when we consult with patients," she explains.
Inside the indumba, a sacred room where sangomas communicate with the ancestors, Ms Siswana asks the amadlozi to allow the BBC crew to spend the day with her and also invites them to join in the day's festivities - it is rare access into this mystical and often secretive world.

Ms Siswana begins to dance vigorously, her face grimaces with pain and she struggles to catch her breath, the intensity in her eyes is chilling.

Thabiso Siswana and a fellow sangoma calls out to their ancestors through dance
"My great-aunt, -uncle and grandfather live in me. When they take over I lose all control of my body, I'm aware of my surroundings but I have no control over what I say or do. They completely consume you and in that moment I am their messenger," she later tells me.
The bang of the drums fills the air, drowning out the chatter of curious neighbours peering over their fences and the hoots cars driving past.

Along with her deep roots in tradition and African culture, Ms Siswana is also a Christian.

Thabiso Siswana  
Thabiso Siswana is equally at home in the office
"We are Christians at home and we go to church like everyone else. We pray to God as the source of everything. I believe that being a sangoma is simply a gift that God has given me through my ancestors," she says.

This young woman has been around sangomas all her life - her mother Makhosazana Moloi has been a traditional healer for more than 20 years.
She runs an initiation school for sangomas in her home and says she always knew her daughter had been chosen.

"As a child, Thabiso would often have vivid dreams. She would get warnings or messages from animals [which signify ancestors] about what was going to happen or was happening in our lives," says her mother.

Stick it on the insurance Traditional healers say they are often accused of being witch doctors.
Originally, witch doctors were consulted to drive out evil spirits believed to have been cast over someone by witches, but since colonial times the word has assumed a derogatory meaning and is used to refer to the people who cast spells for evil purposes and create deadly potions.

"The problem is the misinterpretation of what a sangoma is. A sangoma is not a witch - a sangoma is pure and does good. People due to their lack of knowledge think witch doctors, witches and sangomas are all the same thing and they are not," says Ms Moloi.

Thabiso Siswana a young sangoma in her home in Soweto, a Johannesburg township 
Thabiso Siswana describes the sensation of channelling ancestors as "extremely painful"
The other distinction is that traditional healers use herbs, plants and some animal skin in the muthi (medicines), whereas witch doctors are said to also use human body parts, meaning they are sometimes implicated in murders.

Sangomas believe that a persistent physical ailment is often a manifestation of a spiritual upset and they first need to address that, then they are guided by the ancestors on what the physical sickness is and how best to treat it, using traditional medicine.

But you also have people who specialise purely in the physical illnesses, known as a herbalist, inyanga in Zulu.

Part of the confusion about sangomas and inyanga stems from the many quack healers operating throughout the country, who advertise cures for all manner of diseases, potions to increase penis size, ensure success in love or business or sometimes to ensure your enemy's downfall.

Despite its many years of existence, this industry remains unregulated and no single body oversees the estimated 200,000 practitioners - compared to the 38,236 medical doctors.

This is part of the problem, according to the Medical Research Council, which recently established the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Unit to help write policies that would benefit those in this sector.
Organisations such as the Traditional Healers Organisation have for years been trying to legitimise the practice and have it held in the same regard as Western medicine. Some even want their services to be paid for by medical insurance.

They say the government needs to set up a national register of credible and certified sangomas, with documents verifying their qualifications and outlining their areas of expertise.

The Department of Health says there is a great deal of work to be done but say it hopes its recently established Traditional Healers Council, whose role will include how Western doctors and traditional practitioners can work together, will help bridge the gap between the two worlds.

Some may think this is impossible but many South Africans, such as Ms Siswana, are already equally at home in both.

Traditional healers say no to integration

Leader of the Traditional Healers Organisation (THO) Nhlavana Maseko says members of his organisation do not want to be integrated into the ministry of health.
He said traditional medicine existed long before western medication was introduced in the country. He revealed that since the 1970s he had been involved in extensive research and study and travelled to Europe where his medicine was proven authentic.

“We don’t want to be integrated into the ministry, instead we want to work in collaboration with it but independently,” said Maseko.
At St. Phillip’s traditional health practitioners have joined hands with Cabrini Ministries, which provides medical care to over 3 000 HIV patients. Traditional health practitioners in this area now refer their patients to this clinic when not responding to treatment. Information gathered, however, was that those traditional health practitioners known to be under THO were not part of the partnership.

Meanwhile, Maseko boasted that THO has six traditional hospitals countrywide and that they were equally effective. “We also treat HIV/AIDS symptoms,” he said, adding that most of their traditional medicine was tested in Germany, which has some of the world’s best pharmacies and laboratories.
“Why then don’t we want to recognise these in the country?” he asked.
He further boasted that local hospitals also referred their patients to traditional doctors, especially when they struggled to understand what was going on with the patient.
Maseko said not only do hospitals refer patients but even spiritual leaders refer their congregants to him if they did not get better after prayer. “Even well- known men of God now come to us,” he said.
Maseko further said under the Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocol, traditional healers were recognised. He added that several foreign patients flocked into the country from as far as Nigeria yet locals did not want to recognise the traditional healers’ organisation.
Adding, Maseko said his doctors were trained to cure many illnesses including malaria and diarrhoea.

‘No light for traditional consultation rooms’
TRADITIONAL healer Nhlavana Maseko says their consultation rooms will not be lit up.
This follows a suggestion made by medical practitioners that consultation rooms used by traditional doctors should be cleaned and lit up.
 Concerns were raised that this was important, especially for patients who were suffering from tuberculosis (TB) as they needed well ventilated and clean places for treatment to be effective.
Maseko said the first thing his doctors were taught was cleanliness.
“We have a module on cleanliness alone,” he said, adding however that they would never put up windows in the consultation rooms as this was against their principles.
“Have you ever seen any traditional healer’s consultation room with a window?” he asked rhetorically.
Maseko emphasised that there would not be any lighting in their consultation rooms despite concerns raised during a debate between medical practitioners from Cabrini Ministries and traditional health practitioners at St Phillip’s near Siphofaneni last week.

Healers soon to have ambulance
Maseko has hinted that traditional healers could soon have ambulances.
“Give us six months and just watch what happens,” said Maseko.  He decried that currently, the ministry of health does not help them with ambulances even though this should be the case.  Maseko said he also received emergency cases which need the services of an ambulance.  He said the number of patients in traditional hospitals was increasing, adding that more people were deserting conventional hospitals.

Traditional healers: what you need to know

Cape Town - Would you like to rekindle an old romance, win the Lotto or improve your sexual prowess? If pamphlets from many traditional healers are to be believed, the solution is easy and only a phone call or quick appointment away. 

At some point, most people have walked along a main road in Cape Town and had such pamphlets shoved into their hands. The healers offer an array of services, including abortions and penis enlargements. 

But most of these healers, says Phepisile Maseko, national co-ordinator of the Traditional Healers Organisation (THO), are only out to make a quick buck, selling “good luck” and “love” muti. 
“A true healer is someone who has been through initiation, inducted by an expert in the field, who has undergone rigorous training and completed external healing courses,” says Maseko.
Like mainstream medicine, there are specialists in traditional medicine’s various fields, she says. These include herbalists, medicine men, diagnosticians, and counsellors. 

The THO issues practitioners with a certificate of competence, which assures every patient that the practitioner has completed training and is capable of healing patients in an ethical, efficient, safe and hygienic manner. 

Practice is only allowed after at least two years of training and mentorship, and part-time guidance and support must be continued for three more years.
All medicines are plant and animal-based, says Maseko. And healers are not allowed to use human parts in their medicine. According to their code of ethics, muti killings and body parts trafficking is forbidden, along with any sexual contact with patients, the non-referral of patients when necessary, or deliberately misrepresenting their abilities. 

“The ethical responsibility is the greatest demand placed on each traditional healer,” reads the code. Any breaches are treated as professional misconduct, and are punishable by the THO disciplinary committee.
Unfortunately, most of the complaints are against “quack” doctors who are not affiliated to any association. 

Dr Motlalepula Matsabisa, director of the Medical Research Council’s Indigenous Knowledge Unit, says there appears to be many of them around.
But because of the lack of regulation, the bogus doctors work unchecked.
“Many of these quack healers always claim to be foreigners from East and West Africa. These are the people who are tainting the profession,” says Matsabisa.
He points out that if anyone can bring about good luck and predict Lotto numbers, they wouldn’t be poor themselves. “Yes, medicinal plants have healing properties, this is not disputable. But our people should not be gullible,” he says. 

Matsabisa says there are a number of myths relating to traditional medicine. The most common, he says, is that it is safe and devoid of side-effects. Traditional medicine, like any other, can be very toxic if not used properly. 

Another myth, he says, is that traditional medicines interact negatively with prescription medicines.
Some interactions, in fact, can be beneficial, says Matsabisa. These have been proven in drug-resistant malaria, hypertension, diabetes and cancer treatments.
According to a study titled Economics of the Traditional Medicine Trade in SA, the trade in traditional medicines in SA is estimated to be worth R2.9 billion annually and 771 species of plants are used. 

Maseko says that if a patient complains of headaches, they will be given plants with painkilling properties. But the healer will also try to establish the root cause of the headaches, and treat that too. This may mean the healer will provide counselling to the patient. 

Treatment is usually holistic, and a once-off ointment will generally not do the trick. Many clients come for help with their relationships or marriages. Maseko explains that a potion may be given to open the communication channels between couples, so that they can speak about their problems. Counselling will also be on offer, but there is no quick-fix solution, she says. 

She says healers who claim they can enlarge penises are misrepresenting their services. These unrealistic claims go against the code of ethics members of the THO are bound by.
The THO, which has 29 000 members in SA, has a complaints forum, and most complaints received are about unscrupulous healers. “Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about those who are not members. And it is these people who give our industry a bad name,” she says. 

The biggest challenge is the lack of regulation. According to the Traditional Healers Act of 2007, a Traditional Healers’ Council was supposed to have been set up within 12 months to serve a regulatory function, similar to that of the Health Professions Council. But, Maseko says, a lack of commitment has resulted in this not happening. 

Matsabisa agrees that the lack of regulation of traditional medicine has been completely neglected.
“There is a need to institutionalise traditional medicines in SA for the safety and benefit of all its consumers. We need the speedy establishment of the Traditional Health Practitioners Statutory Council, we need serious and urgent reorganisation of the Medicines Control Council and all acts pertaining to the use, sale beneficiation and production of traditional medicines,” he says. 

Matsabisa, who specialises in traditional medicine, says the denialist attitudes of doctors, medicines regulators and authorities, and the market-entry barriers from the multinational pharmaceutical industry, all unjustifiably aim to block and damage the reputation of traditional medicines. 

“People will continue to use traditional medicines and the best that we could do is to scientifically evaluate these products before we outright reject them for no good scientific reasons,” he says.
Matsabisa says instead of making use of, and developing the knowledge of traditional medicines, people look down on this health system. 

“South Africa behaves as though it is a First World country, but is also not aware that in developed countries the majority of people now increasingly use traditional medicines. We are in denial of our own self, in denial of our roots and system of health.” 

Professor who sells his own natural Viagra
Nature holds a cure for most common ailments, whether it’s pain, emotional distress or sexual dysfunction, says spiritual and holistic healer Professor Ismail.
Ismail, like many others based in the CBD, employs people to hand out pamphlets that detail the services he offers. These include bringing back lost lovers, penis enlargement, protection for those with dangerous jobs and career success.
Ismail, 46, was born in Kenya and has been in Cape Town for six years. He says healing is a trade that was passed on to him by his father, a healer in Kenya. He doesn’t have a medical degree, but underwent strict training. 

“When I was 10, he started teaching me everything he knew,” says Ismail. His father taught him which herbs and plants to pick and how to prepare them. Most of his ingredients still come from the highlands of Kenya.
Ismail says all his medicine is 100 percent natural, made from plant material. He doesn’t use animals in any of his products.
When I ask about the penis enlargement and how this is done, he says it’s very simple. While the pamphlet promises an enlargement, Ismail says he deals only with erectile dysfunction. The herbs he dispenses are natural Viagra. 

“When our ancestors had these problems, they had to use natural products. They didn’t have access to Western medicine,” says Ismail. The herb must be boiled in water, then be allowed to draw before the mixture is drunk. Ismail warns that no sugar should be added. The treatment, which costs R600, is among the more expensive. The plants used not available locally, are from Kenya.

There are also those who ask him to bring bad luck or even death on other people. Ismail says that when he is asked to do this, he provides counselling to the person, encouraging them to resolve the conflict amicably, or to let it go. 

While he does offer “protection” medicine for people who have dangerous jobs – such as security guards, policemen and people who work in banks – there are limits to this, too.
Ismail claims that when clients take his medicine, which costs R200, their intended assailant will opt out of targeting them, and instead go for someone else or give up on the idea altogether. The treatment, however, does not make them invincible to bullets or any other fatal threats.
The most popular treatment, he says, is bringing back a lost lover. These herbs are not to be consumed, he says. This treatment costs between R100 and R200, and the client is instructed to go home, burn the herbs, and call the person’s name. By burning the herbs, you speak to the ancestors, who assist in returning your love to you, he says.
Ismail assures me that even if my lost lover now hates me, the medicine will work. “All my medicines must work, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here,” he says. 

When consulting a traditional healer:
* Look at their track record in the community, whether they are known and recommended.
* Is the healer accredited with a traditional healers’ organisation?
* Can they refer you to other healers in your area?
* Ensure that they have attended workshops on basic primary health care.
* They need to be knowledgeable about current health issues.
* If you need a specialist, ensure your healer is not a general practitioner of traditional medicine. Ask for evidence of their expertise. 

According to the MRC’s Indigenous Knowledge Unit:
* Medical doctors have accepted that traditional practitioners are very good with psychiatric conditions.
* Traditional medicines have contributed to development of up to 30 percent of prescription drugs.
* 80 percent of all cancer medicines are derived from plants.
* All antibiotics are derived from natural resources.
* Drugs derived from traditional medicines treat 90 percent of human diseases.
* 75 percent of the prescription medicines derived from plants have been derived through knowledge from traditional health practitioners.
* More than 80 percent of people use and rely on traditional medicines. 

According to Professor Salim Karim, president of the MRC, there are between 350 000 and 400 000 traditional health practitioners in SA.
According to the Economics of the Traditional Medicine Trade in SA study:
* The trade in traditional medicines in SA is estimated to be worth R2.9 billion annually.
* There are an estimated 27 million consumers.
* There are at least 133 000 people employed in the trade, mostly rural women.
* It’s estimated that 128 million courses of traditional medicine treatments are prescribed yearly, using about 20 000 tons of indigenous plant material. - Cape Argus

November 13 2012 at 01:07pm