Health and Wellness

ID #3311

Witchcraft, Muti and Sangomas, Southern Africa.

Practises pejoratively dismissed as witchcraft by westerners are deeply rooted in African culture and tradition. Witchdoctors have solutions to many problems, from infidelity and infertility to suspicion, the success of a business, AIDS, etc. Furthermore, they are divided into disciplines, and the rituals employed differ. Some throw bones while others cleanse with water. They enjoy the respect (and sometimes fear) of many and have different names in the different languages -- i.e., sangomas in Zulu and iqera (this word is unpronounceable and equally unspellable in English) in Xhosa. Inyanga’s are generally wise, knowledgeable or influential, fulfilling the role of a wise confidant. Witches are called umthakathi. Unsurprising, they are often the stereotypical “old crone” Tokoloshe are ugly, small, black, hairy and the personification of many problems. They are primarily of concern at night. If a woman suffers from a miscarriage, for example, it is because she “slept with the tokoloshe"   “Muti” is the medicine. It consists of bark, plants, animal remains, etc. and can be bought in shops throughout Africa, which supply sangomas who are trained (in some cases from childhood) in what muti to use to cure the ailment in question. Not surprisingly, what it contains is secret.

Someone suffering from an ailment or problem, whether real or imagined, approaches a sangoma. They describe their problem while the sangoma pays careful attention. He or she then follows a ritual (which might, for example, involve the throwing of the bones), gives the patient “muti” and careful instructions as to what to do with it. Lastly, the patient pays for the service. 

For the most part, the practise is innocuous. Occasionally, however, it assumes ominous overtones. One sometimes hears of the murder of witches in the rural areas of Southern Africa. Dingane (Dingaan), the famous Zulu King, used sangomas to “smell out the witches” in his regiments and the assembled throng. The selected wretches were then put to death in a gruesome manner. It was undoubtedly a practical albeit arbitrary way of maintaining discipline and loyalty in his army and kingdom. It was presumably also a way of removing threats to the integrity of the nation. Whether Dingane viewed the presence of the Boers in Natal as a threat to the Zulu State is unknown but likely. When visited by Piet Retief and his commando at his kraal, surrounded by his regiments (impi), he reportedly cried out: “Bulala umthakathi” (Kill the wizards!), whereupon Retief and his commando were wiped out.  This led to an unfortunate series of events, including the Battle of Blood River. It certainly was a factor in the subsequent polarisation between various race groups in the country.

To most westerners, this sounds barbaric. However, let me remind you that such practises are no more gruesome than those which took place in Europe up to and including the 20th century. Furthermore, the parallels in western society are real. We have all heard of leprechauns, fairies, Father Christmas, the tooth fairy and goblins. Adults of course do not believe such nonsense.  Nevertheless, some adults do believe that fortune tellers and astrologers can tell the future. Somewhat closer to home, psychiatrists command respect in courts and other institutions. While the medical profession can only solve 12% of known ailments, they also command our respect. They too have developed good listening skills (a good bedside manner), hand out pills (muti) and require payment, etc. Like sangomas, if the remedy does not work then either the patient did not follow the instructions, or the patient did not believe it would work. Getting one’s money back is however out of the question. As one might expect, the various “constituencies” vigorously defend their domains and are critical of competitors, using epithets like unscientific, quackery, witchcraft, etc. Lastly, when the remedies do not work, many resort to homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology, aromatherapy, etc.

The names and rituals are different and, to westerners, unfamiliar. The underlying causes are however universal, including ignorance, uncertainty and a sense of hopelessness. Part of “…the human condition” you might say. In this instance, what we believe turns out to be remarkably similar in many ways. Whatever you do, do not scoff at what others believe. It is particularly true in this instance because we know and understand so little about the phenomenon.  As a friend from India once said: “What I believe is no less strange than what you believe” – a sobering comment at the time

When you turn out the light in your bedroom this evening, tiptoe quickly into bed and cover your head with the blankets. You might even consider lifting it up on blocks, out of reach of the tokoloshe. On second thoughts, perhaps I will visit to the sangoma who lives up the road -- perhaps she can get rid of the little blighter… Alan McIver BBWitchcraft



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Last update: 2014-03-09 15:15
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.2

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