Monday, September 28, 2009

My visit to a traditional healer in Africa: "Call on your female ancestors"

All text and photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

Caiphus - a medicine man I consulted with in the African village of Welverdiend. This photo is with his little daughter, Queen, in front of his home in June 2009.

The village of Welverdiend, South Africa, is one of my favorite places in the world. I've never met a more positive, forward-thinking group of people, determined to bring about progressive change. In the two and a half years since I've known them, they've faced some daunting challenges, such as unemployment and vanishing natural resources, but have come up with solutions I would never have dreamed of. Ken and I were stunned when we learned what they've accomplished.

Ken and I first visited Welverdiend in 2007, at the advice of Dr. Laurence Kruger who directs an ecology program in Kruger National Park, and Dr. Wayne Twine who studies resource use by villages just outside of Kruger Park. Welverdiend is one of the villages Twine studies. During our first visit, I was enthralled by the conversations we had in Welverdiend - how willing the villagers were to talk frankly about their difficulties with diminishing fuel wood, diminishing river sand for bricks (due to drought), damage to crops and livestock by elephants and lions, etc. For people like myself who are curious about lives that are different from our own, Welverdiend is a hot spot of interest. If you visit, you'll come away inspired and enlightened. Or at least I did. Click here and here to see my stories and pictures from our first visit in 2007. Click here for the pics and story of our June 2009 visit. What a wonderful group of people!

But what I really wanted to write about today was one of the most interesting parts of the visit, both years. That was visiting the sangoma, or medicine man. I know that consumer demand for traditional Chinese and Asian medicines is a major threat to the survival of tigers, bears, rhinos and dozens or probably hundreds of other species. Traditional African and Latin American medicine also involve the use of animal parts, to some degree. I don't know whether the use of animal parts by sangomas in Africa is contributing to the demise of threatened species, but it can't be helping. For that reason, I didn't accept any medicines on my first visit, and during my second visit I accepted only a couple of plant-based powders.

Welverdiend has more than one sangoma; I think two of them are women. I had no preference, and my friend Clifford made an appt for me to see the sangoma Caiphus. In 2007 Clifford and friend Robert went with me to translate, and Ken my husband went too.

Ken, Clifford, and Robert (l to r) with me in Caiphus' consulting room, 2007

The 2007 visit was really more of an interview than a doctor's appointment, but Caiphus did "throw the bones for me," a diagnostic practice. He told me that there was nothing wrong with me, but he offered me a drink from a jar of fluid with some unidentified stuff floating in it, just in case. I declined politely and we all laughed. Then Caiphus said Ken was sick. (He was.) He recommended that Ken keep taking the medicine he'd brought with him from the States.

Caiphus in his "office" as a medicine man, with some of his tools in 2007

On my second visit, in 2009, I went to see Caiphus as a patient or client. I took only my friend from Welverdiend, Clifford, to act as translator. Caiphus greeted us in front of his house with little Queen. We chatted a while then I told Caiphus that there was a situation in my life that was causing me distress, and I wanted his diagnosis and advice, although I didn't want to be prescribed any medicines made of animal products. (Sangomas treat non-medical problems too, such as mine.)

So we went into his front room, where he keeps his diagnostic tools and his remedies.

My friend Clifford and Caiphus, 2009

The walls in Caiphus' room are lined with his collection of medicines (2 pics below)

Most of his medicines looked like teas, or powders, or crumbled dried plants. We sat down on animal skins he had on the floor, Queen at her daddy's knee. I asked what kind of skins they were; Caiphus said duiker and impala (local species of antelope) and jackal. Impala are abundant in the park, duiker are common. I know jackals are heavily persecuted by farmers who complain about jackals killing poultry, etc. I didn't ask him where he got the skins (below).

He had a dried elephant foot that he said is used for people who come to him with foot ailments (visible as the gray blob on the white plate in the second picture of his bottles and jars). I know that Kruger Park staff at times shoot elephants who are destroying crop fields or causing persistent problems and give the meat to villagers. This is probably how he got the foot. Caiphus also had a wildebeest tail that he said is used to cleanse patients who have been "bewitched by evil spirits." He said a lot of the "medicine" that works with the wildebeest tail is actually stuffed into the handle affixed to the tail.

The wildebeest tail with handle

He demonstrated how it works by holding the handle and sweeping Clifford with the wildebeest tail. We all laughed. We spent a lot of time laughing. Caiphus is friendly and funny, and he put me quite at ease.

Anyway, I described my problem to Caiphus, a problem which involved a situation with another person that was causing me some angst. To come up with the treatment for my distress, Caiphus collected his small bones, shook them vigorously, spoke to the bones in Shangaan, and then threw them down on one of the animal skins. He spent some time studying them and pointing out their meaning to us with his stick, as Queen began to nod off.

Below, a closer view of his bones (which include a domino, a few coins, a sea shell)

I asked Caiphus what the bones were, and he said they were the knees of sheep, goat, impala, duiker, warthog, lion, leopard, tortoise, and marula. Marula is a plant, so I don't know what that meant. Queen at this point put her head on her dad's knee, asleep (below).

I wish I'd asked him how he acquired the knees of these animals, but I didn't. Why didn't I? I was dismayed to hear lion and leopard in the list, though. I can only hope that the animals weren't killed for the sake of procuring their knee bones for the sangoma. I know that villages living around the park sometimes kill predators who are killing their livestock. I'm guessing this is how he got the leopard and lion knees, or maybe he bought them. As I was ruminating over this, Caiphus reached behind himself, pulled out a cloth, folded it carefully, and tenderly placed it under Queen's head.

Queen snoozes on the little pillow her dad made

Anyway, here's what he said the bones told him about me: I need to appeal to my female ancestors to intercede in my behalf. He also said something of value is coming my way. In order to properly ask my female ancestors to influence my affairs, I need to get a white cloth and a checked cloth, put a 100-rand bill (South African money) between the two cloths and sprinkle some brown powder over the cloths. Then I need to ask my female ancestors to clear the way for this thing of value to come to me, whatever it is. The brown powder was a ground-up tree root, he said.

Secondly, I needed to put brown powder #2 (a different kind of tree root) into a bath tub of water. Then I needed to speak outloud to my female ancestors about the solution I would like to happen regarding the situation at home that's bothering me. Next, I should put some of the yellow powder in a glass of water, sit down in the bath water, and drink the glass with the yellow powder in it.

He put the brown powder for the cloths in a used snuff can and gave it to me. He deftly wrapped the two powders for the bath procedure into separate packets make entirely of newspaper.

The packets of ground tree roots, and the brown tree root in the snuff can

We talked for a couple more minutes, then Clifford and I jumped up. We were going to take a ride through the Mozambique neighborhood of Welverdiend. The Mozambique population moved into the area as refugees from political turmoil in Mozambique, and they are not as far along the road to Westernization as the Shangaan Welverdiend residents. For example, I believe he said they have no running water, and their schools have fewer supplies, etc.

On our way out, Caiphus showed us some medicinal herbs he was drying in the sun

Then Clifford and I were off for our visit to the Mozambique area.

Children on the Mozambique side of town, walking home from school.

Would I recommend to anyone else to consult with a sangoma about a problem? If you have a latent anthropologist in yourself, like I do, then by all means Yes! Other ways of life fascinate me. About the matter of their using animal skins and animal bones (the wildebeest tail and elephant foot) - tell them that American tourists (or whatever nationality you are) don't like the idea of using animal parts from animals that might be declining in number. I should have encouraged Caiphus to use only the bones of domestic animals or truly abundant animals, like scrub hares or impala.

I like Caiphus a lot; it's impossible not to like him. I like him for being such a kind father to his little girl, for laughing so readily, for providing a good home for his family in a lovely town like Welverdiend, for suggesting that I call on my female ancestors who have power. I like that last idea. I like it a lot. Even though most of the people of Welverdiend will tell you that they are Christian, they blend the old with the new. I understand that their church services are quite an experience. I could hear them from a distance when I was there on a Sunday, but didn't get a chance to attend. Next time I'm there, I will.

Check out on their website what Welverdiend is doing to prepare for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The village's new resort will be ready to house and feed dozens of athletes from all over the world, with an Olympic-sized pool for exercising. By June of 2010, Welverdiend will also have a wildlife preserve with safari vehicles. It makes me want to cry. If you could see how much they've changed since 2007... These are people who have amazing drive and spirit. I just want to be around them. I want to be

Key words:: sangoma Africa traditional healer medicine man traditional medicine declining resources natural resources South Africa Welverdiend Caiphus throwing the bones throw the bones Kruger National Park Kruger Park Laurence Kruger

All text and photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of


Soweto said...

THO is an organization of traditional health practitioners and associates who are committed to harnessing, developing and promoting traditional health care practices and systems.

Soweto said...

THO is an organization of traditional health practitioners and associates who are committed to harnessing, developing and promoting traditional health care practices and systems.