Last Thursday, we had the opportunity to do some patient visits in the community. Patient visits are exactly as they sound – Careworkers visiting people in the community that are ill and in need of medical care. During these visits, Careworkers check on the health of the patient and ensure that they are taking their meds.
We split off into smaller groups and I (Byron) had a couple of unforgettable experiences.
One of the houses we visited contained a father who was ill. With him was his 25-year old daughter that, initially, appeared as though she was sitting with us just to be polite. She was very shy and had limited grasp of English. For most of our visit, she just kept her head down. We made some casual small talk with the father and, just as we were getting ready to leave, the daughter suddenly broke down in tears. We asked the Careworkers why she was crying and they explained that she is unable to get work because she does not have an ID card.
After spending some time thinking about her situation, I realized how hopeless this girl’s situation seemed and how vulnerable she really was. Without an ID card, she legitimately could not work. She also did not have the necessary supporting documents to get a new ID card. The question that repeated itself in my head was: What does this girl do all day? And what does she do to get by? She lives in poverty in rural South Africa, hours away, by car, from the nearest town. She has no car, no money. She has nothing. She does nothing. Not because she is lazy or apathetic but because she does not know how to get out of her current predicament. What does her desperation drive her to do? And what is it exactly that causes these tears to stream down her face? The thoughts did not sit well with me as we left her house unable to help in any tangible way other than to pray for her. In moments like that, it’s hard to know what to say; it’s hard to bring a message of hope.
We were told by our Careworkers that the next patient we visited was a “Sangoma”, which was translated to us to mean “traditional healer”. Little did we realize that what our Careworkers define as a “traditional healer”, we define as a witch doctor. When we approached her house, the Sangoma was sitting in a room with a younger woman and a young child. She told us that she was busy at the moment but invited us to enter the room and sit down. The room was a stand-alone hut which did not seem out of the ordinary to me at the time. After all, many families live in homes the size of small huts. When we entered the room, it became apparent that this was not her house but, rather, her place of practice.
The three of us – Daytona, Jenna (two other volunteers in my intake) and I – huddled into the Sangoma’s hut with our two Careworkers, and the three that were already inside. In the middle of the room lay a bunch of small, random items – dominoes, dice, seashells, buttons, bones, etc. Conversation between our Careworkers and the Sangoma ensued and every once in a while, she would take one of the large seashells, circle it around the rest of the objects, stab it down on top of the pile, and continue in conversation. This is when I started sensing that something was weird. I hoped that this was just something that she did out of habit. I was wrong.
After a few minutes, the ladies in the room all directed their attention at me and I made out my name through laughing and Siswati. The Sangoma gathered up all of the items in the middle of the room into both her hands and shook them up like a gambler at the craps table. She then opened up her hands and let the items spill onto the floor, carefully studying the pattern the items arranged themselves in. She then started speaking over me.
Although the English translation was spotty at best, here’s what I could make out:
- There are gifts that are currently being withheld from me because my father did not provide my mother’s family with enough money when they got married.
- I am generally in good health but my skin is hot (the translation must have been incorrect. I’m sure she must have been referring to my looks).
- There are times when I don’t want to be around anybody or speak to anybody and prefer to be alone.
A random collection of thoughts, don’t you think? I just sat there smiling and nodding, trying my best to be polite but, at the same time, wondering what I should do should this Sangoma go even further. After every “prophecy” that she spoke over me, her and the younger lady would look at me for validation. Even the Careworkers, who I was relying on to intervene and put an end to this, looked genuinely interested in whether there was any truth to what the Sangoma was saying. “Is it true?!” they kept asking, heads nodding and gazing earnestly at me for a response. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I did not want to acknowledge that the Sangoma spoke truth over my life but also did not want to be the disrespectful, foreign Chinese guy. Unsure of how to respond, in all my wisdom, I just sat there and continued to smile and nod.
At this point, Daytona asked if he could be excused and brought Jenna out of the room with him. I had a sense of why he made this request (we needed to get the hell out of there!) and I desperately wanted to join him and Jenna outside. After a short time, they returned, and the Sangoma resumed. She made reference to my grandmother and, in my mind, I began to push the panic button. Is she going to pretend to conjure up my grandmother so that I can speak to her from the grave? How is that even possible when my grandmothers are still alive? I started stressing that this was now crossing over into the spiritual side of the things and thought about how best to put an end to it. Luckily, the younger lady who was interpreting clarified and said the following:
- I must go to my grandmother (my mom’s mom) and give her money. After I do so, I will receive an abundance of gifts.
Again, I smiled and nodded. “Please let this be over!” I continued to think to myself. After some more Siswati was exchanged between the Careworkers and the Sangoma, it was over. We said our goodbyes and left. Thank God.
On our way back to the CBO, we had a discussion with our Careworkers in an attempt to clear up the confusion that just happened.
“So … how do the Sangomas and Christianity mesh?” Daytona asked.
“Some are Christian, some are not. Some go to church, some don’t,” replied one of our Careworkers. She then continued on. “Some people choose to believe in the Sangomas. Some people choose to believe in God. I, myself, choose to trust in God. I do not trust the Sangomas.”
I smiled and nodded (which is about all I really seemed to do that day) but, in my mind, I was not so agreeable. “Really?!!! Then where were you when I was left to squirm 5 minutes ago? Why did you leave me hanging for so long?!”
Despite being a little confused by the whole experience, we had the opportunity to debrief with the group and with some of the leaders at Hands. It wasn’t until we discussed it more in depth that I realized the significance of the situation. This experience shed some light on just how much of a grip cultural beliefs and practices have over these people. Despite many people acknowledging their faith to in God, including our Careworkers, the power of the Sangomas and the fear that they carry with them are still very prevalent. This is a culture that, for centuries, has believed in the power of witchcraft. When people are infected with HIV, or when a family member dies or becomes ill, the automatic response is to attribute it to a voodoo curse. They think of times where a neighbor walked past and looked at them the wrong way, for example, and decide that this had to have been the cause. Retribution is sought. Precious resources are spent to support these witch doctors and their practices that run in direct conflict with believing in an almighty and powerful God.
While the incident left me a little shaken, I was very grateful for the support of the Hands community and for the experience that opened up my eyes to another important aspect of the culture here. I did not allow the Sangoma to speak any truth into my life because, to be blunt, I don’t attribute any supernatural powers to witch doctors. Having said that, I do acknowledge the power they have and continue to exert over the local people. These are communities in need of prayer, not just for physical provision, but for strength and courage to overcome certain cultural beliefs and practices (Sangomas included) that have held them back for generations.