Inside the Fake healers shrine
By Hassan Isilow
INVESTIGATIVE FEATURE: In South Africa, the word sangoma refers to a person who practices herbal medicine or has supernatural healing powers. This week Africa witness went undercover to investigate the activities of a growing number of foreign sangoma’s (traditional healers) that operate within Cape Town and its environs.
It is 9:30am on Wednesday morning and I’m sitting in a queue with four other clients waiting for the services of a sangoma in a well furnished office in Loop Street, Cape Town. Just like any other organised business, the traditional healer has a receptionist sitting at the front desk with a computer. She asks for R70 which she says is consultation fees for seeing the “doctor”. Being on a special assignment, I oblige and pay the money. A fellow “patient” waiting with me in the queue is an elderly Muslim woman who tells me her youngest son has “bad luck” and cannot stay on a job for long. So she wants the sangoma to give him herbs for good luck .I silently wonder if this is possible.
At exactly 10am, I’m led into the traditional healer’s office by the young female receptionist. It is a very dark and smelly room. I cannot see anything, but hear voices of so-called “ancestors”. The sangoma who calls himself “Dr” Mutalemwa Yusuf, asks me to tell him my problems.
I lie to him, saying that I cannot find a bride and I urgently need one. The healer then tells me to make sacrifice by buying two goats, a white African hen and food stuffs to appease my ancestors, who he claims are unhappy with me. In a twist of events, he also tells me that a close family friend has bewitched me and I will need to pay R12, 000 ($2,000) to be cleansed by the sangoma.
As I leave the sangoma’s shrine, I meet an old varsity friend from East Africa who asks me what I was doing there. He tells me he was also a sangoma when he first arrived in South Africa, before getting a formal job. My friend said since most “blacks” and a few of the other races believe in superstition and the powers of the ancestors, it created the perfect opportunity for unemployed foreigners and a few local con artists to take advantage.
He said since sangomas are considered to be holy men and women who can bring good luck to their communities and chase away evil spirits (tokoloshes), they hold a certain power in the community. These powers are never questioned, which has made most unemployed or unskilled foreign nationals join the lucrative alternative healing market, promising the highly superstitious “black” and a few others South African races “heaven on earth”.
Interestingly enough, he added, a high number of these “fake” foreign sangomas are from East Africa and they claim to cure all sorts of illnesses that even the most powerful local sangomas dare not treat.
Spill the beans
The former sangoma told me that he had never had any training to become a traditional healer, but when he arrived in South Africa, he couldn’t readily find employment. So he went to visit a friend from his home country who told him about the secret of being a “fake” sangoma. “Just like other sangomas, I claimed to make the poor rich in two days, bring back lost lovers and make men’s private parts bigger and more virile. But after lying to my clients for a long time, I decided to quit the practice, pursue my masters degree and here I’m now,” he related, chatting to me in a restaurant in Loop Street, Cape Town.
The former sangama said he left the “fake” trade because his conscience began to bother him after repeatedly cheating poor people who came to him daily with their problems. “At times I used to cry at night, after telling several lies to people who came to my shrine with various depressing problems. I kept running from city to city in this country, as I was being hunted by some people whom I had promised would see change in their lives. But it never happened,” he said with regret.
I’ve also learnt that most foreign Sangomas promise to protect businesses from thieves, win court cases and the Lotto among others. Because of these claims, the foreign sangomas are considered to be the hottest healers in the witch craft business. “It would have been better if these people could deliver their promises,” a 35 year old South African school teacher who went to a foreign sangoma seeking the return of his lost lover, told me.
Identifying himself only as Rasheed, he confided that he had paid R14, 000($2200) to a sangoma from East Africa who then quietly disappeared. “I lost both my lover and my money to that devil. I promise, I will believe only in God from today onwards,” the wounded man pledged.
However, a 65-year-old Ugandan national who operates as a sangoma in Wynberg near Cape Town, disputed the allegations that all foreign sangomas are “fake” and cheats. “Those fake doctors are the young boys who came here recently. Since they did not find jobs, they began to imitate what we do.” The elderly Ugandan sangoma who operates his business in a well-furnished office in Wynberg said he was a genuine traditional healer, bragging that he is even well known among Ugandan communities.
“I have treated all sorts of people – politicians seeking to win elections, scholars, love seekers and the like. They have all become what they are today because of my powers,” he boasted, spreading his arms in a sign of confidence used mostly by healers in East and West Africa. He recalled that when he arrived in Cape Town in 1997, there were only a few foreign traditional healers. That created the space for them to corner the market in their “profession”.
Whenever they returned to Uganda, their neighbors and family members insisted on coming with them to South Africa, which led to an influx of Ugandan healers in South Africa. “On average, I get 10 clients a day and each pays R70 for consultation, besides the fees I charge them for the medicine,” he said.
Why Muslim Names?
Shockingly most of these foreign traditional healers are using Muslim names, even when they are non-Muslims. Out of 10 muti shops I visited today, eight had Muslim names. I picked up nearly 20 different pamphlets advertising the sangomas expertise and in three quarter of them, the healer had a Muslim name.
The foreign sangomas believe when you use a Muslim name in your “practice” you will attract many clients, especially in Cape Town where there is a high Muslim population. These sangomas target Muslim suburbs such as Wynberg, Athlone and Gatesville among others.
According to the chairperson of the South African Traditional Healers Organisation, Phepsile Maseko, bogus practitioners are bringing the healing sector into disrepute. “The practice of traditional healing is genuine, but when bogus people join the uncontrolled business it becomes difficult to distinguish between the real healer and the fake ones,” she said.
Police in Pretoria recently, arrested seven Ugandan herbalists who had been operating in the city for reportedly defrauding their clients. The latest arrest came after a Ugandan herbalist allegedly took R15, 000($2300) from a customer, claiming that his ancestors would turn it into R100 million. When the victim returned to collect his promised millions, the Ugandan herbalist become aggressive and promised to bewitch his victim if he insisted on demanding the money.
According to Gauteng Provisional police spokesperson, Eugene Opperman, they have arrested around five bogus herbalists believed to be Ugandans across the city in just four months. Authorities said these conmen claimed to have the power to make people rich or even cure illnesses, such as HIV/Aids. They often advertise in pamphlets and newspapers so as to woo the gullible.
It is understood that after meeting their victims and promising to make them rich, these conmen would take the money and disappear. In January 2008, 20 Ugandan healers were arrested in Johannesburg for carrying out illegal abortions.