It's In The Bones: Portrait Of A Witchdoctor

Reuters/June 3, 2007

Mtubatuba, South Africa -- Philisiwe Zulu was 51 when she got the call from the spirits of her ancestors.

"I didn't believe in traditional medicine and the ancestors, but then I got so sick, my children all got sick and my cattle started dying," said the 57-year-old in the small beehive hut where she calls on the spirit world to help heal the sick.

"The doctors couldn't cure me so we went to a traditional healer and she said I must train as a healer too. I decided to try it. When I went for the training I was swollen all over, I couldn't even walk. Within days I was better."

Zulu is a sangoma -- the local word for witchdoctor -- in this poor, rural and deeply traditional corner of south-eastern South Africa, where more than two-thirds of people consult local healers before attending a modern clinic.

Now the government is trying to regulate the sector, and hopes the country's estimated 200,000 sangomas can complement western medicine and help in the battle against HIV.

Like other sangomas in Africa's richest country, Zulu is revered and trusted in her community as a healer, counselor and spiritual guide.

Wrapped in a traditional printed skirt and shawl, Zulu greets her first patient of the day: a man in his 30s with a bloodshot eye who wants to dispel any curses upon him.

Zulu selects a pungent herb from her stacks of jars and burns it until the aroma fills the tiny mud hut, all the time muttering incantations to the spirits of the ancestors, who many Africans believe watch over the living, like angels or saints.

First Zulu tosses a pile of bones and shells onto the floor then studies the pattern they form for clues about the patient's ailments.

Then she slides on a pair of latex gloves and examines the patient. The verdict? He must go to a clinic to get his eyes fixed and should slaughter a chicken to appease his grandparents, who are feeling unloved, according to the bones.

Zulu is one of 80 traditional healers in the area who have been trained how to spot HIV symptoms and refer patients for testing, and provide basic care for people with AIDS.

The new skills are proving vital in a district where one in three adults are infected with HIV and Zulu says she has started wearing gloves and has stopped dangerous practices.

"I was afraid of HIV before but now I can help people, and I know how to protect myself and my family," she says as she hands out a few condoms to her patient, the conversation punctuated by the sounds of cattle, goats and chickens in the yard.

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