Lisa Hartman, Phumzile Manana and Kate Douglas speak to a traditional healer.
On a corner in Beaufort Street stands a yellow house. But this is not any old house: it is Kwavukuzenzele, a herbal shop belonging to a sangoma known only as Gqocheli. Inside hang the skins of jackals, mongooses and the occasional cormorant dangled by its feet. The skins of snakes which he killed himself are draped over a rod near the cash desk. Gqocheli has been a sangoma since 1971 and now treats a number of Grahamstown residents, including Rhodes staff and students.
Q: What do you do as a sangoma?
A: As a sangoma I help people with all sorts of problems. I make medication from plants to heal people and use my bones to read the person’s problems so that I know how to heal them. If I can work out the cause I can mostly fix the problem. I can also find missing people or read hidden thoughts. Sometimes people come to me because they have been having bad luck which I can fix.
Q: How did you become a sangoma?
A: Not everyone can become a sangoma. You can’t just go to school and learn to become one. A sangoma is
born with a special gift. People can come to me with a problem and my mind can tell me what happened to
them. I thought I was living normally, until I found myself in Zimbabwe without knowing how I had gotten there. I had many dreams that told me I had to be a sangoma and if you ignore these dreams you get sick. When I returned to South Africa people told me that I had gone insane. It was then that I decided to become a sangoma and I have been one since 1971.
Q: Did you have to train?
A: Yes. You train with other sangomas. They teach you what you need to know and how to guide people. If I ever need help then I can just ask other sangomas. I have a certificate from the African Inyanga Association for Sangomas, proving that I have been trained by sangomas and that I can make medicine. I’m training a sangoma at the moment.
Q: What do you find most people come to you for?
A: There is no particular sickness that I have to treat regularly; people see me for many different problems, from backaches to kidney problems. Lots of people come to me every day with HIV/Aids but I can’t cure anyone. I can only help to boost their immune system.
Q: Have you given students medication?
A: Some of them take my medication, but I do not know if they use them for healing purposes or if they use them for research at the university.
Q: Can you write out LOAs for students?
A: No, the university does not accept them. Last year two or three of the Rhodes staff got fired because they did not have an LOA, but in fact they did have one from me. I write these sick notes for those who work at the police station, hospital and the army, and tell the students to see a doctor if they want a note.
Q: Where do you get your ingredients from?
A: I find most of the plants I need in the hills surrounding Grahamstown, or otherwise I have to travel closer to the coast. Ingredients that I can’t find myself, such as coarse salt and snuff, are ordered from Natal Herbal Suppliers. Sometimes I go to other sangomas who have the medicine I need.
Q: Are there any problems involved in collecting your ingredients?
A: Yes, there are. Sometimes the plants I need are on a farmer’s property who will not allow me to use their plants and there are also plants that are protected by nature reserves. The manufacturers of the medicines that I can’t make myself occasionally send me the wrong medicines.
Q: How do you know which plants to use in your medicines?
A: I know which plants to use because the remedies come to me when I dream.
Q: How do your customers take your medicine?
A: Some herbal remedies are to be drunk while others are poisonous if you consume them and so the person must take a bath with the medicine in the water.
Q: What is your most expensive medication?
A: There is not one expensive medicine; it all depends on what I am healing and how difficult it is to get
the medicine. My herbs for [fighting] black magic are what I make the most money selling. These herbs can curecurses and bad luck and are very popular. If the ingredients are being ordered for the medicine then it will cost more. The most expensive medicine I have ever sold was R100.
Q: What is impepo and what does it do?
A: Impepo is a traditional plant that has many uses. It can be used to call the ancestors and can be used to help you go to sleep if you have problems sleeping. Also it can help you boost your immune system if eaten. When you burn the branch, the smoke is considered to be very spiritual.
Q: When is your busiest time of the year?
A: I am busy all year, although pension days are busier than other times.
Q: Do you find that some medical practitioners undermine your work?
A: Yes, but I have no problem with that. I am not a medical doctor and I often have to tell many people who I can’t help to go to a medical doctor who can cure them. But if people undermine me then it is fine because I know that I help many people and many people trust in my healing methods.
Q: Do you worry that you lose a lot of your customers to modern medicine?
A: No. I trust my medicine and people trust it too. Traditional medicine does not work as fast as an injection and I can’t cure everyone and then they must see a medical doctor, but I can fix things that medical doctors can’t.
Q: Do you think that a lot of young people are losing their Xhosa culture?
A: Yes. I think a lot of students are losing their traditional roots and it is a problem because you lose your culture and this means a big part of who you are is lost and you no longer know where you belong.
Q: How many children do you have and do you wish for them to be sangomas as well?
A: I have six children. I do wish for them to be sangomas but only the ancestors can grant this.
Q: What is your biggest problem as a sangoma?
A: Having to clean up when people get sick in the shop.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being a sangoma?
A: Knowing that I can heal people and help them by doing so.
Q: Do any of the university students come to you and what do they come for?
A: Yes, some of my customers are students. Mostly it is love problems but sometimes it is also school problems. Students come to me when they have trouble learning something.
Off the point
1. What is your favourite TV programme?
The news and Special Assignment
2. If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?
I would like a computer because it would help me remember things
3. If you could be any sea creature, what would you be?
I would be a whale because they help me to see things so that I can heal people
4. Are you afraid of any animals?
5. What is your most prized possession?
My plants and little garden
6. What word would best describe you?
7. What is your favourite day of the week?