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African Healers

Adventurous Travelers Watch Traditional Doctors at Work

African Swazi Healer
Swazi healer Mpendulo invokes ancestral spirits in rituals conducted at the
Komati River in northern Swaziland.

In the hush of a circular Indumba healing hut children seated before cowhide drums hold gourd rattles and watch a healer, called a sangoma, use an oxtail brush to "sniff out" the hidden physical and spiritual ailments of a male patient seated on a reed mat. When the ancestral spirits have informed the healer of the man's illness and inspired her with a treatment, she jumps up and lets out a whoop that starts a celebration song.

Everyone dances to the accompaniment of drums and joyful children's voices. The healer has connected the patient with the ancestors who empower supernatural cures. The pure theater of the kufemba divination ritual is used to build the patient's confidence for the arduous work to come: injections with porcupine quills, vomiting herbal solutions, rub-downs with heated ointments. Previously, the only outsiders to enter the Indumba healing hut have been anthropologists. But with the rise of ecotourism and a Swazi government that recognizes the fascination the country's traditional life holds for visitors, opportunities are opening this year for adventurous travelers.

The one million people who inhabit Swaziland, a country about the size of Connecticut, have retained their traditions despite Britain's earlier colonial occupation and today's pressure to conform to Western ways. Lost elsewhere in Africa, in Swaziland the healing arts of the diviner-healer are still passed down from master to acolyte. A handful of tour guides in Swaziland are putting out word that they can bring visitors to meet a sangoma and observe the healer's work. The first to do so was Swazi Trails, located in the Ezulwini Valley, where the country's principal hotels are clustered. Swazi Trails specializes in adventure tourism activities like rock climbing up the landmark granite

Sibebe dome, whitewater rafting, and spelunking down the vertical shafts of caves. The young South African transplants who are the guides have pledged their allegiance to a local chief and been awarded honorary Swazi citizenship. The guides now interpret with an understanding of traditional ways that some of the local people had never fully understood themselves. "I have gone to the Indumba for a 'reading' (diagnosis via divination) and herbs since I was a little boy," says guide Themba Dlamini. "But I never really understood what was happening until I had to learn to answer visitors' questions."

The Swazi guides are not only knowledgeable but diplomatic. They explain to visitors-who can be easily overwhelmed by the magic they perceive and enthusiastic to know everything that is occurring-the way to greet, kneel, and observe without intruding. Welcoming visitors to her homestead is Gogo Matsebula (Matsebula is her clan name and "Gogo" is an honorific meaning "granny"). Although Gogo is only 27, she is considered an elder because of her medical knowledge. She has devised a way to satisfy curiosities by demonstrating healing rituals through imulation-operations that cannot be viewed while actually being performed with a patient.

Healing Plants

One of the most exciting excursions now available to visitors to Swaziland is the opportunity to accompany a sangoma as he or she gathers medicines. In the southern Shiselweni District, which has not been extensively developed, a handsome healer named Mcondolo challenges visitors to keep up with him as he scales the hills above his parental homestead. Attired in a beaded skirt (a concession to picture takers), and speaking fluent English, he harvests a selection of aloe plants and tree barks-carefully and without waste to prevent ecological disturbance that would offend the ancestral spirits, whose favor he requires to be an effective diviner. Not every Swazi can become a sangoma.

A person must possess emadloti ancestral spirits, who come out to take possession of an acolyte in rituals conducted during a 2-year training and empower a sangoma with divination ability. The acolyte's mentor passes on knowledge of herbs and how to process them into medicines.

Each sangoma has his or her area of specialization, such as the treatment of infants or the repulsion of evil spells. And while most medicines are common knowledge to all sangomas, each healer has developed special skills or medicines that are either passed on to acolytes or disappear when the sangoma dies. Little reliable information has been written about sangomas, and efforts to catalog their medicines may be too little and too late. But for the time being in Swaziland, sangomas continue ancient African healing arts which are sometimes learned by university-educated acolytes who choose to answer the call of their ancestors.

Also new is the capacity for outsiders to experience this realm first-hand. For Sangomas like Gogo Matsebula, it is not enough for her visitors to come, ask questions, and take some pictures. She wants them to leave with something. The healer steps out of her Indumba hut with a clay jar, removes a clump of dried cow fat, and crumbles it atop some embers in a pottery shard. The air fills with the aroma of fragrant herbs. "This smoke brings good fortune, it attracts the spirits," explains the guide.

Gogo Matsebula passes a necklace of decorative seeds through the smoke and gives it to a visitor. She does this for each guest, handing them colorful seed necklaces fortified with the spiritual power of the herbs. The guests are not only delighted but respectful of the gesture. They know that in a world where such practices are threatened by a global cultural uniformity their visit has been a rare insight into a seemingly timeless world whose time, in reality, may be running out.

JAMES HALL, originally from Chicago, has lived in Swaziland since 1988 and is the only American to be intitiated into King Mswati's warrior regiments. He is correspondent for Reuters and Agence France Presse, contributing editor for Business in Africa magazine and a radio reporter for Channel Africa.