From a distance, detail and distinction can blur into one; the proverbial trees become the forest. There is a great distance between Africa and Canada, both in space and in culture, and perhaps as a result the panoply of traditional African spiritual and medical practitioners merge into our pop culture image of the ‘witch doctor’. In, “Witnessing a South African Healer” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22306869), Pumza Fihlani brings these worlds closer by visiting Thabiso Siswana, a South African Bank administrator, in her other ‘job’: Siswana is a ‘sangoma’, a person able to communicate with deceased relatives. These spirits come and reside in the sangoma, who then consults the spirits on behalf on others. Another group of healers are the ‘inyanga’, experts in tradition herbs. People come to them looking for help with love or cures for illness. But there are also witches, whose roles are not so benevolent, and are paid to cast spells and curses on others.
Siswana is also a Christian, a mix western adherents would likely find unacceptable. One might ask how a Christian sangoma would reconcile their practice with the biblical prohibitions of mediums and magic, but then again few western Christians avoid seafood or pork, or wear four tassels on their clothes. Nor was it was that long ago that westerners feared the power of fairies in the woods and burned witches at the stake.
There are also charlatans within these callings, or the “many quack healers” as Filhani puts it. Any medium might fall under the same heading in Canada, and a parent whose child announced that great grandpa was living inside them would more likely be sent for medical treatment than to divination school. But in South Africa, and presumably across much of the continent, traditional healers are ‘the first point of contact for physical and psychological ailments for about 80% of the population”, and outnumber western trained doctors 5 to 1. There is no mention that Siswana is compensated for her work as a sangoma, but demand does appear to be high enough to wonder how great a temptation it might be to pose as one.
Filhani also paradoxically notes that sangomas are perceived to be “unsophisticated, uneducated and backwards”. She does not pursue this tension nor does she explore why sangomas are viewed negatively. It will be fascinating to see over the long term if South African culture moves toward western style secularism with its dismissal of the supernatural and its hard separation between the spiritual and the material.