On a recent trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, I had a truly local experience that not many tourists even know about: Visiting a traditional herbalist. Below: Kwa-Gumede in his traditional songoma attire.
Known as a sangoma in South Africa, the herbalist is an important community figure, especially for the black population. This man or woman not only cures your illnesses using all-natural herbs, but can also help keep away bad spirits. It’s not the sort of place you go and tell the sangoma what’s wrong with you, as they use a special method of throwing bones and shells on the ground to do a reading. By doing this, they’re able to tell you what’s ailing you.
The sangoma I visited for traditional healing was in the upstairs section of Para Market in the Johannesburg township of Soweto. He was a man named Kwa-Gumede (phone: 724 54 2355) who didn’t speak English, but is able to communicate through a translator or a local guide.
When visiting a sangoma in South Africa you don’t simply go up to the counter and order some herbs. Instead, you must perform a ritual of crouching down to show respect and clapping twice while saying “tagoza gogo,” to which the sangoma will clap while responding “tagoza.” At this point you’ll be able to give your consultancy fee — placing it on the counter, not in their hands, so they can perform a special ritual before touching it — and begin the diagnosis.
One important rule to note is if you are interested in learning more about a particular herb you should never point at it with your finger, as this will cause it to lose it’s power.
While the sangoma had myriad types of herbs and plants on his shelves, he took out a few of his most popular to tell me what they were and how they worked. First there is Umhlbelo, a powder ground from an underground stone that you drink with water after having an operation or getting out of intensive care.
Another popular medicine — that was slightly disturbing to me — were porcupine quills. While beautiful to look at, sangoma actually use these quills to flush out evil spirits or illness from a person’s body by punching them with them in the arm, causing the person to bleed. When I asked Cindy if she’d ever had that done to her before, she replied calmly, “Yes, my mother used to do it to me when I was little. It hurts, but it works!”
American’s aren’t the only ones worried about their sexual performance as, according to the sangoma, the above-shown African Viagra, or Umvusa Nkunzi, is his best seller. In fact, people will wait in long queues for hours to get some. The medicine begins in a potato form, which is then dried out and ground into a powder. It is then mixed with water and drank once per day for the benefits to kick in.
To cure all types of illness, African potato, or Vusanduku, is boiled in water. From there, the sick person will drink the boiled water to become completely healed.
For those who want to keep bad spirits at bay, planting some aloe in your yard can keep you safe from evil.
Experiencing back pain? Ingduza, an odd looking oval-shaped plant, can relieve your symptoms.
Kwa-Gumede burning Iphepho
Iphepho is a natural medicine that apparently works great for chasing bad spirits away when you burn it. Additionally, if you have a baby that won’t sleep this holds a dual purpose.
When leaving the sangoma, you’ll re-enact the crouching ritual you performed at the beginning, making sure to not look back until you reach your next destination, as it is bad luck. Keep in mind, these herbal remedies and superstitions only work if you believe in them. Whether you believe or not, however, visiting a sangoma is an interesting cultural experience.
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor’s, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn’t really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.