Thursday, March 11, 2010


                                     SANGOMAS, WITCHCRAFT AND SPIRITS


Arriving back to my mission home on Sunday, I found a large group of “church ladies” gathered in a nearby one-room house. The room was filled with prayerful song as the purple-caped ladies encircled a writhing screaming young woman. She was lying on a thin mattress on the ground and was being restrained by eight strong loving hands. The story from our nurse is that this woman was seeing three people who attack her, scratch her, beat her, and threaten her. Her flailing and screaming was in response to these attacks. The nurse reported that the woman does have bruises and scratches on her body, inferring that something “real” is going on. Present in the room standing over the woman was the Mission Priest and a few of the Sisters. They were using Holy Water, “smoke” and prayers to help the woman.

Outside of the room I spoke with the nurse who said that this was not the first episode for this woman. In the past, the nurse had prescribed for her some tranquilizers . I wondered out-loud if the woman was “schizophrenic” and needed some regular anti-psychotic medicine which the clinic does have. She agreed to let me call one (of two) psychiatrist in Lesotho for a phone consultation. (No answer.)

Later, the nurse spoke to me about the mysterious spells that befall people here. That there are Sangomas (traditional healers) and witches who are able to cast spells for both good and evil. She told me of an old woman who lives in the mountains near here and is known to fly. They know this because she is rather crippled yet has appeared suddenly, in the evening, on the Mission grounds.
After several hours and super doses of tranquilizers, the distressed woman was escorted home by her mother and friends.
Later, I was told that one of the suspected spirit “attackers” was seen and confronted. And everyone feels that the spell has been broken and that the woman is now OK.


That evening a nurse-friend from the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) dropped by. I know him to be a very intelligent, competent professional and a devout Christian. I told him about this incident with the woman and wanted to hear more of his perspective. He stated unequivocally that there are many people that hold these special powers. He said that he has seen an old woman flying in a wash basin; he has seen a man stop bullets by saying one spellbound word; he has seen wounds disappear with a word. I asked how this fit with his Christian beliefs because clearly for him and others, there is no conflict between believing in witchcraft and being a Christian. He explained that God has the ultimate power, so if you acknowledge that the ultimate authority is God, you can overpower the witchcraft. My understanding is that most Africans hedge their bets, appealing to both powers to gain their wishes. This is also how the Christian missionaries sold Christianity to Africans, by giving them some sense of power (God/Jesus) over the witchcraft.

Because illness is so often believed to be caused by witchcraft, it continues to be difficult to get people to take responsible action towards HIV/AIDS. There are commonly held beliefs by those that don’t acknowledge the reality of AIDS, that AIDS information is a plot to undermine African society. And for many who do believe that AIDS exists, they believe that it was imported from the West to annihilate the Africans. And there are many who don’t understand the connection between sexual activity, AIDS and the illnesses that are killing them. A spell can kill you quickly (in the form of a heart attack, a car accident, lightening); AIDS does not so it is less frightening. TB is now one of the biggest AIDS related illnesses. More recently people are willing to acknowledge that they have TB, or that a family member died of TB. But AIDS is never mentioned as a killer. It is nearly impossibly to get accurate information on AIDS-related deaths as people rarely know each other’s status. Even my nurse friends who have lost multiple siblings, only “suspect” that they might have had AIDS. More commonly, deaths are caused by a spell cast because of a neighbor’s jealousy, a sibling’s grudge, the in-laws dissatisfaction. There is no proof, of course, but speculation, rumor and suspicion are enough to cement it into the lives of the people.


Relevant to the experience with the “bewitched” woman is a book I just picked-up called Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters. His premise is that the global spread of American culture includes exporting our ideas about mental illness and the psychopharmacology that goes with it. We enter into cultures with our assumptions and ideas about treatment, sometimes discounting and trampling the ways that have been used for centuries. So, I am curious if the “bewitched” woman will have another psychotic-like episode. Or if the spell has been broken and if she will be able to live a normal and medication-free life. If she had walked in to a mental health clinic in the US, there is no doubt that she would have walked out with a diagnosis and a bottle of pills. But here, in Africa, with the priests, nurses and sangomas all confirming the reality of her experience, they also may have the answer for her cure.


Know Your Status (KYS) has been a government-led 5 year campaign to get the country tested for HIV. A great deal of NGO money has gone into activities which will draw people (sports activities, youth camps) who will then also be available for HIV education and hopefully testing. After 5 years it has been found that only 15% of the population has been tested. In spite of all the education, people continue to be fearful of the stigma and have been unwilling to get tested and/or they live so rurally that it is not practical. The other reality is that one test is meaningless if the risky sexual behavior doesn’t change.

So now the government is throwing itself behind the One Love campaign. The intention of this is to educate people into a willingness to reduce the number of concurrent sexual partners they have. Research indicates that on the average Africans have 2.5 sexual partners in a lifetime. In the West it is found to be double that. The critical difference is that in the West, we usually don’t have concurrent partners, (we tend to have serial monogamy) while in Africa the concurrent partnerships are tolerated and common. The strategy behind changing this behavior is to improve the communication skills between couples, improve their sexual understanding, and therefore reduce the desire to go outside of the relationship for sexual satisfaction. This sounds like a reasonable strategy. But since I have begun talking about this to the public, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard , “Ahh, but I am a Basotho man and I will die a Basotho man.” Or,”I am a man and I must have what a man needs.”(Read between the lines, “To be an African man means to have more than one woman at a time.”) Faced with this attitude, (and coupled with the Catholic prohibition against condoms) it appears that there is a long road, possibly generations long, before the AIDS pandemic will be under control.