In a witch doctor's hut, it's better not to know

Real Life

True Tales From Everyday Living

October 21, 2007|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the sun

The South African witch doctor's name was Mrs. Gumeta. She wore a zebra hide cape and a wig made of dung-encrusted grass with the inflated gall bladder of a cow dangling from its rear. I'd come to see Mrs. Gumeta on a lark but found the experience to be most unsettling.

This happened a few months ago, when I stayed at Phinda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, near the Indian Ocean. After tracking animals for several days, I was still fascinated by watching cheetahs, elephants and rhinoceros. However, when I overheard one of the Zulu guides, a man named "V.R.," say he was about to consult a sangoma (which is what a witch doctor or "traditional healer" is called in South Africa), I greedily envisioned this as a fresh thrill and asked to tag along.

Bumping down the dirt road in a Jeep, V.R. explained that by listening to the voices of ancestor spirits, Mrs. Gumeta could see into the future. "She is very good at treating strokes, joint problems and stress, too. Really, the only things she can't cure are cancer and AIDS."

A while back, his thigh was so sore, V.R. told me, he could barely walk. Mrs. Gumeta recommended that he wear a gold-colored bracelet and sacrifice a baby goat to his ancestor spirit. After carefully following these instructions, his leg was completely healed.

V.R.'s story, I'll admit, struck me as improbable.

Soon enough, we arrived at a haphazard cluster of mud and thatch structures, surrounding a pen of scrawny chickens. Seeing our Jeep approach, two young boys raced across the dusty yard and scurried under a cow skin covering a doorway in the central hut.

As we entered, Mrs. Gumeta didn't lift her head. Instead, she calmly set fire to a bowl of herbs, roots and leaves she'd collected. Wafting smoke toward her face, she inhaled deeply. The boys, who I now understood to be her assistants, began to pound slowly on carved wooden drums. Thum. Thuh-thum.

Hoisting herself upward with a grunt, she began to dance. An ample woman, Mrs. Gumeta moved with strength and great dignity. The room's stale air was thick with black flies. They landed on my arms and cheeks, but I was so mesmerized, I barely noticed.

The drumbeats accelerated. Mrs. Gumeta spun about in wide, looping pirouettes: faster, then faster still. She was barefoot, but a bracelet made of soda can tops jangled at each of her ankles. Around her neck were many strands of beads that flew upward. The rhythm and twirling grew increasingly frenzied.

Quite a show. Everything in my experience had me convinced this was fakery. Yet, when I saw V.R. trembling, his fervent belief punctured my skepticism. How could I be so sure what was going on here?

Mrs. Gumeta began to howl at astonishing volume, and I was covered with goose bumps. My neck hair sizzled. Suddenly, she collapsed to the floor and the boys ceased their drumming and curled up at her side like puppies. She spoke slowly, her voice low and gruff, as V.R. whispered a translation. She was now ready to diagnose my past, present or future. If I wanted, she could tell me when and how I will die.


Her face was moist; she was breathing heavily from these wild exertions. Staring at me, her dark eyes were lasers. I recalled the intense, electric gaze of a cheetah and felt similarly endangered. A few minutes earlier, I was scornful and ready to laugh; now I was deeply frightened. Long seconds passed, before I mumbled to V.R. that I needed to leave. If Mrs. Gumeta had any news of my imminent mortality to share, she betrayed no disappointment at my disinclination to hear it.

"So long, mister!" the boys cried out in cheery unison as I stooped beneath the cow skin flap at the door.

Back in our Jeep, V.R. chided me gently for not seeking the sangoma's advice. I tried to describe why I hesitated, but my words were halting.

"Ah, but I know exactly what you mean, and I feel it, too, when the spirits enter the room," V.R. interrupted. "What you are describing is when you are half-scared and half-happy at the same time."

Not quite. More like half-convinced that Mrs. Gumeta did indeed know my future, but wholly sure I didn't want to hear it.

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