I’ve been remiss writing about this topic, which has consumed me for the last few months and will probably consume me for the next couple as well while I put the finishing touches on my latest novel. The novel is a coming-of-age story set in urban South Africa, with a young Zulu girl reaching puberty just as her mother starts dying of AIDS. Now in South Africa, as in much of subSaharan Africa, AIDS is a tricky topic. Though many people understand that HIV is transmitted sexually, they do not see that as incompatible with the idea that they have HIV because they were also cursed by a witch. Photo credit: Sumayya Ismail They also are not entirely convinced that western medicine is any better than traditional healing and in fact recognize certain diseases as purely African, not western, which can only be cured by a sangoma (diviner/healer) or inyanga (healer)Â because western doctors simply aren’t equipped to deal with it. Further, death is never natural, especially when the person dying is young.
Yesterday my sister-in-law Annie, who is well on her way to being a doctor, told me she had finished reading an earlier version and she had a few questions.
First of all, she was wondering how the western medical tradition and the sangoma/inyanga medical tradition viewed each other. The answer to that is both simple and complicated. The two traditions work side by side. Africans will frequently avail themselves of both, figuring that one will work. Sometimes they’ll choose one for particular diseases and the other for different illnesses. In South Africa, the government and NGO organizations recognizes that 70% visit sangomas first. So it has been working hard to educate sangomas so they can recognize AIDS and refer people to medical clinics. Further, it has tried to teach sangomas how HIV is transmitted so they can train people to use condoms or abstain.
My sister-in-law was also struck by the way people treated women they believed were struck with HIV. The phenomenon of seeing AIDS as “isidliso” instead of as AIDS also struck her. How do people reconcile their understanding of HIV with their belief in witchcraft? I cannot claim to understand how they do that, despite having written a novel where my main character struggles with that herself. But I can say that there have been problems with witch hunts and that people have died, that witchcraft is an enormous problem in modern South Africa. (The story linked to “enormous problem” is set in Manguzi, South Africa, which is on the South African side of my planned research site for the Ph.D. Gaack.)
She had other questions but I’ll deal with them in another post.
On a final note, I talked to several African friends while doing research for this book. Among the things I found interesting is that many soccer players will take special potions from sangomas to help them play better, as well as try to curse other players to make them play worse. This finding is supported by this BBC report–scroll down and read the comments. I love this comment, in part because one of my characters says something very similar to this: “There is no witchcraft in Africa. There is African Science, which the West has not understood, and instead considers it witchcraft. This should end the discussion. From Tarsuah Early, Liberia.”