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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Brand New Muti

Africa, South Africa
Personal Essay

Queen Nthuli begins the ritual of calling her ancestors by burning dried herbs in an earthenware pot beside her. She breathes in the smoke from the herbs to take the spirits of the ancestors into her body, where she can communicate with them. Next she throws her shells. They scatter on the reed mat in front of her in a unique pattern—one that is different every time she throws them. She asks the ancestors to reveal the messages found in that arrangement of shells so that she may answer the questions of her client. "What is causing the pain in my leg?" "Is my daughter's baby going to be boy or a girl?" "Has someone cast a spell on me that caused my crops to die?" The ancestors will have the answers to all of these inquiries—if only they decide to share their knowledge with Queen and her client.

Based on what the ancestors have identified as the source of the client's problem, Queen will prescribe the most effective solution. For physical ailments she will use her extensive knowledge of herbs, many of which are stored in the jars that line the walls inside her home, to create a muti, or medicine, to be taken as a cure. Or she may instruct the client to participate in a ritual to cleanse the body of impurities believed to be causing the pain. If the source of the trouble is spiritual—supernatural or otherwise—Queen may order the sacrifice of a chicken, goat—or even a cow—to appease angry spirits or placate ancestors to whom thanks are due.

Such things are all in a day's work for a traditional healer in South Africa. Also known as sangomas or traditional medical practitioners, people such as Queen Nthuli act as doctor, herbalist, counselor, and spiritual advisor to thousands of people all over the country. Her practices might seem a bit strange to Americans who are used to going to a doctor right down the road—at least that was the reaction of my friends and family when I told them my stories about traditional healers. In South Africa, however, many people don't have any other choice; for them, traditional healers provide the only medical care that is accessible and affordable.

And she's not only sought out for her health-related expertise. As a traditional healer, Queen has a lot of influence in her community, a township outside of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal Province. In many instances, because of strong social stigma associated with AIDS, patients are often shunned by their families, and traditional healers are the only people left who can help them. In addition, community members are turning to healers for help and advice in assisting with the growing legion of children left as orphans after their parents have died of AIDS. Also as a result of stigma, orphans from homes affected by AIDS are often discriminated against as much as the people actually infected with the disease.

South Africa is regarded as having the most severe HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world. The total number of South Africans living with the virus at the end of 2005 was estimated to be close to 5.5 million. That's more people than the entire population of Los Angeles. At least 320,000 South Africans have died from AIDS. And if that isn't bad enough, studies show that the number of new HIV infections is still growing, mostly among young people.

Today when people become HIV positive it doesn't necessarily mean that their life is over. Scientists have known about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, for more than 20 years and in that time they've managed to develop medicines that can substantially prolong lives. These medicines are called antiretrovirals (ARVs) and they work to slow down the devastating effects of HIV on the immune system. Some people taking ARVs have lived at least 15 years longer than they would have without the medicines. A man I work with named Jan has been taking ARVs for the past 5 years; without them he wouldn't be with us.

Jan is one of the lucky ones, even though antiretroviral medicines are available free in South Africa. People often have to travel long distances to get to clinics where the medicines are dispensed. Although ARVs are free, there are long waiting lists, and the cost of travel is high, as is the cost of missing work to get to the clinic. Missing work can mean that one's entire family goes hungry.

After people begin taking ARVs, they must continue to take them twice a day, every day, for the rest of their lives. If they miss a dose they run the risk that HIV will develop a resistance to the drugs; and if this happens the ARVs won't work anymore and the person will die sooner. A much more common problem is that people don't even know that they're HIV positive—and if they don't know their HIV status, how can they know where to get the right treatment when they become sick?

The majority of South Africans first go to a traditional healer for help with their medical problems—including HIV/AIDS. But most traditional healers know much more about herbal medicines than they know about new muti like ARVs. Because of their lack of access to health information, traditional healers sometimes prescribe remedies for patients with AIDS that cause them more harm than good. For example, a few herbs that typically ease the symptoms of common illnesses, when taken with ARVs, cause the ARVs not to work and patients to develop resistance—in the same way as if they had missed a dose.

At the AIDS Foundation of South Africa (AFSA), the NGO where I work as a Peace Corps Volunteer, we try to make change for the better by training hard to reach groups such as traditional healers. The lessons they learn can mean the difference between life and death for the HIV-positive people they help. Last year I participated in a project to educate traditional healers on ARV treatment. The healers I met had seen their friends, neighbors, and family members dying around them for years despite all their efforts to save them using herbs. Until the AIDS Foundation came along, no one had bothered to explain why so many people were dying or that there were drugs available that could stop the pain and suffering of their loved ones. It was always assumed that the healers just wouldn't understand anything related to biology or science—but the healers had plenty of motivation to learn.

The AIDS Foundation has been working with traditional healers for more than 10 years—trying to help them increase their knowledge of HIV/AIDS. Queen Nthuli has learned a lot from the AIDS Foundation and is now a master trainer, which means she passes on her knowledge of HIV/AIDS and ARVs to other traditional healers. But our work is far from over. There are still other traditional healers all over South Africa who need to know about HIV/AIDS and the new muti out there that fights the disease. 

About the Author

Amber Bechtel

Amber Bechtel served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa from 2005-2007.

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