How I met Mganga

Kenyan shaman Dr. Musa

Kenyan medicine man Dr. Musa

One early morning on the coast in Kenya, after I finished my meditation practice, a young local guy came to me with a big smile on his face and said, “Mama look”. He showed me two shiny silver rings, one on each of his ring fingers. ” The red one for the witch, the blue one for the lion”, he said. I was very astonished. Just a week earlier he came with a gloomy look on his face to tell us that his wife delivered twins. He expressed concerns about how he would feed all his children, and asked for help.
(and inspired one of my poems Land of Many Children)

He went on to tell me that his wife and children left home to stay with her family who helps take care of them. Since they were away, his grandmother’s spirit returned to haunt him and not only in his dreams! He said that she’s been messing with his home and he was very afraid. His Imam recommended to him to consult a local Mganga, who is a practicing Muslim, and get the rings for protection. I asked him what does mganga mean? “Witchdoctor”, he said.

I was delighted to hear that the traditional healing is still alive in the region, and to meet somebody who could take me to see a local shaman. I was somewhat disappointed that I missed a chance to visit with ‘sangoma’, a South African shaman, on my safari trip six months earlier. I was therefore determined to visit an African shaman while in Kenya. I asked local people on the beach several times about local shamans but nobody seemed to know anything. I initially didn’t realize that different African people have their own names for ‘shaman’ and that people in Kenya didn’t know what ‘sangoma’ means (they use the word ‘mganga’). I also didn’t know that in Africa, the traditional medicine is called ‘witchcraft’ and shamans ‘witchdoctors’. In English these terms have negative connotations and are associated with ‘black magic’. Whereas, for African people it is common to call their traditional medicine witchcraft and traditional healers witchdoctors. The local people do however make a difference between witchdoctors who help cure, ‘mganga’, and those who harm and bewitch others, called ‘mchawi’.

My friend was more than happy to organize a trip to the Mganga’s village for us.  A Mganga by the name of Dr. Musa welcomed us in his ‘office’, a little open hut, in the middle of the village. He quickly changed into his outfit of medicine man, dressed in black, white and red. For a certain sum negotiated in advance, Dr. Musa gave us a tour of his work table, telling us about the healing plants and concoctions he makes. He insisted that we take a photo of him, above, and post it on the internet to promote his work, so I am doing this with his blessing 🙂 Dr. Musa doesn’t speak English, our friend acted as a translator, but he is clearly experienced at working with tourists. He easily threw jokes at us while at the same time telling us where he felt we had troubles, and offered us treatments from his table. He also offered us a special ‘love potion’ rrrrrr 

For some specific questions we had, Dr. Musa wanted an additional sum of money to consult spirits. He shooed away the village kids, and took us behind a red curtain. After his reading and spirit consultation, Dr. Musa proposed to make us another potion, which contains healing verses of the Qur’an written in a herbal remedy submerged in water. We learnt that it is very common for local healers to be Muslim and use healing verses of the Qur’an in their treatments.

After we came out behind the curtain, my young companions noted that Dr. Musa was not very competent at communicating with spirits 🙂 . I had the same impression…  But not all traditional healers are spiritualists, many are herbalists, like Dr. Musa.  My local friend told me that it was another mganga who provided the rings for him. The other mganga specializes in treating diseases that originate from spiritual sources, i.e. when the cause of illness is ‘djinn’ – spirits. He explained that some djinn are helpful, but many are mean spending time harassing humans, like his grandmother. He added that “if you believe in spirits they can disturb you forever but if you do not, they cannot”.


“The growing trade in medicinal tree and shrub material in Kenya may be threatening many wild species. This will greatly impact more than two thirds of Kenyans who rely on traditional medicines for primary health care in a country where the doctor to patient ratio is 15 doctors per 100,000 patients.” – Traditional medicine unsustainable in Kenya


“Coastal Kenyans could be characterized as using any of these patterns of allopathic and traditional medical use. The complexity of these interactions exists today because of the multiple political forces acting on the society. Traditional Bantu culture promotes use of and belief in spirits. Throughout much of the country, especially in rural areas, mental health issues are attributed to spirits and the primary health care option in these cases is traditional medicine.
…it has been estimated that as many as 80% of Africans rely on traditional medicine for their primary care. Similarly, the WHO suggests that 70%- 80% of the population in developed countries has used some form of traditional medicine during their lifetime.
…Because of an inability to provide constant and sufficient healthcare, the Kenyan people have instead relied on traditional medicine because of its accessibility, convenience, and price.” – A Study of Health and Healing in Coastal Kenya

15 thoughts on “How I met Mganga

  1. Aww, he is fantastic, whatever his effectiveness. This reminds me of a great book by Tiziano Terzani called A Fortune-Teller Told Me, in which he describes his visits with various Asian fortune tellers. Highly recommended!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, thank you. I am fascinated with the culture in North West Africa, primarily Mali, or what used to be classed as the Mande empire and because they are also Muslims I can see many similarities. There is a lot of folklore in Mali that mentions the ‘Djinn’ which is a Muslim concept. I always considered the different parts of Africa to be completely different in culture especially with Kenya and Mali which are a continent apart, so it is somewhat reassuring to know that there are some common threads that run through and important ones at that. Also one of the first posts I ever did on my blog was a South African music track that I’ve always loved and always known it was called Sangoma but until today I had no idea what it meant. Thanks, the more learn about Africa, the happier I feel.

    • Actually only about 7% of Kenyan population is Muslim, but they are mainly at the coast where I spent the summer.
      You can scroll down through some other posts on the homepage to learn more about their culture (or click on the tag ‘africa’ or ‘kenya’).
      Or, if you are really really interested, click on the last link in my post, I found a pretty cool school paper by a girl who spent several months with one of the tribes at the coast. It’s a bit lengthy but gives a great overview of their (shamanic) culture and beliefs.
      I always feel happy in Africa and long for more 🙂

  3. This post is fascinating! You must have had such a great adventure, I was struck by your comment about mental health, In grad school I studied psychosis from various angles and researched the IPSS study which concluded the best outcomes from the developing world because of no stigma, belief in spirits as opposed to blaming the person. and strong community ties. Not all that much has changed since then. I hope to hear more from you about this in future posts. in light, Linda

    • WHO states that the traditional medicine started being incorporated into Kenya’s national health policy framework in the late 1970s. But I saw that the Kenyan government started drafting a policy that will regulate the practice of traditional medicine only last year. I think testing and regulating the traditional medicine in conventional/scientific ways is complicated… Yet one cannot deny its effectiveness for millennia before the modern medicine.
      Believe it or not, there are only 75 psychiatrists for 38 million population in Kenya, and only one mental hospital!
      But, like you said Linda, the traditional healers seem to be more able to help with the mental health. Here’s a link to an interesting BBC article on how psychiatrists and witchdoctors could cooperate:
      There’s also a study done on the effectiveness of the traditional treatment of epilepsy, documenting “the importance of traditional healers as an option for treatment of childhood epilepsy. Traditional healers have a unique perspective on treatment and their opinions and the supports they offer for families are critical… They provide a service in local communities by offering treatment that directly addresses cultural ideas of illness and epilepsy causation.” Traditional healers call epilepsy ‘kifafa’ and believe that it is caused by natural spirits or Nyagu, curses or Majini, and ancestral spirits.!po=10.0000
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. xox

  4. What a tremendous adventure and experience… The amount of knowledge and friendship that can be found by wandering and connecting with good people around the world never ceases to amaze me. This is simply a wonderful post, and thanks for sharing the experience and culture that was given to you by such a great soul as Dr. Musa.

  5. what a great post. it’s kinda fascinating to me that traditional medicine – witchcraft/witchdoctors – is practiced in combination with islam. this is something i have never heard of before…thank you for giving us a peek into this aspect of kenyan culture! i am also very intrigued by this line: “if you believe in spirits they can disturb you forever but if you do not, they cannot”. hmm something to think about. 😉

    you know else i’m curious about? that love potion! is there another post coming up on this? lol. xo aleya.

    • Yes, you are right, for some herbalists working with spirits is against Islam. But for many people it is acceptable, because they live in the region of the rich history involving many cultures, Persian, Arabic, Indian and British, and then their own African ancestry…
      LOL, can’t talk about the love potion, it’s gonna lose its potency 🙂 xox

  6. You never disappoint me with your interesting posts. Very surprised but pleased to read the statistics for the use of traditional medicines in developed countries. I have relied on traditional medicines taught to me by my mother for most of my life. It’s difficult to beat what is tried and true.

    • 🙂 Thanks so much Bev!
      You are so lucky to have learnt from your mother… I am also lucky to live in a place where both alternative and conventional medicine is readily available.
      The problem with the developing countries, especially Africa, is that they do not have that choice, i.e. often no luxury of the conventional medicine… Especially when it comes to for example treating malaria or yellow fever, where the conventional medicine is much more efficient.
      But yes they have the luxury of the traditional and ancient healing knowledge and beliefs preserved.
      It’s a tough one… xox

    • 🙂 I don’t have his contact… He is in the middle of nowhere, a village relatively close to Ukunda.And he only speaks Ki-digo, the local language (Im not even sure he speaks Swahili…) So you would need to either know the locals to take you to his village or hire a guide in Diani Beach. Some guides do know of him because he seems to see tourists regularly. Are you planning to go to that region?

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