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