Sitting in the shade of a tree outside his indumba [shrine], traditional healer Mkhulu Zama Ndebele rues government’s failure to involve traditional healers in the fight against Covid-19. The restrictive coronavirus lockdown regulations have dramatically affected the practice of traditional medicine, he says. Ndebele has been unable to see clients for nearly five weeks.
Despite millions of people making use of them in South Africa, traditional healers claim government has sidelined them. Department of Health spokesperson Popo Maja failed to respond to numerous requests for comment on the department’s plans to include traditional healers in dealing with the virus.
Ndebele, who lives in Ormonde, south of Johannesburg, thinks it is a missed opportunity. “The majority of our people in this country are making use of traditional healers as a first point of interaction in the event of any illness that they encounter – especially in the rural areas, but also here in the townships,” he says. “We need to acknowledge that traditional healers have a critical role to play in our communities.”
Ndebele says healers partnered with government to treat HIV and TB successfully by being trained to identify and refer clients to hospitals. Now, he feels it is their duty to ensure they are “part of the solution”.
“The responsibility of any healer is to ensure people get well. If this matter of this coronavirus is to be won in South Africa, as part of the solution – not just here in South Africa, but also in the rest of Africa – there is a need to work together and collaborate.”
As the deputy chairperson of Buyisa, a council of traditional healers, Ndebele has called on government “to give us an ear so we can be part of the solution”.
Traditional healers should be included in the development of new guidelines to treat Covid-19 patients, he says. They should also be trained to identify symptoms of the virus while keeping themselves and their clients safe.
“Traditional healers [need to] be taught how best to protect their families and how best to protect the clients that come to see them. In a day, for example, a person can see [ between] eight [and] 20 people.
“Now if one of them has the virus, you as a traditional healer … get it from one of your clients, [and become] a carrier of this virus. The chance becomes very high. There is a need for government and the traditional healers’ council to come up with a programme on how best to conduct themselves during the pandemic,” he says.
Bad dreams and depression
In Alexandra, traditional healer Ntshieng Mokgoro says she had been seeing clients, but fewer than normal. Of the clients she has seen, Mokgoro has noticed many affected by the pandemic.
“I think people who come to see me … are more depressed and fearing Covid-19. There is a sense of depression in what I see in people who come and see me. The main reason is because we are in our own spaces, we are forced to face our own demons and … to do some self- introspection,” she says.
“People are dreaming a lot because of the circumstances and some of the dreams are really scary… They don’t understand the dreams and they come here trying to make sense of what is happening to them and how it is related to them and their experiences of Covid-19. That’s like a general thing happening to everyone.”
Mokgoro says it is difficult to enforce a lockdown in overcrowded and under-serviced Alexandra. To stop people accessing a healer like herself is near impossible.
“Whether we like it or not, we will still have people who want to see traditional healers. Not just for Covid-19 but for many other ailments. To stop that process, it is a danger because people will still sneak out to go see their traditional healers,” she says. “It’s a struggle just to keep people inside here in Alex because people are living in cramped living spaces. People need to breathe, and people are suffocating in their spaces. So people still do go outside.”
Like Ndebele, Mokgoro says government does not seem to understand the importance of involving traditional healers in treating the pandemic. At the very least, healers need to be trained in best practices for how to manage clients.
“It would be great to have some kind of workshop, even if it is a Zoom workshop, to say if a patient comes, practise this and this is what you have to look into,” she says. Instead Mokgoro has had to rely on her own research and what she’s read in the news about protecting herself and her family.
Pinkie Constance Mhlambi, a traditional healer based in Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg, says it is difficult for her to survive. For her, healing is a spiritual calling. Like a number of other healers, Mhlambi relies on the little income she makes to pay rent, look after her four children and send money back home.
“I’m the breadwinner of this family. The coronavirus, yes, it is killing lots of people. Since it started, we have not been working. Some people are scared to come to us. I don’t have a mask. I don’t have gloves. I don’t have sanitiser,” she says. “If the people come here, I must give them sanitiser. I don’t have money. I can’t do that. So this virus, it is killing us in many different ways. It is really difficult.”