What I Learned in the Mganga’s Hut

The mganga explaining the use of the leaves, while our teacher, Bibi Amina looks on. Photo courtesy of Maya Murillo.

At the rate that days go by here, I nearly forgot that a month and a half ago I spent half a day with seven Zanzibari traditional healers (or shamans, witch doctors, whatever you prefer). Here, they are called waganga, with mganga being the singular form.

Back when I was a student at the Institute of Swahili and Foreign Languages, each Wednesday I joined my classmates on a field trip. This particular field trip had been arranged because of a special request from me. You see, I have been intensely curious about the waganga ever since I heard of their prevalence in healing and medicine in Tanzania. Many locals, especially in the villages, cannot afford hospital fees or even the transportation to a medical facility, so they visit the traditional healers for the treatment of everything from headaches to cancer to insanity.

This banner advertises an mganga's services in treating diabetes, malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, cancer, HIV/AIDS, insanity, and other illnesses. He also advertises that he offers family planning services. Photo courtesy of fundirkombo.blogspot.com

When I first arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on the night of May 26th, I was picked up by my hotel’s shuttle service. One of the first things I was on the look out for, and did see, were advertisements for the services of the waganga. Dar es Salaam has a number of waganga who have made a name for themselves. One in particular that I learned of back in my Swahili class at the University of Florida calls himself Profesa Maji Marefu. Literally that translates to “Profesa Deep Water”– as in, if you cross this guy, you are in deep water. It is unlikely that any of these waganga are actually real professors with PhD’s– it is just a title and designation they have given themselves.

What I find even more interesting is that waganga often offer more than just treatments for ailments. Medicine just scratches the surface. Many traditional healers offer love potions, hexes to ward off the evil eye, breast and buttock enhancing drugs, good luck charms, and all manner of other fantastic poultices and preparations. So, on that Wednesday afternoon, I was in a van with five other students as we drove into the compound of the waganga in the village of Bububu, just outside of Stone Town.

The mganga's hut. Photo courtesy of Maya Murillo.

The five of us looked at each other with uncertainty as we were asked to remove our shoes and step into a thatched hut. None of us five wanted each other to know that we were even slightly scared, so we feigned composure and tried our best to keep our apprehension at bay. We were each given red lengths of cloth to tie around our heads, which I suspect was more for dramatic effect than anything else, and told to sit in a circle on the floor around a presentation of leaves, nuts, herbs, fruit, a coconut, paper, ink, and tree bark. The mganga at the front of the room then introduced himself, and then each of the seven others did the same. One of the men to the side we learned was the speaker’s own teacher. The healing arts in Tanzania are passed down from generation to generation and are usually kept within a family. It also takes several years to learn and be properly trained.

The mganga's presentation which we all gathered around. Photo courtesy of Maya Murillo.

During our discussion, the speaker went through each item in the center, describing its origin, its purpose, and its preparation. Most were herbal remedies for mild aches and pains or infections. The mganga did show us the preparation of a good luck charm, which involved using red food coloring (imported from India, I noticed) to print Koranic verses on a piece of paper, and then soaking the paper in water and rubbing it onto one’s skin. One of the claims that the traditional healers in Tanzania often make is that they can cure HIV/AIDS– so undoubtedly I asked them if they could. The response I received was that yes, in fact they could, and have done so in the past, but that people do not believe it. They also told us that they have cured cancer, diabetes, and ailments of the heart.

Posing with the waganga. Photo courtesy of Maya Murillo.

My next order of business on this particular topic is to visit the island of Pemba, which is just north-east of the island I live on, Unguja.  Pemba, it seems, is known the world over by shamans and voodoo priests as the premier center of learning and training.  I have heard that even well-known Haitian priests  have made the journey…


2 thoughts on “What I Learned in the Mganga’s Hut

  1. Congrats on taking this wonderful trip to Tanzania… back here in India…. I hardly believe we can even think of making such a beautiful choice… to visit a unknown land … serve them and learn from them….

    Wow…. you are curious ….. i don’t think i would visit a witch doctor …..

    I have been reading some your post and and one thing that always strikes me is close resemblance Africa has with India … i am taking about some believes… which again is a pointer to the fact that we either had a common origin…. people who travelled propagated the belief systems…or both…

    Humans has always feared, worshipped or fantasied that which they did not understand…. some of us have used this “fear” to make a living … Today as i bring up my little one i come across “advices” ….. and i find it hard to distinguish truth from the superstition …..

    continue to write and reveal more of Africa to us.

  2. Interesting article. I am presently in a 4 day conversation with a young girl in Tanzania, a former pupil, who is convinced she has just returned from a Mganga with her mother present. She believes they infected her by injection of urine from a hiv/aids person. She is now convinced she will die a very painful death unless she commits suicide. She is constantly hearing voices since she visited the mganga and conversations from outside of her room which I’m uncertain are real or imagined. She is now convinced she is infected despite my many reassurances that only a blood sample taken at a proper hospital by a doctor can confirm that to be true or not. I’ve even described the process of a hiv/aids test so she is not mislaid any further. We continue to talk but I’d like to hear from anyone who has experience in this area.

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