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.
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 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.
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.
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…