Visit to Ma Martha, a Traditional Healer

Saturday 3rd September 2005

Today Fi suggested we went to see her friend Ma Martha who is a Sangoma, a traditional healer. We set off North West towards the mountains on winding dirt roads, leaving clouds of dust behind us. Some of the roads had been maintained by a new government initiative which appoints people in the local community to keep their part of the road free from pot holes and in passable condition. They are paid only 500 rand a month, (less than Fifty pounds.) I remember this region as being one of the most green and fertile looking areas though it is surrounded by thickly wooded hills and not the landscape you associate with agriculture. The woods are home to the Cape Parrot and apparently this is one of the only places where they are still breeding in the country. A few weeks ago the exceptionally dry weather sent them to Creighton in their hundreds in search of food.

We must have driven twenty five km when we reached the settlement where Ma Martha lived. Here there was no water left and she pointed to a pile of her clothes crumpled on a table as she told us it was along way to the river. Everyone is waiting for the rains to come.

Jane and Ma Martha outside her house

Jane and Ma Martha outside her house

Ma Martha greeted us warmly and was glad that Fi had brought two bottles of fizzy water and some buns which she shared with a neighbours child. She is in her sixties and told us that in June the taxi she travelled in was going too fast and overturned on a bend, she was badly bruised and since then has suffered pains in her shoulders and hands. She has always built and maintained her own houses and had been in the middle of building a new house when the accident occurred. Now she is dependent on workmen who don’t always come when they say they will and charge a lot of money.

The new thatch on her rondavel will last about ten to twenty years, she suspects ten as it has been made thinly. It costs 1000 rands for the bundles of dry grass before paying for labour. The old house is falling apart because the soil in this region is fine and sandy so the mud bricks don’t hold together well.

Ma Martha's old and new house

Ma Martha’s old and new house

At present she is living in a rondavel which is deceptively large inside. She has hand painted a typical Zulu design of bold areas of colour, blue- greys and terracotta outlined with a thick border on the walls and built a clay fireplace rather like the shape of a fish to one side of the centre pole. Here she has a raised fireplace over which she places her black three legged pot. Towards the entrance of the room a pile of leaves are laid out to dry. This is her snuff.

Martha's Muthii

Martha’s Muthii

Outside she shows us her mooti, her garden of indigenous plants for healing. In this patch of ground all her plants are thriving apparently oblivious to the lack of water. There are no plants or weeds between them and nothing else growing in the surrounding areas. She has a fine cockerel running around the garden and some healthy looking chickens. She says all her neighbours chickens have died.

Being a “Sangoma” – Traditional healer

I asked Ma Martha how she came to be a Sangoma. Her English though not her first language was poetic and beautiful as she described how it happened that as a young child she began to have powerful dreams. First she would dream about a snake, then she would have a dream about an ox, then she would wake and she had dreamt about a lion. After these dreams she began to fall sick. She did not know what was happening to her, she would have a fever and be full of aches and pains, first one time then another. After this she knew she could see things differently. She knew in her mind that she had to be with someone. She could feel inside her, not in her bones but in her blood that someone was sick or had a problem. I asked how she learnt about the medicines and plants and she explained that she had studied at college for several years about which plants have medicinal properties.

Sangoma's costume V

Sangoma’s costume

On the wall hang the clothes decorated with feathers which she wears as a Sangoma. She proudly held her Shoba, a braided switch of horse hair which is the emblem of her trade. She explained that it was to her the equivalent of a doctor’s white coat.
“Do you often have people come to you for your medicine?” I asked.
“No, not now, not so much.”

The fact is that as well as the certificate that shows that Ma Martha is a traditional healer, she has three certificates showing that she has undertaken courses in taking care of people dying of AIDs related illnesses. She first became a home carer for her community, caring for the sick and the dying and now she cares for the orphans of the community. She works full time often having to travel to the hospital and back and sorting out death certificates for families. She says the people in the community thinks she is paid but she only gets 200 rands a month which barely covers her taxi fares.

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