The year I embraced Africa


The year I embraced Africa

With sangomas in the spotlight after the disappearance of Joshlin Smith, DEBORAH STEINMAIR looks back on a Technicolor time of miracles and wonder.


I DREAMT last night of a house I lived in 20 years ago. It was a stately residence in Rosebank, Cape Town. Wooden floors, sash windows, fireplaces and a large, wild garden. It belonged to a sangoma; a pink sangoma with a cloud of reddish-brown curly hair, blue eyes and pretty, strong teeth. She wore only white and always went barefoot with hairy strips of goatskin around her ankles and wrists. She was my girlfriend, but I paid my way like all the other boarders. She had made money earlier in her life as a copywriter at a well-known advertising company, then found religion in the Transkei and turned her back on corporations. Their practices, she said, are witchcraft.

When I moved in, she had just returned from a killer training session as a thwasa (trainee sangoma) in Pondoland. There she slept on the floor of a hut, chopped wood, fetched water, fed chickens and goats, made fires. She always served her mentors on her knees. She was fit and muscular, the full five feet of her.

She had a doll's body: long, muscular legs, short upper body, firm breasts unhampered by a bra. She liked to get rid of all her clothes, on walking trails, on beaches. No razors for her: bronze fluff in her armpits, a reddish-gold bush and on her legs golden down. She smelt like mustard, pepper and curry: apparently typical for natural redheads. She also smelt like garlic and the lemon water she drank all day. She cleansed herself butt naked in the garden in the morning in a bath of ice-cold water and bitter herbs while singing and dancing, and showered in the evening, but she didn't believe in deodorant and smelled like kakiebos and herbs by noon. Her yoga class voted her out on account of this, the refined linen-clad women behind the lentil curtain.

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She's a force of nature. She ruled the house with an iron hand; the boarders were her friends, closer than relatives, until they angered her. It was nigh on impossible to get a deposit back. There was only one bathroom in the house and the bath was permanently full of dry herbs: lavender and impepho, which she set alight in saucers everywhere to purify the atmosphere and people's auras. The shower acted up: you'd be minding your own business when you were suddenly scalded crimson by a jet of boiling water. No one showered for long. She could tackle a house and scrub and tidy up until every molecule gleamed and a zen-like order descended on everything, with a few plain white candles burning, in broad daylight.

She ate mostly raw foods, salads consisting of nuts, seeds, fresh herbs and handfuls of garlic. Tomatoes and lettuce were not in the cast. She didn't hesitate to fart loudly: “Liever in de wijde wereld als in de smalle buik," she declared. 

She was very matter-of-fact about her calling. She didn't set much stock in her ancestors, bloody old bearded white men. She didn't cast bones or believe in witchcraft. She read cards. She wrote a daily astrology column for Die Son.

We work with pure energy, she said. My energy is nice, she reckoned, but the melancholic English-speaking poet who liked to unburden himself to me had an aura full of holes. “He sucks your energy. You shouldn't allow him to scratch off his lice on your doorstep," she said after such a session. She speaks a crisp, old-fashioned Afrikaans, strongly spiced with swear words. She called me “vorstin van ver" or, because I'm a headstrong fish, “forel uit die hel". To the troubled English poet, she once shouted in a full restaurant in Observatory: “Jy maak my poes droog!" A silence descended.

She called everyone “meid", from the Dutch, without fail. Her friend Zebulon Dread once brought his two little girls over and the children's eyes went wide when she asked, “Wil julle meide koeldrank hê?"

She always took pity on bandits and the homeless. Her gardener was light brown with emerald green eyes, covered in 26s tattoos. She believed in him until he stole her revolver and disappeared.

No day was the same. Her plumber was a Muslim who descended from the ceiling on a ladder in a long black dress like a bat.

She brought a dog with her from the Transkei, a Canis Africanis, Moya. An audacious bitch who lived out her madam's volatility. She once ran across a park to bite Kader Asmal. She was a thief and scavenger who loved to roll in bergie shit and rotten carcasses. She was sprayed down with the hose but the aroma lingered. Then she came to sleep between us, under the sheets. When Moya got cold at night, it was me she prodded with a stiff paw to cover her with the blanket, never her madam. She responded to isiXhosa orders, such as phuma, phanzi!

The sangoma liked to go for a walk with her five cats long after midnight. It was a sight to behold: in single file, tails aloft, in the middle of the street while the neighbourhood dogs went ballistic behind high fences. In the park, they frolicked around like poltergeists in the moonlight.

I am not one of those people who find the chaos and noise of Africa liberating. My European inhibitions are close to the skin. But with her, I embraced the continent. We visited Khayelitsha, attended ceremonies, sat on the floor in houses without furniture and ate hearty plates of food with the other women: meat, rice and potatoes, carrots, beans and pumpkin. With our hands.

She housed a pal from the Transkei for months so he could work in the Cape to send money home for his house-building. Johnnyboy. One day he sobbed with abandon: people from his village had informed him that his wife was having an affair with the builder. Whereupon his wife, Thandeka, also came to Cape Town and they were reunited passionately, moving into the stoep room. All night, screaming matches and fistfights made the house shake on its foundations and totally traumatised me. Is this how I want to live, I wondered.

Thandeka could conjure up a fabulous stew from two potatoes, an onion, a tomato and a few pieces of shank. Back then, I still ate meat. Later, quite a few people were eating on my meagre salary and I often washed all the dishes. Giving orders comes very naturally to the sangoma, and always in colourful Afrikaans: “Meid, sal jy vir ons ’n paar skottels ratel?”

She had patients, poor workers from the neighbourhood. She counselled them like a psychologist, with great patience, more or less for free. There was a depressed old man for whom she bought Viagra with her own money.

The household was dysfunctional and chaotic, staggering from crisis to crisis. I had to partake in everything. I need a lot of silence and space to read and think. I started getting the old familiar feeling that I was a sidekick, a henchman, the wizard's assistant. Then I left.

But my years in dark Africa taught me respect for people's faiths and customs, their ingenuity, industriousness, generosity and humanity.

This awfulness around Joshlin is giving sangomas a very bad name. But they are not all like that. She remained a thwasa for a long time, because in order to become a fully-fledged sangoma you have to dream of a goat, which is then fetched and its throat cut with blood spurting for your induction ceremony. She couldn't do it.

We're still talking. I put her in a novel, because you can't dream up a character like her. She is Stasi Soldatos in Moestas. She was pleased with the depiction.

Camagu, meid! And: Enkosi.

♦ VWB ♦

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