‘May I come in?’ – ‘You are welcome, muzungu’ – I heard a low and dry voice.
‘So this is what a witch doctor’s ‘office’ looks like’ – I thought and sat in the chair opposite.
Dr. Picho was on a phone explaining the dosage to one of his patients…
If I am being honest, I used to label all the practitioners as witch doctors and believed witchcraft was practiced by primitive people. I had also an impression that both Western doctors and the missionaries didn’t acknowledge the traditional beliefs and considered that by helping the locals wipe them out they would help Africa to take a seat among the civilized nations in the world. I wasn’t sure whose view was right and assumed the truth was somewhere in the middle.
So I treated it more like an experiment. From my fellow Ugandan journalists I got a telephone number to Mama Fiina – the Uganda’s most recognised witch. She didn’t seem to be willing to meet me – her secretary kept on calling off our appointment and I was a little scared by her creaky voice so… I just took a newspaper and looked through the ads.
Most of them showed one direction, Makindye so without further ado I jumped on a boda boda and we rushed through the jam up one of the Kampala hills…
‘So you are a journalist!’ – said doctor Picho, a grandson of two Ugandan kings – ‘I am surprised! You, bazungu, usually come with health issues – there are many Americans visiting us – high blood pressure, diabetes, overweight - all sorts of problems. How did you know how to get here?’
‘I just opened a newspaper.’
‘OK, no problem. If you want, I can also show you the Owino market , cause I need to buy some herbs. Would you like to get some help yourself?’
‘No, thanks’ – I smiled.
This is the result of that first interview (if you use Firefox and can't see the sound click here) :
It was all very confusing – dr. Picho would denominate himself as a herbalist yet what he had in his offer seemed very far from healing popular illnesses. With his help I got to meet mr. Haji Sentamu, the president of the Uganda Medical Practitioners' Association. I was surprised to discover, the practice was legal and there were 250 thousand herbalists registered in 33 million Uganda population, with illegal workers outnumbering the registered ones. As six million Ugandans believe in witchcraft, a well-known healer can earn as much as 3 million Ugandan shillings (over $1300).
I was soon to discover priests and doctors were far from disregarding the achievements of the local healers. In Malawi I talked to some medical students from Ireland working for World Medical Fund, who convinced me about the healing properties of some of the African herbs and acknowledged traditional medicine as equally important as the Western one.
(in case you use Firefox and can't see the sound click here)
In Zambia I talked to one of the many priests that believe in supernatural powers – Salesian Father Eustace Siame, who considers himself an exorcist.
(in case you use Firefox and can't see the sound click here)
Behind the closed eye
For the next appointment with a healer I didn’t bring any recorder or camera. In fact, I didn’t go to a herbalist. I believed I needed something that would feel like real magic. A witchdoctor, not a herbalist.
I didn’t share it with anybody but a girl who introduced to the ‘sangoma’. In a remote location, in the outskirts of Kampala she showed me the way to the shrine. We sat on plastic chairs and waited, I then paid and we could enter the room. We needed to take our shoes off and kneel down in front of him as soon as we entered.
‘I would like to enchant a man so that he falls in loves with me’ – I uttered. He first inhaled something, then he put his hands above my head and started whispering words. I blacked out. When I woke up I was lying on the carpet. He was seated in his armchair and said he had seen my future and that if I had a man in mind, I should better get him out of my head. He predicted I was soon going back to Poland (at that time I thought I was to stay 2 more years) and that I would have problems with sinusitis.
I left that room convinced witch doctors manipulate reality. I was sure there was no difference between him and doctor Picho. The next day I was at home and while preparing a lunch I opened a drawer. Inside there was a small snake standing and hissing at me. I ran outside and called a boy from the local market, who came with a stick and killed the snake.
‘How on earth could the snake enter the wardrobe?’ – I was pretty emotional – ‘It was in the drawer inside a locked room and I was the only person who would have the keys to either, the drawer had no hole’ – I wondered.
‘Somebody from the neighbourhood has been doing magic’ - the housekeeper shrugged her arms – ‘Such things happen when the witchcraft is involved’.
Sections of The Uganda Witchcraft Act of 1957 state: “Any person who directly or indirectly threatens another with death by witchcraft or by any other supernatural means shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction shall be liable to imprisonment for life”. It adds, “Any person who practices witchcraft or who holds himself out as a witch, whether on one or more occasions, shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction shall be liable to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.”
Recently, traditional healers petitioned in the Ugandan parliament to amend the act. They felt the vague definition of witchcraft undermined their work.
In fact, I am among many who, quite understandably, tend to confuse healers, because:
a) their scopes of work vary and some, in order to be able to work legally, call themselves herbalists, although they do practice bad magic;
b) witchcraft experience is not necessarily the first thing your Africans friends would share with you, if they know anything about it at all.
One thing we can’t deny is the absolutely vital presence of witchcraft in the society and the role it has played in the African history and the growing number of child sacrifice – something that has to be dealt with immediately.