Phone-Wielding Shamans Call Rain in South African
By Jan Sturmann
PICTURES : The Cell Phone-Wielding Shamans in Action
It is a hot, dry evening in the
Kalahari, and Peter von Maltitz is sitting with a
clan of San and their shaman Jan van der Westhuizen.
For eons, their ancestors have communicated with the
weather to ensure their survival, yet many San have
forgotten how. The two shamans mix a frothy brew of
herbs and lead the San in a dance to bring the rain.
The San shaman is lean as a hare
and wears only a leather loincloth. Peter is a large
white man with strings of shaman beads that bounce
off his ample belly as he sways in the setting sun
Peter and Jan are a new breed of
Shaman that use cell phones to hire themselves out
as rain-dancers. They are fighting for their people’s
survival by calling rain in the Kalahari Desert.
For 100,000 years the San hunted
and gathered across Southern Africa. 200 years ago,
the San people retreated to the Kalahari Desert as
white settlers and tribes from the north invaded their
land. The tribe survived in this harsh land by calling
Three decades ago, the desert became
a game park. The Apartheid government expelled the
San. It regarded them as less than human, but not
animal enough to stay.
Torn from their land, the few thousand
remaining San now face cultural and physical extinction.
Drought-stricken farmers once hired
the San to call the rains. Peter von Maltitz, hopes
to bring that relationship back to life. He is creating
a rain-calling SWAT team of Shamans, equipped with
cell phones, to dispatch at a moment’s notice.
The next day Peter drives from the
desert in a mud-splattered VW bus. He wears a short
red skirt and a blue cloth hat, like an upturned flowerpot,
on his head. In the conservative farming town of Upington,
south of the Kalahari Desert, he stops for gas. The
black pump attendant recognizes immediately who he
is and they share a private joke.
An oxtail flywhisk, a cell phone,
a large pocketknife, a stick of dried meat and a spiky
bitter melon bake on the dashboard of the van. In
the passenger seat is a former wildlife biologist
from San Francisco with a kitten perched on her tanned
shoulders and the double string of white apprentice
beads tied around her wrists. In the back, amongst
bags of herbs, traditional medicine, divination bones,
colorful costumes and a computer hard-drive, the drying
skin of a road-killed springhare emits a gamey smell.
When the shaman walks inside to
pay, people stare. Two farmers, with sun-broken skin,
smirk behind their morning papers. A beaming black
woman walks up, claps her hands in greeting and express
her gratitude for the rains that fell last night.
I had met Peter von Maltitz and
his partner Ellen Purcell in Upington four days ago.
They had driven ten hours from their farm in the Eastern
Cape. I had bussed in from Johannesburg. We spent
the night on the bank of the Orange River, which turns
this section of the arid Northern Cape green with
irrigation-intensive farms. The next day we drove
300 km north to the Kalahari Desert, where the borders
of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia meet.
Peter is a traditional African healer
and shaman, or Igqirha in the Xhosa language. His
healer name is Zanemvula which means “comes with the
Peter is a former computer programmer,
plant pathologist and homeopath who has now settled
as a farmer on the Eastern Cape.
Patients across the South African
color spectrum see Peter for treatment, often when
modern medicine has failed them. As a diagnostic aid,
he throws the bones, then treats his patients with
indigenous herbs and other mystic ingredients.
Peter also requests rain.
Peter has come back to the Kalahari
to connect again with the indigenous San people (also
known as Bushmen). Four months ago, in October, he
rain-danced with them to try break a yearlong drought.
Three days after the ceremony in
October, the rains came. The San prayed again for
rain in mid-January. The next day it flooded in Upington.
At the Loch Maree General Store,
Peter asks where to find Jan van der Westhuizen, the
shaman for the San people living around the hamlet
of Andriesvale, 50 km south of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier
Park. Last October they had rain-danced together.
Peter finds Jan walking back from
a meeting at the community center. A lion-claw headband
circles his dreadlocked hair. In one hand he holds
a diary. In a small beaded pouch, he carries a cell
phone. As he walks, a dangling quarts crystal thumps
against his thin chest.
Jan invites Peter and his companions
to his home, a grass hut in a compound of tin and
brick shacks. Jan introduces his wif,e who sits on
a blanket with two toddlers. Her perfect teeth shine
in the dark hut as she smiles a greeting.
We find a place to sit. A skeletal
man squats on the floor. His hands flutter like an
injured bird around his spit-slick mouth. “His parents
shared the same blood,” Jan says. “He understands
well, but can’t speak. I’m trying to treat him. If
I feed him the roasted head of a tortoise maybe then
he’ll come out of his shell and find his tongue.”
On a pile of blankets against the
grass wall sits an older woman dressed in rags, her
stunted body and tiny head the effect of infant alcohol
syndrome. “This is what’s killing my people,” Jan
says, “the alcohol, the tobacco, the sugar. I treat
so many diabetics and people whose lungs, already
weak with TB, are destroyed by smoke.”
Recently the first cases of AIDS
were diagnosed in Andriesvale.
In Afrikaans Jan and Peter discuss
these illnesses and treatments and the changing weather
pattern since they last danced for rain together.
They exchange herbs and compare dosages. They make
plans to gather plants the next day.
Their talk turns to divination.
Jan’s wife reads tealeaves. When sick people come,
she looks into their future so Jan can prescribe the
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