Phone-Wielding Shamans Call Rain in South African
From a leather pouch, cracked with
age, Jan pulls a fist-sized round rock with a hole,
wide as an eye, drilled through the center. His great-grandmother
foresaw that he would be a healer and would need the
power of prophesy. For forty years she sat around
the fire at night boring the hole. Before she died,
she gave instructions that Jan should be given the
rock when he came of age. Now, when he looks through
the hole toward the sky where the sun has just set,
he sees images of the future. “It’s peaceful, this
future,” he says. “But there are so few people. I
don’t understand yet what happened to them all.”
Jan is trying to convince the park
authorities to allow his people to return to their
ancestral land. “There’s a break in my people’s spirit
that can only be restored by living again in the old
way. Most have forgotten how to dance for the rain,
how to pray. But they will learn again. They must.
It is their gift to give to this land. When the feeling
in the heart is right it’s simple for us to talk to
the earth and the sky.”
With boot-shod feet I stumble clumsily
behind Jan the next day. Alert as a tracking dog,
he glides barefoot between grasses and thorns, searching
for a cactus called Hoodia. He wears only a leather
loincloth. In one hand he carries a digging stick
and short spear; in the other, a canvas gathering
At first, he finds only dead cactuses,
black and shriveled. “So many plants in the desert
are struggling,” he says. “And it’s not just from
lack of rain. The pollution from the mines and the
factories are poisoning them too. And then there’s
the hole in the sky that lets in the bad light...”
We walk on, searching. The sun,
already at midmorning, a hot iron pressed against
the back of the neck. Eyes sting with sweat and squint
against light, sharp as thorns.
Jan stops, and kneels. At his feet
is herbal gold -- a young Hoodia with clusters of
forked seed pods still attached. He cuts a branch,
scrapes off thorns with his spear, takes a bite, offers
“What the hell,” I think, I take
a bite, chew, and taste a cool, bitter slime that
spreads over my dry tongue. I can imagine how deliciously
the body would savor this taste after walking for
days without food and water in the desert.
Peter gathers seedpods, which he
hopes to cultivate. The pharmaceutical industry understands
just one property of this plant, but Peter insists
there are many more, if prepared in the right way.
Neither will tell me these shaman trade secrets.
Jan cuts two dreadlocks from his
head, and buries them under the cactus.
At a stone and thatch building just
off the main road, the San gather for a meeting. A
small fire burns in the center of the concrete circle.
An old woman, eyes hidden in wrinkles, wears a black
fedora hat at a jaunty angle. She talks in a language
of impossible clicks and chirps to young people around
her. She is the last person in the community who still
knows the old language. The school hired her to teach
the children before it is too late.
Like a strange postmodern composition,
ringing cell phones duet with her descanting voice.
It seems every second adult has one hanging from a
belt, or pressed against an ear. A young man plays
ring tones to his friends. The notes of “Green Sleeves”
hang in the air.
Jan squats on the ground with a
group of men, plotting strategy to return to the park.
His spear and digging stick lie at his bare feet.
By the fire a dead bat-eared fox bleeds into the sand.
The pink tip of its tongue protrudes between sharp
teeth. An old man stares blindly out the window into
the sun. Each person passing gently touches his bare
shoulders. When talking to him, they hold his hand,
tenderly as a child. His grandfather and brother also
lost their sight.
Peter treats a woman sick with the
flu. He goes to his car, rummages around bags, and
returns with a wild ginger root. She recognizes immediately
what it is, slices a thin sliver, and tucks it between
gum and cheek.
As the sun sets that night we drive
to a small San camp in the desert, where we will perform
a rain dance.
Peter takes the lid off a can of
water, unwraps a ground mixture of eight herbs from
a brown paper bag, pours them in, and with a forked
stick twirled rapidly between palms, whisks the liquid
to foam. The beads across his bare back shimmer and
click like insects. Sweat glistens around his headband.
His bare legs are covered in fine sand as he kneels
at his task.
When herbal froth swells over the
rim, he leans forward, touches lips to foam, slurps
like a drinking animal and sits back with a grunt.
He stirs again and invites Jan to drink. And so it
goes, until all nine gathered for this rain dance
have tasted the herbs that help them pray with courage
and humbleness, and patience.
They then walk quietly to the top
of a small dune. Bare skin welcomes the evening’s
soft breeze. The last light of the sun highlights
the cloud-rimmed horizon, as the first star pricks
the purple sky. Jan takes a child by one hand and
guides her to walk in a circle around him. She takes
her brother’s hand, they circle again, and with each
circumference another person clasps an outstretched
hand, until all nine people revolve like planets.
Then they face out in a circle and
get down on their knees in the still-warm sand. Jan
and Peter each pray in Afrikaans. Then Grandma Anna
prays in a language that has called the rains for
eons in this desert. The circle turns inward; all
drink again of the herbs. Peter tosses some into the
air and the drops fall on upturned faces. There is
no other place to be in this world but here where
the veil between humans, gods and the elements seems
The night sounds of the desert surround
us. At midnight the rains come. First a sporadic patter
on the tin roof, followed by a lull, as thunder and
lightning draw tighter in time. Then it comes, and
the roar of rain drowns out all but the loudest thunder.
I lie next to the open window,
feel spray on skin, and breathe in the scent of ozone,
wet sand, moist leaves. For hours it rains, and I
listen, and try to comprehend the consequences, if
what I witnessed on the dunes somehow influenced this
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