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Travel Image: South Africa
 Photo: Jan Sturmann
Travel Image: South Africa
 Photo: Jan Sturmann

Cell Phone-Wielding Shamans Call Rain in South African Desert
By Jan Sturmann

IN 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 the rains.

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 rain.”

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 best treatment.

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