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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 (cont.)

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 bag.

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 it around.

“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 so thin.

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 storm.

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