On our motorcycle ride over and around lushly vegetated rolling terrain, beyond small farms of coffee and cocoa, I was being driven to a destination that on one hand had nothing to do with this amazing nature, but on the other, was quite tied to it. We were visiting a man–not a waterfall or the famous natural stone bridge nearby. Yet he was the area medicine man, or, if you wish, a witch doctor.
After several miles on motorbike and another mile or two on foot, we met a compound of wood, mud, and brick structures. Inside the last building of the compound sat the old man…
This is what my mother warned me about.
“Brandon, they do voodoo over there!” was one of the things she said in protest of me coming to Tanzania.
Since arriving, I had inquired whenever someone brought up the subject of witch doctors. I was more curious than unnerved by the topic. I figured most of the eeriness people have about these healers is wrapped up in the unknown. Either way, I didn’t think I’d be able to find out for myself.
Then in July I came visiting to Tukuyu in the southwest corner of the country. While eyeing tourism outing packages from my guesthouse bulletin board, one caught my eye. It included plenty of the usual hikes and rides to the various geological splendors, but also started off with the chance to visit a witch doctor.
I called the agency and planned the tour early the next day.
This morning, I greeted a stunning Tukuyu sunrise walking from my guesthouse to meet my guide at the bus stand.
My tour guide, Michael, was a well-put-together man of 40 in a blue windbreaker and white Dallas Cowboys baseball cap. He was the owner of the tour company. I was lucky to get him and his English skills to take my smallest-of-possible groups out for a tour. We hopped on a rented motorcycle after a breakfast of tea and bread and readied to ride.
We were off for one of the richest nature-tourism extravaganzas I could imagine, seeing rushing rivers, immense natural rock structures, a gorgeous waterfall, and yes, that witch doctor with whom we spent most of the morning heading out to and interviewing.
Leaving the hilly city center, we cruised by outer neighborhoods:
After a few miles, we slowed it up for Tukuyu’s dirt road edges.
Dirt roads became little more than wide paths interrupting crops of banana and then coffee. (For this, I asked we stop for a coffee break.)
Coffee fruit on stem, coffee bean inside
Women picked and hoed. Children played and posed.
Just past the coffee trees, we parked the bike.
We were at the witch doctor?
Time to walk. But it was a beautiful stroll.
Following my guide, Michael
Meeting and greeting a local
After the ups and downs of a steep hill or two, things leveled out.
And up here a driveway met our path. We took the left into the witch doctor’s property.
It wasn’t ooky or scary or even strange. With a variety of old to older buildings—some brick/plaster, some cement—wooden fence for a cow, a couple of trees growing in the dirt yard, and a couple of children around, it looked to me like the Tanzanian version of some tucked-in-the-woods rural properties of my native northern Minnesota.
Walking in the middle of it past two decaying building structures to our left, was a two-room building caked in off-white plaster and topped with a red corrugated metal roof. Outside it was an old man waiting on a chair and then a young woman with baby. Both patients in waiting, the old man was in no hurry and the lady went inside to make an appointment for a later time. We were free to enter.
We walked through the curtain for a front door to a space with little light, but much decoration. Clutter some might call it. Furniture, coffee table, shelving, and most of it with items–cups, books–atop. It spoke of a person who’s been here for some time, collecting their goods in ways only they would know the combination for which to find any certain item.
This attic-like space didn’t see just the floor limited, but the wall space as well. Taped up like wallpaper were posters of an interesting variety. The ordinary yearly calendar poster hung near a poster of the “World’s Worst Dictators”, featuring portraits of Stalin and Idi Amin above statistics of the number they were responsible for killing. One politician seemed to be favored by the medicine man: U.S. President Obama, whose 2008 campaign post of Change hung above the couch along the back wall. To the left of this poster was a large display of The Last Supper.
Michael and I were invited to sit on the couch. The doctor took an old easy chair. And we began our interview.
The man dressed in clothing not traditional or tribal but more resembling something my grandfather would wear.
His name was Wilisoni Anyosisye Nyondo. He was born here in Tukuyu in 1922. In 1936, he started learning from his grandfather the ways of the healer.
What does he heal?
“Big stomach,” he said to Michael who translated for me. “Problems with urination, losing sexual ability for both men and women. Women having problem getting pregnant.”
Such a healer tackles more than the human body. People also come when they are “confused.” And “many people have problems with demons,” he added.
“That’s my job,” said Nyondo.
People come to him with a problem. Cures will come to him in his dreams, he said.
He said medicines can include liquids to drink or to put into a bath. For demons, he sometimes cuts the person’s arm and rubs a liquid into the wound.
He gets his medicines locally, or from Zanzibar Island off Tanzania’s coast, and also from the country just 100 miles from here, Malawi.
“What are some medicines you use?” I asked.
Fish oil, shark oil, crocodile oil, ginger, onions, he said listing a few.
Do you do surgery?
Recalling what I’d heard from other about witch doctors, I asked about a more controversial practice, “Do you use body parts from others?”
“No,” his crackly voice said resolutely.
Tanzania has a culture of superstition regarding albino people—of which there are more here per capita than in most of other nations. Stronger in the past, beliefs still linger that albino body parts are useful in spells or that the act of killing an albino will lead to better fortune. A few such killings have been reported around Tanzania this year. Chances are, there are other deaths unreported.
“What do you think of albino people?”
He said he doesn’t like the killing of them.
“Have you ever assisted in the killing of an albino person?”
“Do you know others who have?”
“No, because they do it in secret.”
If he does hear anything, though, he said he has the number for the police. He said the last case he heard of in Tukuyu was in 2005. And for that, the police arrested a local traditional healer.
“I spent many years—never did that,” said Nyondo while showing me his grey hair under his hat with little laugh.
“Why do people kill albinos at all?”
The belief, he said, is that “if you kill an albino, you’ll be rich.” He said some miners believe this.
While Nyondo is adamantly against the harm to albino people, he’s not without his belief in monetary magic spells. Continuing to share, he said there is “medicine from a cobra to protect your money.” Keep the medicine in your pocket, and no one will steal your money. He told me he has some of this medicine.
Further, if you keep in your home “water retrieved from the waves of the Indian Ocean,” it will keep burglars away.
Finally there’s the millionaire spell, which he called the “work of wizards”–though I wasn’t sure if that was a disparaging or respectful acknowledgement. For this, you rip the corner off of a 10,000 shilling note (worth only about $6-$7).Then you put the corner piece in medicine—a powder, I surmised. You make change for the 10,000 note with a millionaire. The millionaire is now affected. “He will be bankrupt, and you get rich,” said the old doctor.
As a result of these spells and beliefs, he has many businessmen visit him to protect their money.
After discussing spells and such, we went outside to show me his “medicine cabinet.” In a building that seemed the outdoor version of the room in which we spoke, he enter a naturally-lit space just as cluttered, but this time with old boards beginning to moss over, a leg from a bed frame, and old paper—and then were the bags of herbs on top.
Nyondo in front of his medicine room
He grabbed the bags and his grandson who had arrived laid them out on a large reed platform.
Nyondo said these ingredients–leaves, bark, and more–are useful for drinks that help with sickness and lack of energy.
Though some of Wilisoni Anyosisye Nyondo’s ways may seem odd or deemed useless to outsiders, he serves a crucial role in the ways of life of the people here. I don’t know if people coming to Nyondo is a statement about the power of alternative medicines or the power of placebo and belief. I’m not writing this to “get to the bottom” of it. I’m interested in the life he leads, the part he plays in this world, and the staying power of such a culture.
About the religious culture in this part of the world: there is widespread belief in Africa about notions of spells, curses, sorcery, superstition, and the supernatural. A businesswoman whom I’ve met in the town of Iringa thinks that her brother with muscular degeneration in his legs was the victim of another person’s spell toward him and his business success. And she’s Christian.
Christianity is strong all over the country. But rather than replacing this belief system of spells–albeit while working to eliminate some of its more egregious aspects such as killing albino people–Christianity here seems to be a blended version of these two spiritual practices like the assumption of a region’s particular version of an outside language. As such, a well-known female preacher famously declared a few years back that she was to raise a man from the dead on a given date. As the date approached, however, she backed out due to supposed security concerns. Today, she’s in politics.
With the beliefs in such practices strong and the need present, Nyondo currently works with his three grandsons to teach them the ways of being the Tukuyu medicine man.