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A version of this article appeared in POLOGY
under the title: "Cell Phone-Wielding Shamans Call Rain In African Desert".

Cell Phone-Wielding Shamans
Call Rain In African Desert

By Jan Sturmann


Behind the wheel of a dusty VW bus sits a big, bald white man wearing little more than a short red skirt, strings of beads across his ample bare chest and a blue cloth hat, like an upturned flower pot, on his head. He stops at a gas station in the conservative farming town of Upington, south of the Kalahari Desert. The black pump attendant recognizes immediately who he is. They share a private joke. He laughs, belly-jiggling and contagious as the flu.

     The dash of the car is cluttered with a beaded oxtail fly whisk, a cell phone, a large pocket knife, a stick of dried meat and a spiky bitter melon. In the passenger seat sits 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, beaded costumes and a computer hard-drive, the drying skin of a road-killed spring-hare emits a gamey smell.
     When the man walks inside to pay, heads whiplash, staring. 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’d met Peter von Maltitz and his partner Ellen Purcell in Upington four days ago. They’d driven ten hours from their farm in the Eastern Cape, I‘d 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 the 300 km north to the Kalahari Desert, where the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia meet.
     With reporter’s notebook in hand, and the manic kitten stalking my toes, I tried to flesh out our prior half-dozen cryptic e-mail correspondences. Peter, still a farmer, and once a computer programer, plant pathologist and homeopath, is a traditional African healer and shaman, or Igqirha in the Xhosa language. His healer name is Zanemvula which means “comes with the rain.” Patients across the South African color spectrum, often at their medical wit’s end, see him for treatment. As a diagnostic aid he’ll throw the bones, then prepare indigenous herbs and other strange things for their treatment. Additionally he requests (not makes) rain. He is back in the Kalahari to connect again with the indigenous San people (also known as Bushmen). Four months ago, in October 2003, he rain-danced with them to try break a yearlong drought.


     For 100,000 years the San hunted and gathered across Southern Africa, adorning cave walls with their exquisite art. Then 200 years ago the white settlers came from across the seas, and the black tribes came down from the north, and the only place the San were not hunted was in the Kalahari desert, which no one else wanted. In this harsh land, calling the rains was integral to their survival. Then the desert became a game park, and the San were expelled three decades ago by the apartheid government, who 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.
     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. Drought stricken farmers once hired the San to call the rains to their land. Peter’s hope is to revitalize this practice; create a rain-calling SWAT team of San when the land is held hostage by drought.

At the Loch Maree General Store, Peter makes inquiries where to find Jan van der Westhuizen, the shaman for the San living around the hamlet of Andriesvale, 50 km south of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Last October they had rain-danced together. We find Jan walking back from a meeting at the community center. His dread-locked hair is circled by a lion-claw headband. 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 us to his home, a grass hut in a compound of tin and brick shacks. Eyes scramble to adjust to the darkness. Jan introduces his wife who sits on a blanket with two toddlers. She smiles a greeting with perfect teeth and eyes dark as caves. We find a place to sit. A skeletal man squats on the floor. Around his spit-slick mouth his hands flutter like an injured bird. “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.” And recently the first cases of AIDS was diagnosed.
     In Afrikaans Jan and Peter talk shaman shop about these illnesses and treatments and the changing weather pattern since they last danced for rain together. They exchange herbs, compare dosages, plan to go plant-gathering the next day.
     The talk turns to divination. Jan’s wife reads tea leaves. When sick people come, she looks into their future so Jan can prescribe the best treatment. From a leather pouch, cracked with age, he pulls a fist-sized round rock with a hole, wide as an eye, drilled through the center. His great-grandmother foresaw that he’d 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 the rock be given to Jan when he came of age. Now, when he looks through the hole 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 loin cloth. 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, kneels: at his feet, 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, if the pharmaceuticals have a patent on this plant to extract a substance that suppresses hunger so western women can stick to their diets, it can’t be too poisonous. I take a bite, chew, and taste cool, bitter slime spread over dry tongue, and can imagine how deliciously the body would savor this taste after walking for days without food and water in the desert.
     Peter gathers seed pods, which he hopes to cultivate. The pharmaceutical industry understands just one property of this plant, but there are many more, if prepared in the right way. Neither will tell me these shaman trade secrets.
     Jan breaks 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. The roof extends over a sand-filled concrete circle. A well-meaning NGO built this place so they could dance for the tourists in the shade. But when, after great expense, it was finished, the San refused to dance. Not because they did not want the tourist money, but because they could not dance under a roof. Now it stands, underused, with broken windows -- an expensive patch of shade in the desert.
     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 alive in the community who still knows the old language. The school hired her to teach the children before it’s too late.
     Like a strange postmodern composition, ringing cell phones duet with her descanting voice. Every second adult it seems has one hanging from a belt, or pressed against an ear. A young man plays ringer options to his friends. The notes of Green Sleeves hang incongruently 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, hard as rawhide.


     By the fire a dead bat-eared fox bleeds into the sand. The pink tip of its tongue protrudes between sharp teeth. Red dust covers its large black eyes. Four puncture wounds show in its chest, I touch the fur, soft as rabbit pelt. A teenage boy comes over, tells me how he tracked it this morning with his dog, which then killed it. The dog, a sleek brown animal with a long snout, lies panting in the shade as a puppy gnaws on its swollen teats. The skin, he says, he’ll tan for tourists, the meat he’ll eat, and the kidneys are a good remedy against poisons. I caress the ears, big as my hand, and try to imagine the sounds they once heard.
     An old man stares blindly out 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 too lost their sight.
     Peter treats a woman sick with the flu. He goes to his car, rummages around bags, returns with a wild ginger root. She recognizes immediately what it is, slices a thin sliver, and tucks it between gum and cheek.
     The young hunter holds open his hand, shows three bone pennants, each intricately burned with the design of an ostrich, an eland, and a dancing figure. “No one can burn with the detail I can,” he says. He’s selling: $3 each. This young entrepreneur has turned his desert survival skills into making pennants and pouches and rock art and necklaces for tourists who stop at his grass hut on the side of the road.
     I buy one of course; my money a small drop of oil on the wheels of this fringe economy. And he will spend it at the Loch Maree general store, that sells everything from green tomatoes and fan belts to blond Barbie dolls and laxatives.


Maybe he’ll buy a little salt to season the tough fox meat, along with a bag of sugar and a pouch of Boxer tobacco. Or an uncle will spend it on cheap brandy. And quickly my money will land in the hands of the store owner in who’s large walled house I visited. The interior, all black marble, thick rugs, dark wood, mounted animal heads, and two huge dogs that lay at the feet of four San servants cleaning, scrubbing, cooking.

As the sun sets that night we arrive at a small San camp, a twenty minute ride by car through the desert. Grandma Anna, 110 years old, greets Peter, Jan and Ellen from her perch on a tattered blanket under a tree. We sit down, talk weather, health, and the latest about a San man shot dead by the police a few days ago. Two children play with a puppy. In a grass-walled enclosure a young women prepares the evening meal over a fire. Another woman emerges from the grass hut with a book in her hand. Jan greets her with a wave. She mutely waves back, sits next to the fire and reads. “She’s deaf,” Jan explains, “meningitis...”


     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, 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 set sun highlights the cloud-rimmed horizon, as the first star pinpricks the purple sky. Jan takes a child by one hand and has her 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.


     They then 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 in, all drink again of the herbs. Peter tosses some into the air and the drops fall on upturned faces. Right then, there is no other place to be in this world but here where the veil between humans, gods and the elements seems so thin.
     They return to their cooking fire. The precious liquid is left in a bottle with Grandma Anna. The children get their food. The deaf woman goes back to her book. A dog gnaws on a jaw bone. The night sounds of the desert surround us.

At midnight the rains come. First a sporadic patter on the tin roof. Then a lull, as thunder and lightning draw tighter in time. A suspense of indecision: will it blow over as it has so often, or will the sky baptize the earth?


     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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