What It Means to ‘Throw The Bones’ in African Culture? Learn of the life of a 108 African healer who lived to heal.
Based on an underlying set of principles and predating the Ice Age, traditional healing is arguably the oldest form of structured medicine. Traditional healers (sangomas) are still highly regarded in various societies around the world. They embody the role of healthcare provider, counselor, psychologist and even priest.
In South Africa, more than 60% of the population consults traditional healers. In fact there are something like 200 000 traditional healers in South Africa compared to around 25 000 Western – trained doctors.
Sangoma is the term often loosely applied to all types of traditional healers in South Africa. The word comes from the Zulu language (a people living predominantly in Kwazulu Natal). There are two main types of traditional healer. The first is the sangoma or ngaka in Northern Sotho who is concerned with divination. The second is the inyanga or moalafi in Northern Sotho who works with medicines made from plants and animals. Owing to western influences throughout the ages the distinction between the two has become somewhat blurred.
My grand mother, Mathabathe Mabine Mmetoane, who passed away on the 13 August 2017 at the age of 108 (born 1909 and died 2017) was one such moalafi or inyaka. Her husband, Mabine Phaahla Mmetoane, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 103 was a ngaka or sangoma who used bones for divinity and healing. Both of them were popular among the communities nearby and represented what the true African healing was all about.
Mathabathe Mabine Mmetoane was a specialist in infants sicknesses. She has been practicing this profession for over 80 years since she was married to Mabine Mmetoane in the 1930s. She diagnosed newborns for unforeseeable ailments or infections that could affect a child in adulthood. In a case of serious situations she would prepare a special muti or herb made of plans and concoction of roots powder, soil, river water and some blood from the infant’s forehead, mixed together to form a medicine. This is to relieve children from infantry and future headaches and other brain ailments
A muti or herb was also prepared to relieve a mother from affecting the baby during breastfeeding; mixture of mother’s milk, some ashes of burned leaves mixed with water for the mother to drink. This ritual is practiced early in the morning before the sun rise. Once the sun rises and this mixture is not yet ready the mother would have to return the next day for the ritual.
Babies were prohibited to leave their mothers’ site in the first 3 months except in situations were a mother has to take the baby or go to the healer or a clinic for consultations. After a baby is brought home after birth there should be a sign that there is a new baby born in the family. It was a requirement that a stick made of a particular tree (often a tree that were used to make tools for domestic use) put at the entrance as a sign that there is a new baby born in the family. This is to prevent those who might affect or disturb the baby’s well-being. Those who were prevented to enter the house were the new baby born is placed are:
1. Women who are on their menstruations, or/and who have aborted babies recently without being healed,
2. All males and females who have just attended burial proceedings or who have been inside the cemetery yards,
3. Men who were involved in the slaughter of animals recently,
4. Men who have been in the presence of many people in either gatherings,
5. Drunk or intoxicated people.
These were some of the prohibits that African herbalists, spiritual leaders and doctors taught within African societies.
Mathabathe Mabine Mmetoane was an expert on all these practices. No wonder her and husband lived over 100 years. She rejected any notion that African medicines are not working. However, she always lamented that in case of lack of proper use or ill-discipline by a practitioner such medicines would not work and often leads to fatal consequences, including passing of patients.
She always taught me that the Gods have given us the soil, animals and all the plants around us to use to heal ourselves when we are sick, hungry or disturbed. Her philosophy was that if it was not for the trees around us we could have been dead by now. It is the trees and animals around us that keeps us alive. We breath them, we eat them and we should embrace and take good care of them.
As a traditional healer, Mathabathe, remains popular among mothers as she specialised in infants. Many of us have passed through her hands. The nurses in the 1990s and early 2000s at Ga-Nchabeleng clinic used to reference their patients to this African healer when they could not diagnose or heal certain ailments in babies. With their African knowledge, their science and their bravery there were no amount of ailment that is outside their profession. Many walked home with their children crying but in two to three days they come back to thank the greatest of African healers.
Money or property did not matter to these great giants. In the 1980s Mathabathe and her husband Mabine charged only a 5 litres of traditional beer for a healing. So when you bring a baby or child or a patient to them you bring a 5 litres of traditional beer. They would share this payment with the rest of the community who indulge in traditional beer the whole day. In case of a long treatment where a patient is totally healed they charged only a live goat which as well would be slaughtered and shared with the rest of the community.
When this methods of payments were no longer possible because of the reduction in subsistence farming and crops and animal shortages began in the late 1990s, they demanded only R5.00 for a child or a small bag of mealies as a consultation fee. Mathabathe never increased her charge of only R5.00 until she was convinced by her great-grandchildren in 2015 to increase this price to only R10.00 per patient. She was not happy, however, she accepted it. A mother would buy and bring her own new razers and a small bottle of anti- infectants or what we know as spirits.
Because she became ill and frail Mathabathe had to look for a successor. She did not want to teach her off springs immediately, her children. She said “taking the responsibilities as a healer requires that you become more disciplined human being or you might end up killing people”. She refused to teach for the reason that the current generations are not disciplined and are after money. She told me one day that teaching us these medicines would be equal to teaching us how to kill others for money.
She waited and waited until she was 100 years old. She began to teach 8 years ago. Since she lived with one of her daughters, she preferred to teach her. At the age of 70s she saw it necessary that her daughter is suitable, then began to teach her all this science and spirituality. However she did not teach her all. She told her that the e rest will be brought by the ancestors as a gift once she passes the tests.
It is in this regard that we prays Mathabathe ‘a Phaahla ‘a Ngwato. We say rest in peace and tell the ancestors that we need rain!
She leaves 3 children, 24 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren and 4 great-great-grandchildren. And for all, she lives tens of thousands of people who are without a healer.