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Blarn#6 - Muthi is Magic

Don’t walk under a ladder. Toss a pinch of spilt salt over your shoulder. Don’t open an umbrella indoors. Say ‘bless you’ to anyone who sneezes. Such superstitions permeate western society; they mould acceptable behaviour, and influence many aspects of our lives. The origin of each is usually steeped in ancient beliefs, or just plain common sense in the case of ladders. Historically, and usually hysterically (but not the laughing kind), ‘manifestations’ and anecdotal testaments (it happened to my cousin’s friend’s neighbour) would reinforce the convictions. My mum-in-law is as avid a believer as I am a cynic. “You can never be too careful,” she tells me when refusing to pick up a knife she has dropped. It matters not that science and logic tell us that the simple act of bending over and grasping the utensil between one’s thumb and forefinger cannot possibly descend all manner of bad luck upon you.


Africa is awash with superstition. It is no secret that some very wealthy, often nefarious, individuals make extravagant livings off of the deep seated beliefs in African culture. Walk into any African home, be it a ‘pole and daga’ hut on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, or a mansion in Soweto, and you will find any number of superstitious knick-knacks. In every teeming, cosmopolitan capital of Africa there are whole shopping districts where one can purchase potions and talismans to cover everything from reversing one’s misfortune (a black chicken), to having the power of all-seeing prophesy (a vulture’s head). Call it voodoo, ‘snake oil’ medicine, necromancy or good old witchcraft, in my corner of Africa we call it muthi, the pronunciation of which has nothing to do with a milky Ceylon brew!


Muthi can be as innocuous as a truly effective headache powder ground from wild bark and herbs, or it can provide the sinister smoke for a magic spell that will, quite literally, curse a man to death. Western culture laughs at these ‘ridiculous’ notions, yet at the same time skips from ‘12’ to ‘14’ when numbering the rows in an aircraft, even though passengers still physically sit in the thirteenth row. Go figure!


Scoff as we might at such foibles, the consequences of taking African superstitions lightly have followed me my whole life. As much as I am mocking of my mother-out-law when she tells me not to point with a knife (she has a cutlery drawer full of knife superstitions), I am equally credulous about the magic of muthi.


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“Share-ron! Share-ron! I’ve caught him! I’ve caught him!” My wife’s two-way security radio squawked loudly at two in the morning one balmy October night.


For most of that year, up and down the waterfront of Botswana’s Chobe River, the various lodges and camp sites had repeatedly been hit by a gang of petty thieves. These scoundrels, like so many of their sticky-fingered brethren in every tourist destination in the world, considered our visitors as easy pickings for their economic stake in the travel industry. All evidence pointed to this particular bunch of rogues emanating from the Zambian village of Mambova – the African version of the Wild West’s Tombstone, and a place that our local ‘sheriffs’ treated with fearful trepidation. In the dead of night these villains would pole their mekoro canoes across the international borders delineated by the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers, then, having selected their target, would come ashore and smash into campers and 4x4’s before dashing off with camera bags, backpacks, and laptop holdalls. All in the blink of the security guard’s sleep encrusted eye. A good friend of mine (Steve I hope you’re reading this), when asked if he slept well, usually answers with the amusingly apt simile, “like a night-watchman!” Let’s be honest though. If you have ever done any security work, as I have in the Namib diamond fields, you will know that staying awake during those small numbers of the morning is nigh impossible. Particularly if you supplement your income by ‘sunlighting’ another job during the day!


We are lucky enough to live on the sprawling thirty hectares (74 acres) of riverine and Acacia woodland where the lodge that Sharon manages is located. Our half mile of pristine river frontage is a short boat ride from the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers; the only place in the world where four countries (Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) share a common boundary point. Tucked away in one corner of our little slice of Eden is a small campsite that is particularly popular with the camper who likes peace and quiet, and wants to avoid crowds. Sadly, this is exactly the kind of setting that attracts unwanted tourists from Mambova as well.


By the time we were halfway through July, Sharon had had enough! Although no establishment had escaped unscathed from this gang, she had dealt with more than her unfair share of incidents, along with the fallout from some understandably disgruntled travellers. It was impacting on business and to say that she was at the end of her frayed tether is a gross understatement. Drastic action was called for. The first thing she did was to ‘Donald Trump’ the security company the lodge had contracted. She had tried them all and the only thing that ever changed was the logo on the overinflated monthly invoices. Then, after hiring her own guards and paying them more than they would ever earn under ‘Acme Security’, she contacted a Sangoma.


There are two types of muthi practitioners in Africa. There’s the herbalist ngaka who really is concerned about improving their patients’ health with carefully concocted remedies, and then there’s the Sangoma. These ‘medical professionals’ go by several names in indigenous cultures all over the planet; shamans, druids, soothsayers, and witchdoctors to name a few. For millennia they have practiced the dark art of African mysticism, using muthi to cast spells, or mtakathi, to help improve their clients’ health, wealth and wisdom. In the western hemisphere, such individuals are considered as fringe lunatics by society’s majority…… and their clients as full blown lunatics. In Africa Sangomas are feared and celebrated in equal measure, there are no lunatics, fringe or otherwise, here. I have yet to meet an African who showers scorn or scepticism on the Sangoma, no matter their social status or level of education. To do so would be to incur the wrath of the ancestors, and who wants to enrage the ghost of a Shaka Zulu or an Idi Amin!


Our antagonists were Zambian, so nothing less than a Zambian Sangoma, would do. The town of Livingstone is just an hour’s drive away, and living there is one of the most respected, and feared, Sangoma in our four countries region. In the ways of modern capitalism, such fear and respect comes with a rather hefty, non-refundable, professional fee. It took a number of protracted negotiations over the phone and internet to reach an agreement on the exact services to be rendered and the appropriate remuneration thereof. Curiously, no matter how ancient his customs may be, our ‘doctor’ was not averse to using modern technology to his financial advantage. I do wonder though what bones he threw, or what incense he burnt, to get us to agree to his terms.


His arrival at the lodge was without the ceremony that one might expect for a famous mystic, yet in truth I am also unsure what such expectations should be. The slight, middle-aged man that knocked on Sharon’s office door could walk past you on any street without so much as raising your eyebrow. In fact Sharon finds it hard to even recall his face or any particularly defining features of the fellow. If it weren’t for the tell-tale animal skin bracelets and the neatly tailored animal hide ‘bag-o-tricks’ he had tucked under his arm, he was as nondescript as a person could be.


We were not privileged to witness the sacraments that our Sangoma was to perform; such rites are complex and taken with an extreme seriousness that precludes inquisitive gawking by a lekgoa, white person. No Sangoma can carry out a ritual without first performing the all-important cleansing rite of contrition to the ancestors. Some water splashing, feather throwing and dust bathing, accompanied by incomprehensible chants apparently did the trick. Then at his own time and pace, in his own company, with a pharmacopeia of herbs and a menagerie of preserved animal parts, our contractor visited every corner of the property. His promise was to divine a protection for all those who were welcomed here, but at the same time his spell would curse anyone who scorned the protective blessing he bestowed. Having completed his obligations, he packed his unique medicine bag, collected his payment (“Cash, U.S. dollars if you please!”), and hopped on the bus transfer back to Livingstone, never to be seen again. Or maybe we did, but didn’t recognise the guy.


It is not important how many eyes-of-newts and toes-of-frogs were boiled and bubbled as he wandered the grounds. The key to the whole exercise was that word got out and that the belief in the power of his hexes would protect our guests from further harassment. We needn’t have worried about that – the African grapevine is more effective than a Pennsylvania Avenue twitter feed. In no time at all, it was common knowledge that the lodge was under the protection of powerful muthi.


The only thing that beats strong muthi, is stronger muthi! It is not unusual for one Sangoma to provide protective talismans to the targets of another Sangoma’s spells and curses. Stories abounded of how the looters were using muthi to protect themselves from the perils of a wild river and to remain invisible to law enforcement. Their boldness and continued evasion only served to reinforce the faith in their magic charms. We can only guess that this was the case, because over the next couple of months the frequency of the raids didn’t change. However, things were different now. The new guards were ‘one-eye-open’ alert and up to the task of foiling several attempts. Our campers were not such easy targets anymore, but Sharon still complained that she had wasted way too much money on a load of hocus-pocus.

That was until the ‘witching hour’ when her radio blared into life.


“Where are you?” Sharon asked the excited guard who had bolted us out of bed.


“I am here! I’ve caught him here!” was the altogether useless explanation of his locality on a property that goes a quarter mile in every direction from where we were. This conversation repeated itself for quite a while, the escalating decibel level shedding no light on which way we needed to go. Eventually we worked out it was one of the guards designated to watch over the camp ground and I hightailed it down there whilst Sharon called the police.


By the time I got there, the culprit had somehow managed to squirm loose from the guard’s grip and was standing thigh deep in the Chobe River. Let there be no doubt about this; the Chobe is full of crocodiles and if this guy was going to stand in the river, no-one was going to go in and physically apprehend him. The security staff’s improved wages still didn’t cover that level of danger pay. By now a small gallery of spectators had gathered and everyone was imploring the guy to come out the river. His demeanour was strange to say the least. No matter the language, English, Nyanja, Subiya, Kalanga, Tswana, or Lozi, this petty criminal was behaving like he heard nothing and refused to make eye contact. Instead, with trance-like movements, he slowly and methodically removed his clothing, tossing it in a soggy pile on the water’s edge. Down to his boxers, he paused for a moment then did the unthinkable; something none of us would have dared to predict. He started to swim for the Namibian shore!


‘Swim’ is a generous description. The river here is half a kilometre wide, and perhaps Graham Thorpe would have a chance of getting to the other side, but this Zambian Olympic wannabe was no ‘Thorpedo’. Indeed there isn’t a known swimming stroke that could have described this guy’s style of aquatic mobility. He was on his back and splish-splashing his arms and legs in a crude form of upside-down breast-stroke, not unlike what you might expect from a wounded frog. It was clear to us that no matter how much faith this man had in his muthi, there were only two possible outcomes here if we didn’t get onto the water and physically pull him out.


“Shaz, this madman is going to drown or get taken by croc. We need to get the boat – NOW!” was my response to the lunacy we were witnessing. In hindsight I recall how all our African colleagues stood around with an air of resignation, in complete contradiction to how Sharon and I were reacting. It was as if fate was now in control and muthi would determine the outcome. The boat jetty is on the other end of the property, the boat’s keys are in the office, the boat’s fuel is in a storeroom, and there is a lot of ground to cover in between. Impossible? Maybe, but we had to try.


It felt like one of those dreams where you are running through treacle and going nowhere. We got the keys, loaded the fuel, grabbed a handheld spotlight and managed to start the irascible two-stroke outboard in what seemed an age that could only be measured by a geologist. At last we were on the river and Sharon was scanning the water with the spotlight.


“Oh my God, look at all the eyes!” she exclaimed as the beam picked up the luminous reflections of Africa’s most dreaded and most notorious predator. The Chobe is a wondrously fertile river wilderness and the abundance of its apex predator is testimony to this. Crocodiles are very active at night and, thanks to that characteristic eye-shine, have excellent night vision. Still, we only saw small individuals and that provided some hope for the ‘frogman’ if exhaustion hadn’t claimed him. As we glided up the centre of the river, spotlight swinging side to side, my gut was in a knot. You know that feeling you get when you just know something awful has happened?


“There he is!” My dread temporarily replaced with a wave of relief. On the dim fringes of the beam, I clearly saw the outline of a man on the surface of the water.


“It can’t be,” Sharon replied, “it has an orange eye.” Being directly behind the light, any eye-shine reflected straight back to her, but at my angle I could only make out the barely illuminated shape. As the boat approached and the main beam lit up the area, the river’s flat calm surface was disturbed by the distinct circular ripples of something large submerging.


Clearly we were too late.


What we had seen, in all probability, was a large croc that, having already caught and drowned its victim, had resurfaced with its human prey clamped between menacing jaws. This scenario was validated by what the guards heard from the shoreline whilst we were frantically trying to get out on the boat. They had watched the thief with their spotlights until he was lost to the darkness, his position marked only by the rhythmic sounds of his swimming style.


Splish-splash, splish-splash, splish-splash……SPLASH! Then a deafening silence.


No body was ever recovered, and having removed all but his briefs, no scraps of clothing could mark the poor fellow’s demise. The Zambian police paid Sharon a visit and for a short while tried to pin blame on her for killing the man and feeding him to the crocodiles! I suspect more to extract compensation for the victim’s family than for criminal culpability - as if our guests hadn't already paid enough 'compensation'. Their Batswana counterparts quite literally laughed them out of town.


From a non-African perspective this is a tragic and sad story. However, for the local tribespeople of the four countries, it was merely a cautionary tale. There is a fatalistic indifference that surrounds such gruesome encounters; if you challenge the muthi then you must accept the consequences. It is clear to all that our Sangoma’s power surpassed any other local quack’s and, more than a decade on, his protective aura appears to linger. New gangs pop up every so often, with the occasional spike in river incursions, but whilst others fall victim to their illicit visits, somehow our lodge and campers continue to avoid their pilfering attentions.


Knock on wood it stays that way!


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Sometimes the ancestors and their muthi don’t want to hurt you – they just want to teach you a lesson. My impudence would earn me one such lesson.


“For the first time the local community has kindly allowed us to cycle past Njelele.” Gavin was giving us the obligatory evening briefing before the first day’s stage of the Matopos Heritage Ride. I am talking about mountain biking – a passion that has allowed Phil, my cycling (and Last Chance Safaris) partner, and me to explore some really wild places…. and beat a few hasty retreats from the tusked, horned and toothed inhabitants of those places. Aptly named ‘The Daga Boy Dodgers’ our team of two was champing at the bit to hit the spectacular trails of the Matopos World Heritage Site. This scenic paradise is an amazing patchwork of unique and interesting habitats that encourages a proliferation of biodiversity from orchids to Rhinoceroses. A geological phenomenon, the enormous granite domes that characterise the landscape are some of the oldest exposed rocks on the planet. The nearly three billion years of weathering has carved some of Nature’s most bizarre balancing acts. Matopos is also a gallery for arguably the best rock art to be found anywhere in Africa – some dating back over 2,000 years. In fact our species has lived here almost continuously for about 300,000 years. That’s an awful lot of ancestors!


The massive monolith Gavin was referring to is the spiritual hub of the Matopos; indeed it’s the ‘St Paul’s’ of the entire Matabele nation. It is hard to over emphasise the veneration that this Rock holds for the people of southern Zimbabwe. Apart from its spiritual and historical importance, it has also been a military stronghold that has never been overcome. Even the remorseless Cecil Rhodes, with the might His Majesty’s Royal forces behind him, ended up ‘seeking terms’ (Brit-speak for surrender) with the Matabele. Consequently, every aspect of traditional Matabele life is communed, via the ancestors, at Njelele. Crop yields, fat livestock, good rains, and bountiful wildlife are all assured if the correct and reverent behaviour is upheld. Disrespect this and you run the risk of some serious ancestral retribution.

Njelele - viewed from a 'safe' distance


Gavin gave us a crash course in what constitutes ‘correct and reverent behaviour’.

“Don’t look up at the dwala (dome), and definitely don’t point at it.” Were his cautionary words, but there were a lot more ‘don’ts’ to observe whilst in the shadow of Njelele. Don’t whistle, don’t shout, don’t handle metal objects, don’t fix anything, don’t drink water, and probably a bunch more ‘don’ts’ I don’t remember. Now for those who know me, ‘don’t’ is a word that has the same psychological effect on me as a ‘wet paint’ sign. The consequence of this is that I have, on the odd occasion, suffered the physical effect of having more than just a brightly coloured fingertip. This would turn out to be one such occasion.


That first warm-up stretch of Day One on the Matopos ride is adrenaline-charged. The training and the wait have built up the excitement and now you are wheel to wheel with fellow maniacs having the time of your life. Rough-hewn single tracks alternate between open dambos (valleys) and whaleback granite kopjes making the ride both technical and fast paced. The only other time I have ever felt the same exhilaration was whilst heading down the side of a snowy mountain with two planks fastened to my feet.


Then we arrived at Njelele and I couldn’t help myself!


As our duo sped along the track at the base of Njelele, and even though Gavin’s words were echoing in my head [Don’t look up at the dwala], I glanced up to marvel at the immensity of this sacred hill. Suitably impressed I ploughed on, only to see one of the lady riders ahead of us lose her tool kit. I called out to her [Don’t shout] and stopped to pick up the multi-tool from the track [Don’t handle metal objects] to give back to her. I suppose if I was a local Matabele, I would have heard the sharp intake of breath from a hundred thousand generations of ancestors, but my cynicism made me deaf to such sensations and instead I just kept pedalling.


It was a remarkable day! The conditions were perfect and my Njelele infractions were completely forgotten about amidst the elation of downhills and the strain of steep climbs. That was until we got to a compulsory stop at Nswatugi cave to admire some incredible rock art. My guess is that the ancestors had been having an indaba (conference) on what punishment would be suitable for my effrontery. Having portaged down from the cave, we saddled up and accelerated along the single track. That’s when an ancestor shoved a stick in my spokes and everything came to sudden stop - except me. Sailing over the handlebars in an untidy swan dive I couldn’t understand what had happened on a perfectly clear track. No harm and no foul, I walked up the track and found a short stump concealed by freshly sprouted leaves. It appeared that my pedal had snagged the stump and sent me on a freak NASA-esque launch. Bad luck? At least I thought so at this point.


Now before we go any further I feel compelled to defend my riding skills. Sure, I’m no Lance Armstrong, but, apart from my drug of choice being limited to ride-induced endorphins, I have been riding bikes for forty-something years and reckon my ability to stay upright on two wheels is a tad above average. Despite the fact that mountain biking tends to push the balance boundaries a bit, my falls are infrequent and usually only when I try to test those boundaries with some gung-ho antics, not on innocuous trails or in perfect conditions. In fact my last serious wipe out was when I was twelve! Barefoot, shirtless and in a time when helmets were only worn by motor bikers to avoid a traffic fine, I was racing a buddy down the steepest hill in our little village of Mtoroshanga in Zimbabwe. My front wheel hit a patch of loose gravel and before you can say ‘face plant’ I finished the rest of the descent using only my skin as a means to slow down. I can clearly recall the shocked look on my mother’s face as I dripped a bloody trail into her office at the bottom of that notorious hill to cheekily ask if she had a ‘plaster’ for me.


Day Two loomed and our team had grown by one. Wayne had ‘lost’ his brother the day before – no training, too many cigarettes and those technical climbs tend to do that. This is the guy who introduced me to the sport of mountain biking, and who has shared too many bush adventures with me to count - watch out for him in future Blarns. From the outset I was having trouble. My energy level was rock bottom, and the smallest inclines had me floored. It felt like the brakes were permanently on and I was constantly fighting an inexplicable resistance. Wayne and Phil stuck with me, chivvying and cajoling me to pick up the pace they know I am capable of. Eventually we hit a long downhill that allowed me to recover somewhat – but this lured me into a false sense of security. Back into the thrill of it, a sweeping section of fast track had my inner child chuckling – then an ancestor kicked my rear wheel out from under me.


WHAM! I hit the deck hard. Phil, an experienced EMT, immediately thought, ‘There goes Grant’s collarbone!


Again there was nothing sinister about the trail, but somehow my knobbly tyres had lost grip on a simple berm and I was once more sprawled in the dirt. Collarbone intact, but pride hurting and confidence in tatters, we got going again. My cycle ‘buddies’ were laughing like a pack of hyaena – there is nothing that appeals more to a man’s simple sense of humour than when one of his mates makes a slapstick fool of himself.


The next two calamities were equally bizarre and I have no doubt that the ancestors were laying in ambush and having almost as much fun as Wayne and Phil were. Some invisible hand twisted my handlebar from my grip on a fast sandy track, resulting in me spitting out a mouthful of gritty dirt. Then that guy with the spoke stick caught me again, probably wanting to see if my swan dive had improved. Trying my hardest to see the humour in the situation, I ‘laughed’ along with the two clowns I was keeping company with, but truth be told, the patience I am usually blessed with was running on empty. Somehow I managed to get back to camp without another incident and, most surprisingly, with no injury worse than a battered ego.


Day Three – final day. Feeling a whole lot better, the day started on a high note with a thrilling dwala descent, then we hit a rocky ravine and suddenly there I was, once again, with my backside in the dirt and not in the saddle. I didn’t laugh! I grabbed my bike and went off at breakneck speed, trying to outpace the crappy luck I was having. Trouble was, one of the ancestors had now damaged that little thingy at the rear of the bike that switches the gears up and down. We still had sixty k’s to go and the hills that lay ahead needed every one of those gears. When my temper cooled we did some running repairs that would see me home, even if the gears weren’t behaving as they should. Little did I know that the damage was all part of the lesson the Matabele forefathers still had in store for me.


There was more track behind us than in front of us when I had my most spectacular mishap. We arrived at an area that is riddled with deep erosion gullies requiring some nifty negotiation along the crests of each gulley. Climbing up one of these crests, with a gulley on either side, and needing the torque to reach the top, I selected a lower gear. Nothing happened. Without the power to reach the top, I stalled. Ordinarily this is not a problem. You just unclip the pedal cleat with a deft twist of the ankle and step off the bike. Nooooo….. this time one of those bloody ancestors had his hands wrapped around my foot and pedal, and instead of casually alighting from the bike, I fell sideways. This also would have been okay – all cyclists have embarrassing ‘cleat falls’ – except this time there was a six foot deep gulley where normally there would be ground. That gulley swallowed me and my bike like Jonah’s whale. I lay upside down at the bottom of a hole big enough to be my grave, my feet still clipped into the pedals and the wheels pointed to the sky. In any other circumstance it would look downright hilarious.


In their (weak) defence, Wayne and Phil were extremely concerned when they saw me disappear. After rushing over to pull me out from the ancestors clutches, their concern abated when they realised that once again I was miraculously unhurt. However, my dark expression must have conveyed a clear message.


“Don’t laugh.” Wayne apparently whispered to Phil. “We’ll laugh later, but don’t laugh now.” That fellow has strong survival instincts – I’ll give him that.


I would love to say that that was the end of it. With a face like thunder I cursed and swore my way up and over every remaining hill, and nearly made it home. The last ten minutes is fast and usually an excellent end to the marathon, but I had one last butt-kicking to endure. Remember that phantom with a rear wheel fetish? Well, he once again flipped it out from under me, and now finally I got hurt. Not seriously, just enough that a painfully bruised hip would serve as a lingering reminder of the consequences of my impertinence.


For those of you who have been counting, that is seven wipe outs, SEVEN! I am not sure if the Matopos Heritage Ride organisers keep a record of such things, but I doubt there’s another rider who comes close to that dubious achievement in one event. Wayne, Phil and I did laugh that evening, and many more evenings since. However, all joking aside, having completed three more Matopos rides since, I treat Njelele with the respect it rightfully deserves; risking another round of painful lessons from the spiritual inhabitants of those sacred hills is more than enough incentive.


If your own scepticism has you doubting my story then spare a thought for the poor lass who lost the tool kit I picked up. Having also disregarded the ‘don’t’s’, the ancestors appeased their ire by splitting her from her cycle partner and getting her completely lost in the Matopos wilderness. Dehydrated, exhausted, traumatised, and alone in the dark she was eventually located hours later, well after the sun had set.


I’ll still pick up that dropped knife and happily fly whilst seated in 14A, but when it comes to muthi, whether you believe in its magic or not, I won’t be taking any chances.


Grant and Phil - 'Drum Rock', Matopos and feeling on top of the world!

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