COVID-19: Sangoma wants to be COVID-19 ambassador after recovery

COVID-19: Sangoma wants to be COVID-19 ambassador after recoveryPHOTO: Flickr
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When a sangoma sneezes, it is generally seen as a good sign in some local cultures.

“Hiitsii,” the sangoma would often exclaim to which the client then responds “Camagu” or “Makhosi”.

But when sangoma Gcinani Bango kept sneezing early last month, he knew something was amiss and sought medical help.

Compounded by fever and a severe headache, Bango was fearful and wondered if he will become another COVID-19 statistic in a pandemic that has turned the country upside down and so far claimed over 400 000 lives worldwide.

Gcinani Bango, a traditional healer, recovered after he tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalised. PHOTO: Supplied

“had a bad feeling”

As a traditional healer, Bango often has clients knocking on his door seeking medical help through traditional healing practices. Little did he know that he would soon be the one seeking medical attention.

“I just had a bad feeling. All the symptoms pointed to this virus, but I needed to be certain,” says Bango.

On 14 May he consulted his doctor. He says the doctor told him he would pay an amount of R1 500 if he tested negative but that he would have to use his medical aid if he tested positive for the virus and needed hospitalisation.

After being screened and tested, Bango says “his worst fears were confirmed”.

Two days after the test, he received the news that he tested positive for COVID-19.

“I immediately thought of my wife and children. I just didn’t want them to be infected by this. If I die, I had to die alone,” says the father of three.

He says after getting tested, doctors hospitalised him so he can isolate and be monitored.

For the past two weeks Bango received medical care at the Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital (a private hospital) in Cape Town. “I count myself lucky that I recovered after a few days of being admitted here. Even doctors told me that my situation had improved speedily, but they still decided to keep me for some more time for monitoring,” he says.

Speaking to Spotlight from his hospital bed by telephone, Bango says he wants to be an ambassador for the virus and make people, especially in impoverished communities, understand that the virus can be beaten. He was eventually discharged on Sunday 7 June.

He says he has learnt a lot about the virus since his admission and hopes to spread his knowledge about how best people can avoid it and take care of themselves.

 “Throwing bones”

On his calling as a sangoma, Bango says it was a “bizarre occasion”.

Growing up in the rural parts of the Eastern Cape, he always considered himself as a “cool guy” and never imagined himself “throwing bones and healing people”.

However, a few years ago he started having some dreams of his forefathers telling him he was the “chosen one”.

“I just ignored the dreams. But I started having some misfortunes in my life. I am a believer and I was taught to pray when times are hard, but prayer didn’t seem to help. That was when I decided to consult a traditional healer who told me that I had no choice but to accept my calling. He said if I didn’t, more trouble would come my way,” says Bango.

Soon after accepting the calling, Bango underwent training as a sangoma.

The training involves attending traditional healers’ ceremonies and being taught how to mix different traditional herbs.

After almost a year of training, he finally graduated as a sangoma last year.

“There was a lot of traditional dancing and singing on the day. It is a joyous occasion as it signals the start of my life as a sangoma,” he says.

Bango, a municipal official by profession, says he got curious stares from his colleagues at his workplace when he showed up at work dressed in blue, red and white beaded necklaces, bracelets and colourful strings around his waist.

“Some of my friends thought I was going crazy. I had to explain to them that this was my new journey, and that they had to accept the new me,” he says.

 Not like any other virus

Bango was working from home when he contracted the virus. He says he is grateful for the support he received from his colleagues after he disclosed that he had tested positive. He stays in Gugulethu in Cape Town, where over 100 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed so far.

“People need to accept that anyone can get infected,” he says.

He feels fortunate that none of his family members and clients contracted the virus. But what pains him is the ban on alcohol sales that was lifted under level 3. Bango says he foresees more positive cases and more deaths in light of this.

“Unfortunately we are led by the government and we have to follow the rules and regulations set by them. But I feel this is going to cause more damage. People are uncontrollable when they are intoxicated. How are they going to wear masks and practice social distance under the influence of alcohol? But I hope health authorities will implement measures to ensure that there is adherence,” he says.

Practicing with extra care

The moment he is discharged, Bango vows to teach his clients about the importance of sanitising and maintaining social distancing. But controlling the flow of clients to his traditional practice will remain a challenge, he says. “Despite the warnings, people will always keep knocking on the door because they are sick. I will continue practising, but with extra care,” he says.

Asked about what role he thinks traditional healers can play in the fight against COVID-19, Bango says sangomas have a big role to play. “But as someone new in the profession, I can’t say much. However, I believe there should be consultation between government and traditional healers to find a solution,” he says.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize met with traditional health practitioners (THPs) in April and said government had agreed to better define the role of traditional healers during the lockdown period. Mkhize said THPs and his department agreed that there must be an ongoing channel of communication with the department for proper coordination and information sharing that will assist in the fight against the COVID-19 virus.

The Department of Health, he said, has identified some roles to be played by THPs. This includes advising and providing guidance about infection prevention and control measures and  Educating the community on the importance of personal hygiene.

Bango says these are roles he is prepared to take up.

“Wearing of masks at all times and sanitising will definitely be the order of the day. But just for extra precaution, I will take things slowly after being discharged until the virus has been controlled,” he says.

“Nowadays everyone knows someone who is infected by the virus. People are now taking extra care, but I will definitely spread the word of taking precautionary measures when I get discharged,” he says.

Feeling ‘left out’

President of the Traditional Healers Association in the SADC region, Dr Sylvester Hlathi, says traditional healers and their patients have been left out of the national pandemic response.

“As sangomas, we treat and heal people. But unfortunately we were left out from the onset as we were not deemed as essential service providers by government,” he says.

Hlathi said in an interview on SABC earlier in March THPs are important stakeholders in society and should be informed and equipped with personal protective equipment. He said THPs will help government “fight this monster” of COVID-19 but they feel excluded in the COVID-19 response.

The department of health has since (in May) issued guidelines for traditional health practitioners for dealing with COVID-19 and lockdown.

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