Sangomas and placebos.

In the old days, when I had a proper job at IBM I would love the reasons people took leave. Once a cleaner had to rush home as her child was bitten by a tokoloshe. Another time, a chef took leave as a witch locked his wife in a cupboard. The PA took one of the busiest weeks in our calendar off as her ancestors told her to slaughter a cow for them. I would often be grateful that I did not work in Europe where people take leave for mundane things like moving or mental health days (how boring!).

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One of my staff members, Ronnie, was a porter. He managed to push his little porter trolley around at such speed and with so much noise that I knew exactly where he was, every minute of every day. Ronnie was usually full of the joys of life, but one day he came into my office in a sweat. I knew this look. He needed to borrow money. This time however, I could sense that there was something else bothering him. “Mam, he said, I have a snake in my stomach”. (You know, as one does). Now, some might think he was having a psychotic episode, but luckily for me, Ronnie was not the first staff member suffering from viper infestation and I knew he must have screwed up with an ancestor. Low and behold, the snake moved in because he had not erected a proper tombstone for his father. Luckily for him, the sangoma agreed to take large amounts of money from Ronnie and get rid of the snake. At the same time, the sangoma had a roaring business producing tomb stones, so happily solved that problem too.

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A week later, Ronnie was back, in exceptional health, making his usual noise with the trolley and the snake was long forgotten. All that lingered was his debt to the sangoma.

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I always wondered how people could experience such profound physical symptoms based on their emotional and spiritual experiences or beliefs. Dr A G Fuller from Sunninghill Medical Centre explained that the placebo effect is never to be underestimated, whether it has to do with ancestors, snakes, traditional healers and even western medicine. If his own patients do not trust what he prescribes, it has a negative effect on their recovery. Psychology Today says “Futhermore, the placebo effect is no small or insignificant aberration. Estimates of the placebo cure rate range from a low of 15% to a high of 72%!”

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Dr Erex Garty from the Davidson Institute says: “The placebo effect is a fascinating phenomenon and it could be claimed that placebo medicines have been the most widely used medicinal treatments throughout history. All the treatment prevalent in the Middle Ages, and in antiquity, as well as various folk medicines, relied almost completely on the placebo effect. After all, it’s hard to argue with a 30% success rate. Even today, quite a few therapeutic approaches, mainly in the field of alternative medicine, rely heavily on the effect” (I think he would consider sangomas to be alternative medicine, but as he is in Israel, I suspect he is not bumping in to them on the streets in TelAviv).

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I am a committed Christ-follower and have some serious beef with the prosperity gospel preachers; you know the guys that live in mansions and preach in ostentatious church buildings slaying people in the spirit and healing brain tumours along with driving out demons. I always thought that if you could do such miracles, why not walk in the hallways of Bara or heal the broken people in Charlotte Maxeke? After all, I am quite sure that is where you would find Jesus today if He were here. I watched a Youtube clip by James Jani on Megachurches in which he explained how these preachers use the placebo effect too, sweeping the people up with songs of worship, dim lighting and wonderful promises, and the secret ingredient: Mr Placebo, of course.

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Maybe we are guilty of using the placebo effect at Sunninghill Recovery Lodge too? Once you step into our space, which looks and feels like home, your mind might convince you that you are already better. Right now, we have a brave patient with us who was given days to live by her medical team when she arrived. She is now in her second month with us. No one can quite explain it, and maybe that is also okay.

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Maybe it is okay to exist in a hazy fog or grey mist of religion, of myth, of superstition, of fear, even, dare I say it, science. Whatever the placebo effect is for you or me, let it work for you and not allow others to abuse your beliefs and trust.

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