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Culture : 'Dial a Witch Doctor' Promises Fast Relief for Illness, Bad Sex : Thousands of black South Africans rely on space-age access to practitioners of the ancient art. But the phone bills for the new service can be pretty frightening.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Feeling poorly? Having money troubles? Perhaps the boss is on your case. Or your sex life is the pits. Or maybe you've been having strange dreams about snakes or birds or, if you're really unlucky, white people.

For many black South Africans, those are sure signs that it's time to visit the local sangoma .

But, let's face it, who has time in this fast-paced modern world to find a good medicine man or woman, travel great distances and then wait in line to be treated?

That's why thousands of ailing South Africans pick up their telephones every day--and dial a witch doctor.

Twenty-four hours a day, more than 100 traditional healers stand ready to "throw the bones," mumble incantations, smell out the wisdom of dead ancestors, prescribe concoctions of powdered bark and roots, diagnose illnesses and interpret dreams. And they do all that in prerecorded messages for just $1 to $2.50 a minute.

Thanks largely to those healers, the 9-month-old business of pay telephone lines in South Africa is booming.

"It's taken off like a rocket ship," said Walter Preiss, general manager of product development for Telkom, the newly privatized telephone company.

Telkom, using a system modeled on America's 900 numbers, has leased more than 10,000 pay lines to witch doctors, sexologists, sports stars, celebrities and even political parties, including the African National Congress and the ruling National Party.

The result has been a money-making machine for Telkom and entrepreneurs willing to invest in the one-year experiment.

South Africa has 6 million telephones--one for every six people, compared with one for every two people in the United States. And yet this nation's pay-telephone services are logging more than $8 million in billings per month.

The services are not cheap for callers. A five-minute session with a witch doctor can cost $12.50, nearly a day's pay for most blacks. And yet that marriage between ancient culture and modern technology has been the experiment's most surprising success.

Newspapers are filled with dial-a-witch-doctor advertisements--they now account for 20% of the advertising revenue in the Sowetan, the largest-circulation daily newspaper aimed at blacks in South Africa.

Witch doctors remain a valued part of South African life. Millions of black South Africans, from rural to urban areas, consult them for all manner of biological and metaphysical ills.

South Africa offers the best modern medical care on the continent, but many traditional Africans consider modern medicine to be severely limited. And even middle-class blacks routinely consult both modern and traditional doctors in hopes of getting well.

Some patients prefer the care of inyangas or herbalists, who are usually men and whose cures frequently have a strong basis in modern medicine.

But many others believe that disease and dreams are signs of displeasure from their dead ancestors and require a healing hand with more spiritual powers. Sangomas, most of whom are women, help patients learn what is making the ancestors unhappy and find ways to make amends.

Tembankosi and Catrine Mabuia, well-known healers in the rural province of Natal, run several services from their home near Durban.

Tembankosi hosts the bilingual "muti (herbal medicine) line" and the "dream doctor" line in Zulu and Sotho. His wife is billed as the "true Sotho sangoma Catrine." She "throws the bones" to contact ancestors and tells the future on 12 recorded messages--one for each of the astrological signs--changing them every few weeks or months.

Since they started their services, the Mabuias have made a bundle--about $1,000 a week--and they've also been inundated with mail from callers.

"I didn't know it would be like this," said Tembankosi Mabuia, sounding depressed. "But it's a helluva lot of job. I have to help these people. Most of the people say I must do more, because they need a lot of things. They say what I did on the telephone is not enough for them."

Like many of the witch doctors , the Mabuias warn callers that their advice is "no guarantee. We must never guarantee, because everything belongs to God," Mabuia said. "Just to chase the bad spirits, it's a very hard thing to do on the telephone."

An important part of the appeal of traditional African medicine has been its personal touch. AIDS victims, in particular, have found great comfort in the treatment of sangomas after modern doctors have sent them home to die.

What the pay services lose in personal contact, they try to make up in accessibility. And sangomas tailor their words of wisdom according to astrological signs, types of ailments and even the nature of the patients' dreams, recording dozens of different messages, each corresponding to a different phone line. The patient finds his problem or sign and dials the number next to it.

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