Destined to Be a Witch Doctor?
Pastor Surprise Sithole
Author of Voice in the Night
From the time I was born, my parents hoped I would follow the family tradition and become a witch doctor. I suffered with asthma and other physical ailments, and when my parents sought healing for me, "the spirits" told them that I was sick because I had not given myself over to them. As soon as I had done this, they said, I would be healed.
My family had been involved in witch doctoring for generations. My grandfather kept poisonous snakes to use in rituals and died when one of those snakes bit him. My childhood was full of strange spiritual experiences and spiritual oppression.
This was the only life I knew.
My parents did a pretty good business. Every day, people came to the house, many of them weeping, looking for a way out of a desperate situation. Perhaps a child was sick, or the monkeys had stolen their crops. They usually brought a little maize meal or some chicken for my family, but they always had to bring some money, too. My parents would have their "clients" rub the money over their bodies as though washing themselves with soap in the shower. Then they would take the money, put it into a shell and start sniffing it. As they did so they would make a funny noise—"heh, heh, heh"—and then start speaking in a strange tone of voice.
The "advice" that came through was almost always the same, and it played on the person's fears. Someone had put a curse on them. Death was very near. The spirits were angry and had to be appeased. Upon hearing this frightening news, the customers were usually ready to do anything my parents told them to do.
Did my parents have real power, or were they charlatans? The answer is both. Much of what they did was trickery, pure and simple. But I also know that they sincerely believed in the spirits, and I saw many strange events for which I have no other explanation besides the supernatural.
More than once, I found myself floating above the floor as I tried to sleep at night. I struggled and kicked and tried to get back on the ground, but I seemed to be suspended in space. Did it really happen, or was it just a dream? All I can say is that it certainly seemed real to a young boy, and terribly frightening. Later on, when I told my parents about the experience, they became excited and began beating on the drums they used to summon the spirits.
They definitely believed the spirit world was real, but they were not above deceit. As an example of their trickery, they would ask their customer to stare into a bowl full of water until he saw the face of his enemy—the one who had placed a curse on him, his crops or his children. Stirred up by anger and fear, the person would look until he saw someone's face looking back at him—and naturally, the face he saw was the face he expected to see. The neighbor who had given him a strange look. A person he did not like for some reason.
My parents would ask, "Do you want this person to live or die?" By this time, the customer was so agitated that he would almost always say he wanted his enemy to die. He would then be given a stick with a needle attached to the end and be told that he should take revenge on his enemy by striking the image in the water. In most cases, he took the stick and began whacking viciously at the water—which slowly began to turn red. As the water darkened with "blood," the attack would increase in intensity. The customer would slash and cut in the water in a hateful frenzy, literally trying to hack his enemy to pieces.
But there was no blood in that water. The stick that held the needle had been cut from the root of a mbela tree, which my parents knew would turn the water red.
Still, there was power in the trickery. Sometimes the enemy would fall sick or even die. I now believe this was due to the faith of my parents' customers. They wanted it to happen so badly that it did.
Every day at sunset, just before the jungle became pitch dark, my mother would go out and pick some of the grass that grew alongside the trails her customers walked each day. Then, she and my father would burn it on the fire in the center of our hut, asking the spirits to give more problems to the people who had walked along these trails. For them, more problems meant more business. The last thing they wanted was for people in the village to be happy and trouble free. Sometimes they would name people and ask the spirits to bring them to our door. The next day, the ones they had named would show up, crying and moaning about the burdens that had fallen on them.
A Life of Misery
As for me, I was oppressed and unhappy, and I cried often. One root of my misery was my sister Maria. I thought Maria was a better person than I was, and I resented her. She was the star of the family, and we both knew it. She was beautiful; she excelled in school. Even though my parents could not read or write, they knew that Maria was a better student than I was. It was easy to tell just by glancing at our schoolwork: Her handwriting was neat and easy to read. My papers looked as if they had been written by a centipede crawling over them.
I was jealous, so I treated her terribly. When we were younger, we often fought, and my father always took her side—which resulted in a severe hiding for me. Once he tied my hands and feet and put me in the hot sun to be bitten by red ants. Fortunately, my mother came along and untied me, after which she and my father got into another terrible fight.
I was also afraid of the strange things I saw and experienced. One day, my friends and I were walking home from school when we came upon a young man walking straight toward us. I thought he would go around us, but instead, he walked right through us. I felt a cold shiver go through me as this ghostly figure seemed to pass through my body. The experience terrified me, but my friends did not even seem to notice.
My parents were no help at all when it came to my fears. Instead, when I told them about frightening things I had seen or sensed, they covered me with a blanket and started beating drums in an effort to get me to allow the spirits to manifest through me. They also beat me with a whip made of horsehair or hit me on my head with a wooden spoon. When I cried out from pain, they beat the drums louder and whipped me harder, because they thought the spirits were beginning to speak through me. I sometimes spent the entire night covered in a blanket, terrified, in pain and praying silently—to whom I did not know—that it would stop.
My mother and father would sing songs over me that were completely meaningless: "The tree of the bird, the lion is sleeping." They sang the same words over and over as they beat their drums. When the situation became almost unbearable, I would start moving around beneath the blanket as if I were not in control of my own body. I knew this would make my parents believe that I was allowing the spirits to take control. This brought relief because my parents would stop whipping me with that horse tail or hitting me with the spoon.
As you can see, my childhood was not a time of happiness and innocence. I was miserable and rarely smiled. My mother often told me, "Don't laugh today or tomorrow you will cry." Even if I had reason to laugh, I would have been afraid to do so. Mine was a life of hopelessness and distress—until the voice woke me up in the dark.
Excerpt from Voice in the Night by Pastor Surprise Sithole, Copyright © 2012, Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group, http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.
Pastor Surprise Sithole ("Sit-holy"), the author of Voice in the Night, has a passion for Jesus that drives him to the darkest and most unreached areas of the world. As the International Director of Pastors for Iris Ministries, he speaks 17 languages and oversees more than 10,000 churches throughout Africa. He and his family live in Nelspruit, South Africa, where they direct the work of Iris-Africa and Partners In Harvest. Visit his web site at www.surprisesithole.com.
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