Dr Godknows Tshabalala: the best sangoma
in Cape Town
This is an excerpt from Pop-splat, the first in the Shockspeare series. The novel is an unapologetic rip-off of Hamlet , and is set in South Africa in 2008.
"Sangoma?” Matt looked startled. “You mean a traditional healer? What the racist pigs used to call a witch doctor?”
“Yah man,” said Horry. “But this dude’s a 21st century sangoma. This is a healer of mind and body, a man of cultural depth, wide learning, global savvy, and uncanny insight.”
“Well, shit man, I don’t know.” Matt was sceptical. “If you think he might be able to help me… Maybe he can interpret my dream. I mean, does he throw bones; and would I have to drink lion piss and eat the gall bladder of a baboon that was mated with a hyena? That kind of thing?”
“Oh for Christ’s sake!” Horry was scandalised. “Don’t be an idiot. This is a sophisticated sangoma, a modern man of the world.”
“What did you say his name was?”
“Godknows Tshabalala,” said Horry. “His rooms are out at Crossroads. He actually works from home.”
“Oh.” Mat looked and sounded unimpressed; far from convinced. “How did you get to hear about him?”
“His younger brother is my Political Science lecturer. Fucksakes introduced me to him about six months ago.”
“Who?” Matt couldn’t believe his ears.
“Yah, I know.” Horry laughed. “Cool, hey? Godknows and Fucksakes Tshabalala. Now these are real names. The darkies have got imagination and humour. Not like us. David!” He said it with disdain. “They went and named me David. Every second Jew boy on the planet’s called David. And you: Matthew. How many million Matthews, Marks, Lukes and Johns are there in Christendom? But we’re getting sidetracked. Dr Godknows Tshabalala offers conventional Western psychology, or traditional African methods of divination and appeasement of the ancestors. Or a blend of the two. It’s up to you to choose how you want your psychosomatic disorder treated. He’ll only throw the bones if that’s what you think is necessary.”
Matt was nervous about driving into Crossroads. Horry had drawn him a map and given very precise directions, and assured him it was perfectly safe in the hours of daylight. Nevertheless, he had taken a fully loaded firearm with him, just in case. He didn’t want to end up like his father.
It wasn’t far from the highway, but it felt like the hinterland of darkest Africa. The potholed track led into a jungle of shacks and took a turn. He was immediately engulfed by walls of wood, iron, cardboard and plastic. Most of the hovels were closed up, the residents away at work or school, or off foraging for firewood, or scavenging for bits of rubbish that might be of some use, or out and about breaking into houses and stealing washing from clotheslines, or off to town to do a little shoplifting and begging. He saw a woman, some small children in rags, an old man. A skinny dog barked a warning: if he stopped it would piss on at least one of his wheels. Some chickens; a goat. Everywhere the smell of human excrement.
Up ahead was a palatial shack, or collection of shacks, painted bright turquoise. He stopped behind what he took to be a client’s vehicle: a brand new R700,000 Touareg. Pigmobile. Two little boys were having fun slowly approaching the vehicle until, when about a metre or so away, it began to emit clicking noises and a metallic voice said “Back off! Back off!” They would shriek with glee and scamper away, only to repeat the game yet again.
Dr Tshabalala met him at the front door. He was a slim, bespectacled man in his forties. He wore neatly pressed trousers and a Madiba shirt. His shoes shone and around his left wrist was an expensive-looking watch. They exchanged greetings and shook hands and Matt was led into the doctor’s office.
It was a surprisingly spacious room panelled with tongue and groove planking painted the softest of pinks. The plasterboard ceiling was a little low but what could you expect in a shack? Doctor Tshabalala sat in his executive chair behind the desk and the patient seated himself in a comfortable wingback armchair.
For a few minutes they chatted about the weather and formed an initial impression of one another.
There was a filing cabinet and a large bookcase. Framed certificates on the wall; even some artwork. In the far corner was another door. Matt became aware of a woman’s voice, monotonous and saying something repetitious.
“I understand,” Dr Tshabalala said, “from what you told me on the phone, you’re being treated for bipolar disorder. Your medication has allowed you to function normally for the last two years, but now you are suffering from insomnia.”
“Yes doctor,” said Matt. “For a few weeks now I’ve been having this dream. It’s always the same.”
And he gave a detailed description of the mortuary scene. The 21st century sangoma listened attentively and made some notes in a case file.
“I’m worried about my condition,” said Matt. “My state of mind isn’t good. What do you think is the significance of this nightmare of mine?”
He immediately realised that he had overstepped the mark. This was a serious breach of protocol: you never, never, never ask a psychiatrist or psychologist a direct question. Even general practitioners resent being put on the spot. But to his surprise Dr T didn’t seem offended at all.
“It’s quite clear,” he said, in his pleasantly polite fashion, “that there’s a conflict that needs to be resolved. There is something that you do not wish to acknowledge, but you know you must. The dream serves as a subconscious manifestation of what it is you must confront. You see, your father is trying to tell you something that you already suspect but do not have the courage to bring to the surface and examine in the full light of day.”
“Oh?” said Matt. “And what could it be that he wants to tell me?”
Just then there was a knocking at the door in the corner.
“Enter!” called Tshabalala.
The door opened and a frightening apparition stood there. It was a black savage scantily clad in the regalia of a witch doctor. He wore a skirt made of grass, tails of monkeys and strips of animal hide. At one hip were some inflated pig bladders. Anklets, bracelets and a necklace of assorted teeth. His face and torso were daubed with ochre and white clay. As a headdress he sported the skin and tail of a juvenile baboon, the skull perched atop like a crown. Oh yes, and even a bone through the cannibal’s big Negroid nose, for Christ’s sake!
The barbarous creature uttered words in the English language.
“What now, doctor?”
“Please excuse me, Matt,” said Tshabalala, getting to his feet. “I must just give my intern some instructions and ensure that the ritual cleansing is being performed in accordance with standard operating procedure.”
Matt was left on his own. The door was ajar and he could hear the woman’s voice more clearly now. What was she saying? It sounded like ‘No more shoes’. No more shoes? Unable to contain his curiosity he jumped up and tiptoed across the room. Peeping through the two-inch gap he was rewarded with an outlandish spectacle.
The room was in semidarkness, lit by candles and a paraffin lamp. It was the interior of a shack: the walls and ceiling were lined with flattened-out cardboard boxes. On rough shelving and scattered about the room was a clutter of African bric-a-brac: earthen pots, wooden carvings, spears and a shield, big glass jars with the internal organs of animals, even humans, a calabash or two, all sorts of bones, a big pestle and mortar, a panga and a chopping block, carved drum and drumsticks, several knobkieries, animal hides – that kind of thing. And dangling from the ceiling were bunches of dried herbs, strangely shaped bulbs and roots, several skulls of monkeys and baboons and a buck. Also the skull of a cow complete with horns.
In the middle of the room were two 20L plastic drums set about a foot apart. Standing in these drums was the patient, a white woman in her forties. She was stark naked except for a blindfold. In each hand she held what looked like a large wooden phallus. They must’ve been hollow with beads inside, for each time she shook them they rattled.
She was slowly trudging, bent forward, legs apart, shaking the wooden phalluses, repeating as she went, over and over, “No more shoes, no more shoes, no more shoes.” Each time she lifted one foot it made a sucking, sloshing sound, while the other foot descended with a splash and a squelch. The buckets must have been full of some thick, sticky substance; something vile like goat’s blood mixed with pig shit – a nauseating stench reached his nostrils.
He nipped back to his chair, just in time. The doctor stood in the doorway talking to his apprentice.
“She is now in a trance-like state, without a doubt,” he said with confidence. “Another five minutes and then please be so kind as to insert the pessary.”
The door was closed and Godknows Tshabalala returned to his chair on the other side of the desk.
“Sorry about the interruption, Matt,” he said in a relaxed, conversational way. “Mrs B has an obsessive-compulsive neurosis which my white colleagues have been unable to treat. She has a phobia for old shoes, fearing that any hint of shabbiness in her footwear would be socially devastating. She feels compelled to wear only brand new, out-of-the-box shoes. Even though she knows her behaviour is irrational she has been unable to help herself. It has brought her husband close to financial embarrassment.”
“Gee, it sounds bad,” said Matt. “So that’s why she keeps saying ‘no more shoes’, and has to stand in a bucket of pigshit?”
“Exactly,” replied the sangoma. “In cognitive psychology we describe the treatment as “flooding”. But there is also an underlying sexual element in this kind of neurosis and it too must be addressed. But this is a digression. Let’s return to your dream: do you read the newspapers regularly?”
“Well… er… yes.” Matt was taken aback by the abruptness and apparent irrelevance of the question. “I try to follow what’s in the news. I didn’t used to, but in the last six months or so I’ve been trying to follow what’s going on in the world. Current affairs and…”
From next door there came a moaning scream, stretched out long and low as if it possessed a visible shape.
Must be inserting the pessary, he thought. What the hell’s a pessary? He mustn’t forget to ask Horry – he was bound to know.
“In that case,” said Tshabalala, ignoring the background noise, “you must have followed the media coverage of your father’s death and the subsequent analysis of other information that came to light.”
“Well, yes,” said Matt. “But not in any great detail. I’m afraid I’m not all that interested in what goes on in the business world.”
“I see.” Tshabalala raised his eyebrows as if he found this lack of interest somewhat remiss. “If you had followed the investigative journalism carried in the Financial Mail, Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Business Day and Noseweek you’d probably have a shrewd idea what it is your dead father wants to tell you.”
Matt felt confused and embarrassed. There was a suggestion of disapproval in the doctor’s voice.
“I know that my father was involved in all sorts of shit,” he admitted. “But isn’t that what it’s all about? My whole life I’ve been hearing about some sort of intrigue going on in the background. There was always a devious scheme being hatched; threatening phone calls, secret appointments. It was going on at home and all around me: wheeling and dealing of every kind. How many times have I seen bundles of cash, cardboard boxes of it, changing hands at a pool party, a braai, even in the car park at school? Laughing about the stupid ANC and affirmative appointments and BEE deals, and backhanders and board memberships. And tax! Jesus, I’ve heard so much about tax: amnesty, grey areas, offshore assets, undeclared income, fraudulent claims. It’s all they ever talked about: money, money, money. Money and cheating, and what money can buy. Fuck, I hated it. What do I want to read about it for?”
The psychologist looked at his client for a few moments and then leaned forward.
“Matt,” he said, “you can choose to bury your head in the sand if you wish. But then you mustn’t try to make sense of the world or ask why you are troubled by strange dreams. On the other hand, if you want to understand what goes on, you must read the papers and engage with society. If I didn’t do this myself I would be of no use to my patients.” He sat back and rested his elbows on the padded arms of his chair.
“Because I have followed your father’s story in the press,” he continued, “I have been able to form an opinion, only an opinion, of what might really have happened. And of course it is just speculation.”
“You mean…” Matt was having difficulty grappling with what Tshabalala was trying to tell him. “You mean he might not have been killed by hijackers? Then…”
Tshabalala held up a hand, interrupting him.
“Look,” he said, “you came to me with a psychological problem. I’m not a business consultant or a private investigator or a lawyer. You want me to treat the underlying cause of your insomnia. Well, I can offer you a choice of two types of therapy: Western, or traditional African. Because you are of a generation without cultural depth, because your psyche is stunted and your imagination malnourished, you are probably incapable of terror. Therefore I would not recommend the sangoma treatment. The ritual and mystery would be wasted on you, for you would see it merely as special effects. You’d compare it to some game on your PlayStation.”
Involuntarily Matt glanced over his shoulder to the door behind which lay the silent aftermath of orgasmic catharsis.
“No,” said the doctor. “Instead I shall deal with you bluntly and without subtlety. Matt, I want you to go away and read the reports about your father’s death and what has happened to his business empire. Then you are to ask yourself this question: who has benefited most from Bruce Dreyer’s death?”
Matt sat staring at the therapist, his mouth open in astonishment. The scales were already falling from his irritatingly obtuse eyeballs. And not a single bone had been thrown.
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