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Rural Women’s Sexual and Health Issues in Tsolo: People’s Science in Mediating and Treating “Isichitho”

Written by Bonelwa Nogqaza

Isichitho is a curse used to create social divisions by making the victim unattractive and annoying, prevalent in South African traditional beliefs. In most cases, the goal is to make someone who wants to steal your partner look unattractive. The curse is created using muthi, a traditional medicine in South Africa. Muthi can be made from various plants and animal parts, and is used for both positive and negative purposes. Isichitho is one of the negative uses of muthi that is used by women to attack other women.

Figure 1: Left - Stem of Margaritaria discoidea at Ilanda Wilds, South Africa, showing old scar from bark removal for muti use (Source: Wikipedia) Right - Traditional herbal medicine. Photo: Zolani Sinxo

My ethnographic fieldwork in Tsolo has opened up space to unpack these subtle spiritually perceived diseases. Recently, I conducted a life history interview with a lady, Nomthandazo, who revealed that she personally encountered what she calls “isichitho”. I have had countless conversations with my host family and their neighbour on the authenticity of isichitho and its existence within communities. Nomthandazo recently revived this conversation on how women use isichitho and I requested her to define what constitutes isichitho.

Nomthandazo shares that towards the end of 2021, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, she started developing large pimples around her genitals, which she still has. She says this is an uncomfortable condition since it is itchy and creates an odour people cannot stand to be around. She recounts that normally, prior to the pandemic, she would talk with her friends about such matters. However, during COVID-19 she was all alone at home with her brothers and couldn’t share women related affairs with them. She says they would not comprehend nor help her out since they are men. She shares that when women meet, they discuss these matters so they can gain advice and assistance. For her, COVID-19 closed such channels where she could freely share with her peers matters concerning their sexual health. On asking her if her condition is an infection, she noted that she has visited the clinic countless times and even sought private doctors, but she never healed from the condition. She says she took antibiotics and had a pap smear done, but nothing seemed to be of use. Nomthandazo also shared that her male sexual partners are never long lasting as they typically leave after intercourse, and her genitals would remain itchy. She asserts that this is bothering her because she does not last with men, contributing to overall lower self-esteem regarding her sexual affairs.

Nomthandazo shares that she believes someone has put isichitho on her. When I followed up on why she believes this is the case, she stated that it is generally women who engage in isichitho to “destroy whatever it is that one may be having”. I asked her what is isichitho and how it takes form? Nomthandazo stated that isichitho is a bad omen or a dark spell that someone summons upon your life so that it may destabilise and destroy your health. Ukuchitha in isiXhosa is to destroy, so the rationale behind it would be to destroy whatever it is that the other person may want gone in your life. Generally, women put isichitho on others when they are sharing the same man - one would be jealous of how the man loves the other woman and want to destroy that relationship so the man can choose her over the other woman. The love the man had for the other woman would gradually dissipate and he would choose the woman who had applied isichitho unknowingly. 

Nomthandazo emphasises that when someone wants to apply isichitho on you, they approach a reputable ‘sangoma’ (traditional healer) to receive the concoctions that they will use on you. She says the sangoma would give that person an herb that destroys whatever is working well in your life. The sangoma they approach would then say your name over whatever concoction they might have done so that it can directly impact you. 

There have been other similar stories across the community about isichitho. Similar to Nomthandazo’ s encounter with isichitho, Zimbini, a 32-year-old lady who accompanied me to one of the interviews at Malizo hospital, revealed that people have been using isichitho on her. She showed me small pimples looking like rings of rash on her face. In our conversations she said she knew it was isichitho since she usually does not get such pimples on her face. In another recent interview I had with a woman named Odwa, she revealed how a certain lady in the village put isichitho on her so that she would not be employed anywhere, not have luck, nor have children. She said people do not like her and easily get irritated by her despite not having done anything to them. Odwa says isichitho will make you be despised by people - it is the evil done by women on other women. Furthermore, she says when you have isichitho, medical practitioners cannot heal it because it moves like an evil spirit, isichitho can only be healed by traditional healers.

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