Page 2 of 8
Goggin pronounced her greeting correctly, but that didn't make the meeting any easier. It didn't help that some people working on the project had already shown disrespect for the healers by failing to pay them for their help in an earlier phase of the study. Then there was the cultural stigma because she was an American, and in the not-so-distant past her country had supported apartheid. She felt she had a thousand years of history on her back.
Mhlongo understood English, but his questions and Goggin's answers still went through a translator so that everything was in Zulu, just so everyone knew who was in charge. Mhlongo asked how they proposed to go about the study. He asked about intellectual property rights if it turned out that sutherlandia really worked. He asked about what rights the healers would have to the plant if someone decided to market it. Goggin knew she couldn't guarantee anything. After Mhlongo asked a question, he'd look away from her when she responded.
She looked around at her African colleagues. All of them were looking at the floor.
"I can't promise everything will be perfect because I'm not totally in control," Goggin said. "But I can promise I will never ask for anything from the traditional healers that I cannot personally give back."
Mhlongo asked a few more questions, considered her answers, and then, for the first time, looked her in the eyes. He nodded. Goggin looked at the others and saw that their heads were raised.
With that, Mhlongo seemed satisfied. In Zulu, he said, "We should have food now." A healer's ancestors come to him in his youth. One day he'll have a stomach pain, a headache, maybe hallucinations. This is the call to become a healer. The sickness will last a long time. It's a rite of passage.
A healer must do more than just survive the initiation before he can function as one of South Africa's primary caregivers. A prospective healer must undergo a long period of training. He must learn humility before the ancestors, wash in the blood of sacrificial animals, learn to mix his own potions. At the end, he sacrifices a goat or a cow and is immersed in a river as a sort of baptism.
Powders, called muti, are the healers' most powerful tools. Healers can go into the wild to pick the ingredients themselves, but most buy plants in open-air markets. That's where Bill Folk, a silver-haired biochemistry professor from the University of Missouri-Columbia, first saw sutherlandia a long, thin plant that looked like the kind of thing that grew in ditches back home.
Folk studies the effectiveness of natural remedies and is co-chairman of the Columbia-based International Center for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies. He went to the markets in 2004 to find the plant that he'd heard was the go-to treatment when a healer dealt with a terminal patient or with any other serious illness.