A Mother goes to the airport to meet her daughter. The daughter steps off the plane with an eight foot tall Zulu warrior, with a bone through his nose. The Mother screams ‘You fool! I said a RITCH doctor!’. That joke pretty much sums up my collective knowledge of African witchdoctors. Luckily, Director Boniface Wewe has put together a great little film that gives idiots like myself a look at ‘The Other Africa’ and its many indigenous professions, including the aforementioned witchdoctor.
Boniface Wewe is a man of many traits. He’s worked at the Brooklyn Public Library since 1993 and written three books, and somehow he still manages to find the time to independently produce documentary films. ‘Witchdoctors: A Day in the Other Africa’ is his fifth production, following the theme of Western education on African tradition. As co-narrator, along with his daughter Barbara Wewe, Boniface takes us on location to West Central and Southern Africa to give us a first hand look at some of the people and the professions that play a role in the culture of the African people. We’re introduced to palm wine tapping, the Hlahlindlela High School choir, and a group of musicians using an interesting hand made instrument called a ‘lap piano’. But the most interesting of them all is the witchdoctors. Rituals rooted in African religions are dissected and displayed as Boniface meets with some of Africa’s most renowned witchdoctors, including Nokusho Bhengu, who’s been profiled in the Wall Street journal for her collaboration with President Bush and an American program which sees a partnership between Western and traditional doctors in South Africa. We also meet a variety of people who have trained under Ma Bhengu.
‘A Day in the Other Africa’ is definitely an educational watch. The film is focused not only on showing you, but teaching you. This is what separates it into an educational category for me. There isn’t really much of a personal narrative, aside from Ma Bhengu’s mention of Boniface consulting her on personal problems. One thing I would’ve liked to have seen is a third person point of view in which a camera crew follows Boniface on his journey. It would’ve been great to see him introducing his daughter to the place he once lived and is obviously so passionate about. There’s a scene in which Boniface takes part in a ceremony, and it just reminded me of how much I would’ve liked to have seen his personal experience on film. I’ll admit that at times the editing could have been tightened, (mainly extended scenes of introductions or people speaking in a language I couldn’t understand) but I suppose it did add a realistic ‘fly on the wall’ sort of experience. Otherwise, there’s a great deal to learn here and it’s definitely a piece meant for those interested in the African culture and how it differs than ours. (Or maybe how it’s the same in some ways?) It feels much like a travelogue that doesn’t focus as much on the person doing the traveling, but rather the cultures they are documenting.
Before watching ‘A Day in the Other Africa’, I’d tend to focus more on the ‘witch’ part of ‘witchdoctor’. And although the film does point out some cruel and unusual forms rituals and traditions, the true witchdoctors don’t take part in such primal savagery. Women such as Nokusho Bhengu are simply medical practitioners that are rooted in traditions and customs which differ than those of a Western society. If there’s one moment in the film that stuck out for me, it’s this great piece of narratoin; ‘Last year I had a problem with my Father. My Father kept coming in my dreams. He died 20 years ago. I was recommended to slaughter a goat…when I conducted the ritual, everything worked well for me. That’s the African way.’