Muti from the ‘Witch Doctor’

By Time of article published Apr 5, 2012

Share this article:

Terri Dunbar-Curran

IF YOU’RE the kind of patient who panics at the mere mention of a needle, or can’t stomach cough syrup – then National Geographic Core’s The Witch Doctor Will See You Now is definitely not the series for you. Although, who knows, it may just help you realise that there are worse things than having a doctor jab you in the rump.

Piers Gibbon travels around the world to learn about traditional healing and sample outlandish cures.

“I’ve always been fascinated by health care,” he says. “It seemed to me the type of health care available to most of the planet is not as expensive as in the West, but it seems to be effective. When we started putting the show together we were looking at therapies and strange ways of healing. We decided we wanted to show people what’s available.”

Gibbon says that while he knew not all of the cures would work he was surprised that some of them did. Having previously worked on the series Headshrinkers of the Amazon and Dining With Cannibals, he has come into contact with some interesting people and traditions, like the headshrinking Shuar tribe in Equador and the Biami cannibals of Papua New Guinea.

“They were very happy to talk about how they regard human meat as good food,” he says, explaining that the tribe engages in cannibalism particularly when the person is regarded as a witch.

“By eating them you’re removing the bad magic.”

Each episode of The Witch Doctor Will See You Now features Gibbon and two participants suffering from various ailments.

“They were very willing to go to some extraordinary places. They were very excited about the travelling. When they were face to face with some of the extraordinary things we wanted them to do, however...” Like the prospect of drinking cow’s urine in India.

“I joined in and there was some kind of camaraderie. However, I have to say that will be the last time I drink cow’s urine, because I don’t think it did me any good,” he laughs.

Then there was one incident which played out like a scene from the Middle Ages. A participant was reluctant to eat a still-beating, bloody chicken heart, and, not wanting it to go to waste, Gibbon swallowed it himself.

One healer in Cameroon decided that the best way to deal with the anxiety of one of the participants was to bury her in a shallow grave and surround her with candles and (again) chicken blood. “But the local police arrived armed with AK47s and that really didn’t help her anxiety levels,” chuckles Gibbon.

There were challenges involved in making the series that other documentary makers might not face. Most of them related to Gibbon’s own personal comfort zones.

“Something I found really difficult to deal with was in Hong Kong – tongue acupuncture. It was okay in the top, but when they pulled up my tongue I really wanted to hit the acupuncturist and run out of the country.”

While in Peru he drank ayahuasca, a psychoactive infusion that forms part of ancient traditions in the region and is seen to have “enormous benefits”. Healers say that the liquid enables them to “see” what is wrong with their patients.

“They can’t afford MRI, but they do have this and it enables the healer to look inside the body of the person. I had a sense I could really understand why they say that. You can almost see an aura. I’m not claiming to have discovered a cheaper version of an MRI, but there’s something in it. Further research is welcome,” says Gibbon.

He is an ardent supporter of science, but he believes that it’s also important to examine the traditions of ancient civilisations.

“The main thing I took from this is that Western medicine is wonderful and great, but we haven’t sorted everything out in science. We can still learn a lot. I went into it with open eyes and I’m glad I did. Something shifted in me.”

Whether the treatments actually work, or if the positive outcomes are due largely to the placebo effect, Gibbon says it’s important to keep an open mind and take a closer look at things that may be alien to us in the West, but which are respected and revered in a different environment.

“I used to think of the placebo effect as something to be removed – now I realise it’s an incredibly powerful force. I’m pretty sure that one of the frontiers of Western medicine in the future will be the power of the mind in healing.”

He thinks that SA audiences should find the series interesting because of the country’s own strong traditional heritage.

Comparing some of the remedies he explored with the practices of our own sangomas could prove enlightening and perhaps even change the way many South Africans may regard traditional healers and their work.

Although filming in each country took up most of their time, leaving little opportunity for sightseeing, Gibbon isn’t complaining.

“It was extraordinary. We had the most adventure you can have in a country. What could be more exciting than that? I would rather get bitten by every creeping crawly in the jungle than lie by a pool.”

l National Geographic Core, DStv channel 260, at 11pm on April 7, 21 and 28.

Share this article: