Trust me, I'm a witch doctor

Tribal witch-doctors wearing traditional dress still exist in remotest parts of Indonesia

Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other country in the world. But some Indonesians retain a belief in traditional mysticism.

I'm not sure if it was the joss sticks, the heat or the darkness. Or perhaps it was the evil spirit which had just been exorcised.

Whatever it was, my visit to the Dukun, a traditional Indonesian witch doctor, gave me a cracking headache. But it was worth it.

Healing hands

Watching Gus perform his mysterious rituals was one of the most extraordinary things I have seen during my time in Indonesia.

Gus is in his early twenties which is still comparatively young for a Dukun.

His yellowed finger nails are almost as long as the dark hair which flows down over his shoulders.

He says he inherited his magical powers from his grandfather.

His particular forte is healing. He claims he can cure heart disease, kidney failure and infertility as well as simpler ailments like sinusitis.

And of course he can summon spirits. This brings us back to the exorcism.

Gus had agreed to let us film him at work.

There were a number of patients sitting in the front room when we arrived at the simple house in one of Jakarta's poorer suburbs.

One by one they were led into a small, windowless room where Gus was waiting.

The room had a thin mattress on the floor, surrounded by various wooden effigies, bits of crystal and unidentified potions.

The clientele

Dui was one of Gus' regulars. A big man, with a tortured expression on his face, he had apparently been possessed by an evil spirit about a year ago.

Dui began to writhe around on the floor as Gus paced around him

Or at least that's what he and Gus told us. Dui lay down on the mattress on his back and closed his eyes.

Gus' eyes weren't closed but they didn't look exactly focussed either.

He had a kind of glazed expression on his face as he stood up slowly and raised his arms out sideways.

He began to make strange puffing noises - a bit like a child trying to blow out a persistent candle on a birthday cake.

Gus' patients eschew more conventional treatment

On the floor, Dui's face contorted with what looked like pain. His hands came up in front of his eyes in a protective gesture and beads of sweat rolled down his neck.

Dui began to writhe around on the floor as Gus paced around him, carving patterns in the air with his outstretched hands and stamping his feet.

Then suddenly it was all over.

The patient went limp and the Dukun sat back down on a pile of cushions.

Time to relax

Nobody spoke for what seemed like an age.

Then Dui got up, ran his hand over his face and went through to the next room where he promptly fell asleep.

Gus smiled. "You see," he said, "Dui is calm now. The spirit has left him."

Gus told me he is often asked to help people who believe they are victims of black magic, known in Indonesia as Santet.

He showed me a photograph of a woman with a hugely inflated stomach.

I thought she looked pregnant, but Gus disabused me of that innocent explanation. Somebody had cast a spell on her, he told me.

He was now treating her and had managed to reduce her pain, but the swelling would take longer.

The Indonesian Government is considering a ban on black magic

I asked Gus if he ever performed black magic spells. "I prefer to use my powers to heal people," he answered evasively.

Gus is wise to be circumspect about the darker side of Indonesian mysticism.

Belief in the supernatural runs deep in this country and in some cases the fear which underlies that belief can have tragic consequences.

In recent years, people suspected of dealing in black magic have become the targets of vigilante-style attacks.

Some have even been killed.

Taking control

The Indonesian Government is so worried about the problem it is drafting a bill to ban the practice of black magic.

But details of how they will be implemented are still being worked out.

Already critics say the law is the wrong weapon to use in the battle against superstition. And in any case, how would you prove the existence of supernatural phenomena in court?

Gus the Dukun thinks the proposed new law is stupid.

Instead of persecuting Dukuns, they should have a law to protect us, he told me.

And anyway, who decides what is bad magic and what is good magic?


We prepared to leave Gus to let him get back to his waiting patients.

But something had been bothering me. The patient Dui, with the evil spirit problem.

If he'd been coming for treatment for more than a year, how come the spirit only left him today? Had we just been lucky?

Gus looked a little sheepish. "Actually, I got the spirit out months ago," he said.

"But I wanted to demonstrate it for you. So today I put a spirit back into Dui and then took it out again when you got here."

No wonder I had a headache.