Johannesburg — Incense oil burns slowly in a corner, emitting rich odors of cinnamon, maple syrup and roses. It's quiet.
The study in a house in Sharonlea, a suburb in the north of Johannesburg, is where Ursula Wania practices as one of South Africa's top tarot card readers.
She has just instructed me to shuffle a pack of 78 picture cards. One card shows a cherub stroking a lion - the 'Strength' card, also marked with the words 'Good health' and 'Self-reliance.' Another is the 'Nine of Cups,' on which there's a fairy-like girl holding a wand. This card reads, 'Wishes now materialize.'
Then there's the 'Death' card with a skull surrounded by a wreath of red flowers, below a cherub reading what appears to be an obituary.
Reading life's changes
"That card doesn't always indicate a death; it could also signify major changes in a person's life," Wania explained. "The interpretation of what's in the cards all changes depending on what cards lie next to one another."
In front of her is a card marked 'The Magician,' and another of a mother, father and child - 'The Family' card.
"'The Magician'... now it's lying next to 'The Family' card, so that would tell me there's a family business going on. But for example if it lay like that (next to the 'Nine of Swords' card), it would show that there's a lot of stress to do with the family business," she said.
Using more cards, Wania then predicted my relatives' marriage later this year. The relative did indeed become engaged a few months ago.
Next, she pointed to the 'Knight of Rods' card: a boy dressed in red, wings sprouting from his back, rowing a raft across water. "I see an overseas trip coming up for you soon; this card represents travel," she told me.
Dealing with the forces around her
Wania started interpreting tarot cards 27 years ago, when in high school.
"It must be some sort of a gift, and it must have something to do with the forces that are around us," she reflected, adding that she sometimes feels a supernatural presence when she's reading cards, that allows her to see certain events in the future.
She offered an example.
"I saw in one lady's cards ('Eight of Swords,' 'The Tower' and 'The Judge' cards alongside one another) that she would go to prison. So I said to her, 'Look, I see there's some money involvement here and... I'm seeing a lot of problems coming your way in the future.'
She asked me directly, 'Could I go to prison?' And I said, 'Yes.'
"She was very angry with me, that woman. But I tell you what: she landed up being a good client. But she did go to prison (for fraud)."
Wania's abilities have resulted in some "people in crisis" reaching out to her for help. A few years ago, she was contacted by a relative of a little boy who'd gone missing in the wilderness.
In a vision, Wania saw the boy drowning - although she initially didn't tell this to his family. Instead, she marked on a map of the wilderness area where she thought the youngster was.
"I said, 'You better hurry up because this child doesn't have long to go.'
"They were able to find him. But, (only) just (in time)," Wania recalled.
Rescuers found the boy on rocks in the middle of a rapidly rising river.
Predicting cancer and birth
In another tarot reading, Wania foresaw a major health problem for her mother, who immediately consulted a doctor.
"He told her, 'Don't worry, there's nothing wrong with you.' But because of what my cards said she decided to get a second opinion," Wania said. "She decided she's going to go to the oncology center and she's going to have herself checked out properly. I think she went in on Wednesday, on Friday they had to take her boob (breast) off. She had full-blown cancer in her boob."
Wania commented that some people plan their lives according to her card readings.
"I had one woman... every time she came here I said, 'You're going to have another baby.' Eventually she came for the third time and I said to her, 'You're going to fall pregnant again.' Do you know that she went for a hysterectomy the following week?"
Wania is adamant that the "greatest satisfaction" for her lies in helping people to avoid "precarious situations," such as failing health or bankruptcy, in their futures.
But some faiths, most notably Christianity, consider tarot card readings to be sinful.
Wania responded, "I do not see myself as being in conflict with anyone else no matter what religion or belief system they are from."
She continued, "The thing is they don't know enough, because they think of magic as being bad and magic is not bad at all. Magic is using the elements that God has provided. So, you know, at the end of the day we (tarot card readers) actually believe in God a lot more; we just don't go sing in church and go to church, basically."
Wania said she believes in God but added, "I am not as pedantic, hypocritical and narrow minded as some other believers are."
Nevertheless, she acknowledged there have been occasions in the past when she's had "mixed feelings" about her "gifts."
"There've been a lot of times in my life when I've tried really hard to get involved in something different. Because to be labeled as a fortune teller isn't so cool... But at the end of it all I've realized, 'This is my path... '"
And that path, Wania insisted, consists of a "mission to help to give just a little bit of guidance" to people's lives.
Finally, she said, "I can't force people to be good people. My cards don't make decisions for people, they make decisions. The best I can hope for is that I help them to make the right decisions and to be good people."