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Gogo Thokozile, 29-year-old Johannesburg-based traditional healer.

Millennial Traditional Healers Moving African Spirituality Forward

As Black Africans, seeking alternative methods of healing is foundational to our rich culture — something that should never be shrouded in shame.

Traditional healers have been, and remain, a fundamental part of African spirituality and culture. Long before Western medicine, and even after its continued medical breakthroughs, many Black Africans still seek healing from those who have been afforded the gift to heal and guide. And while the faces of these healers have oftentimes, throughout the years, been those of much older men or women, more and more young people are embracing their ancestral calling.


​​A MILLENNIAL TOUCH​​

In the age of social media and instant access to information, millennial traditional healers have the ability to dispel many of the aspersions cast on their practise and to set the record straight. This, is something popular traditional healer Gogo Dineo Ndlanzi does well.

Among the many millennial traditional healers, are South African celebrities such as rapper Boity Thulo,actress Letoya Makhene,actor and musician coupleDineo and Solo Langa, musician Phelo Bala and many others. When Thulo shared her journey to accepting ubungoma (the calling) in 2016, the gesture was met with backlash from those who accused her of using the sacred practice to further her career. However, healing lies in the hands of the chosen, regardless of celebrity status. In a recent interview with TimesLIVE, Thulo shared: "I don't have any regrets about letting people in. I took a huge risk because back then, people wouldn't have revealed much about this aspect of their lives — preferring instead to keep it private."

To those on the outside, the world of traditional healing remains in many ways shrouded in misconceptions and inaccuracies. This is largely due to the often sensationalised media depictions, as well as the lasting impact of colonial and Apartheid legacies — and perhaps, even, the shame exhibited by Black Africans when it comes to speaking freely about believing in traditional healing.

Livy Nnene, a South African millennial traditional healer shares: "A lot of millennials who have undergone this rite of passage (similar to mine) are open to a lot of things." He continues: "There are a lot of misconceptions about the practice and I don't blame people. When there's a lot going on and no one is explaining, people come up with thousands of 'it could be this or it could be that'. But these days, you can learn more about traditional healing on TV, or just by logging onto YouTube. People are definitely talking about it more."

Johannesburg-based Nnene embraced his calling to become a traditional healer after a long battle with mental health issues that Western medicine found no resolutions for. "You start having these very violent dreams that add on to your depression and anxiety. You end up thinking you're crazy! For the first time you try to understand your life and what's going on [with you] as a Black person by consulting a traditional healer. That's when I found out that actually I had a calling that I needed to pursue. From there, things kind of started falling into place."

IT'S ALL IN A NAME

Traditional, or indigenous, healing generally encompasses two broad groups of healers — izangoma and izinyanga. The differences between the two remain disputed even among traditional healers themselves. Isangoma is usually believed to practise in the realm of the spiritual — diagnosing illness, calamity and bad luck through assessing a person's relationship with their ancestors, friends, family or associates. Inyanga, on the other hand, is believed to treat or even cure illness using natural remedies. However, for Nnene, the difference between isangoma and inyanga is merely a graduation from one level to another. "Isangoma is an initiate. Once you have passed all the stages and are now out on your own, you stand as inyanga."

Another South African millennial traditional healer, Lesego Ntsime, begs to differ. "I would definitely say they are quite different because they delve into a different faculty altogether." She goes on to explain: "Isangoma is someone who divines. They get messages from above, from the ancestors and from God to relay to the person. Inyanga is somebody who heals through African traditional medicine or herbs. So it is quite different."

Language is important, and names even moreso. When we name things a certain way, there's usually an agenda there — good or bad. It is no surprise then that colonialism and the Apartheid government played a significant role in how traditional healers were, and still are, perceived. Under Apartheid, there existed the Witchcraft Supression Act 3 of 1957 which made it unlawful for "anyone to engage in witchcraft or similar practices where one pretended or professed to use supernatural powers". In an effort to vilify the practise, and make it synonymous with dark magic, 'witch doctor' is one of the many terms used consistently and interchangeably with 'traditional healer"'.

29-year-old traditional healer Gogo Thokozile detests the term 'witch doctor', saying it implies that her work is dark when it, in fact, is quite the opposite. "For some reason, people think that if you're able to communicate with people who are no longer alive, you are demonic. We constantly have to explain that we are actually light workers — which is tiring. People just don't believe our gift is from God."

THE SHAME IN CONSULTING

A traditional healer dressed in red and black traditional gear.

Gogo Phephisile Maseko, 44, traditional healer and national coordinator of the Traditional Healers Organisation (THO) of South Africa attends to patients on October 1, 2018 using a blend of cannabis and other herbs in a consultation room at their offices in Johannesburg.

Photo by GULSHAN KHAN/AFP via Getty Images.

The vilifying of traditional healers has, in some sense, ascribed a feeling of shame to the practice — especially for those wanting to consult. This has, in turn, created a never-ending tension between Western and indigenous medicine. People often feel that the two are mutually exclusive and that there is no chance for collaboration! That shouldn't be the case though, argues Gogo Thokozile. "I don't think people should be choosing. I'm married. When I met my husband, he wasn't a believer of anything traditional. Whenever he'd get a headache, I'd offer him umuthi (traditional medicine) which works for my headaches, but he actually preferred tablets. I think it also goes with your belief. I think that when you're sick and you don't know what's wrong with you, you must go to a doctor and get a proper diagnosis — but also go the traditional healing route. You can believe in healing spiritually but also seek treatment from doctors."

It is exactly this kind of philosophy, in addition to being able to speak freely on social media platforms, that sets millennial traditional healers ahead of their older predecessors. At the centre of millennials delving into the healing space is the understanding that their lives are not consumed by it and that they are still multidimensional individuals outside of their practice. Healing during the millennial era has also offered freedoms to healers which were not previously available to them. "I would say izangoma from previous eras did not seem to have lives of their own. It was very much "I'm [just] doing the healing work 24/7," says Ntsime. She adds: "What I do love about this age is that we're beginning to see traditional healers who enjoy other facets of their lives outside being healers. When you step out of the scared space where you conduct your healing work, you become your own person." The work of a traditional healer requires a careful balance that results from a constant give and take, particularly when there are careers and interests outside of the practice. Nnene, for instance, graduated with his law degree in 2018 with all the excitement that comes with a first job — an apartment and other luxuries enjoyed by working individuals. "Life was great. As young people, we're all chasing 'the good life'," he says. In his case, however, traditional healing eventually took precedence over his law career. "Mentally I wasn't in a good place. I decided to quit my job and try to focus more on myself. I am now more focused on my traditional healing and my law career had to take a back seat."

Healing work is certainly not without its own challenges. There is often an unreasonable expectations for traditional healers to be available to others around the clock. "When you're out in your personal capacity, just trying to have a good time over a couple of drinks with friends, people want to try and impose their problems on you. Then when you express that it is neither the time nor the place, people take offence to that. Those are just some of the struggles, but it comes with the job."

RECLAIMING HEALING

Part of reclaiming our healing as Africans begins with casting away the shame associated with consulting traditional healers. This shame exists for a number of reasons. One of them being that Black people who subscribe to the Christian faith, especially, have often been forced to choose between their cultural practices and the church's teachings — with no room to practise both. "What I know about Christianity is that you pray and leave it up to God," Gogo Thokozile says. "Christianity believes that once you consult a traditional healer, then it's out of God's way — and so you're forbidden from doing that. You're actually supposed to pray about everything." The second reason is that because of the vilification of traditional healing as a whole, people are apprehensive about being perceived differently after consulting. In many ways, because of Western ideals around healing, there's a deep-rooted fear that consulting a traditional healer is barbaric.

What is apparent from Nnene, Gogo Thokozile and Ntsime anecdotes is that a traditional healer can be seen as both a burden and a privilege, with the latter often revealing itself in those that benefit from the healing they receive. "We also have our bad days. Then out of the blue, a patient will call to share how you really helped them. Learning that things are finally working out, whatever problem they came to you with, is so fulfilling," concludes Gogo Thokozile.

Culture
Image courtesy of the artist

Spotlight: NK Is The Future and Star of His Own Show

We spoke with the 18-year-old visual artist about creating art from his surroundings and empowering his generation.

In our 'Spotlight' series, we highlight the work of photographers, visual artists, multimedia artists, and more who are producing vibrant, original work.

In our latest piece, we spotlight Ghanaian digital artist NK. The self-proclaimed Afrocentric visual artist's love for drawing and sketching at a young age pushed him to explore the many ways in which modern technology supports and advances creativity. Simply playing around with a popular photo editing app propelled the young artist into a world of self discovery, empowerment, and a keen understanding about how big the Universe we call home actually is. As the digital creative puts it, "I think my interest in space and what could exist outside the world we live in also had an impact on my desire to incorporate futuristic technology with cultural art." Armed with a keen interest in all things Afrofuturist, NK's futuristic eye has gained the teen artist recognition from some of his industry faves, too.

We spoke with the 18-year-old visual artist about creating art from his surroundings and empowering his generation.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Describe your background as an artist and the journey you have taken to get to where it is today.

I grew up with an interest in art and drawing. I loved to draw and sketch, usually with both pen and pencils, whatever was interesting around me. I would make compositions of items within my surroundings and paste them on the walls of my parent’s rooms. My interest in the digital world peaked around the ages of 14 and 15 -- I've always been intrigued by astronauts and futuristic technology. I started digital art in 2017 when I created 2D pieces on the PicsArt app on a phone at home. Eventually, I gained access to the Adobe Photoshop software.

Artists like David Alabo, Beeple, Basquiat, and Juan Carlos Ribas inspired me and also made me think of what I could achieve if I tried. I spent a lot of time watching tutorial videos and related content online to be able to develop my skill. Initially, I created my pieces by combining a number of stock images and online resources to create an entirely new fictional scene. Around early 2020 I had a creative block and was desperate to find new sources of inspiration. Over time I came to the realization that my inspiration surrounded me and that I shouldn’t have to force creativity. I did more research on Afrocentric art and stepped out of my comfort zone to create my first Afrocentric pieces, “Gateway to Paradise” and “Modernization”. These pieces attracted a lot of attention and also the smArt magazine which granted me my first interview and magazine feature opening the door to new relationships in the creative industry, various opportunities, and collaborations.

What are the central themes in your work?

My work is mainly centered around the expression of development in the Black experience and empowering African Culture. I try to factor in Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism in making my pieces whether it’s how my models are dressed, their accessories, or represented by items that surround them. My pieces are intended to put forward the message of creating brighter futures and realities where Africans thrive. This helps give my pieces in themselves an identity.

How did you decide on using a digital medium for your art?

Even though I do draw and sketch, I also feel very comfortable using digital software which to me offers endless possibilities. I believe that using digital media as an African artist helps bridge the gap between technology and cultural art, directly falling in line with my field of interest, Afrofuturism.

How has the pandemic affected you creatively?

The start of the pandemic in 2020 was devastating. A lot happened during that period. It was during the lockdown that I made the decision to transition into creating Afrocentric art. We were made to take a break from school, which freed up a lot of my time. I had the time to research, watch tutorials and practice more. It might have been one of the most defining years for me as an artist. It also granted me a larger audience as everyone was made to work from home. I actually learned a lot and worked hard during that period and this led to my work improving massively.

Can you describe your artistic relationship with ‘Afro-futurism’?

Afrofuturism is a theme I can really relate to as a young African. It's our responsibility to contribute to our development as a people. I think my interest in space and what could exist outside the world we live in also had an impact on my desire to incorporate futuristic technology with cultural art. I like to think of what we can achieve, the seemingly impossible things, and then I pour out those thoughts and ideas into my art and that is why I immediately fell in love with Afrofuturism. We are the future, the stars of our own show.

Can you talk about your use of colors and accessories in your art?

The most dominant figure in my pieces is usually the black figure/model which usually stands out as the main subject. Regarding the backgrounds, I usually try to make a scene with colors to create a particular mood or in some of my pieces to complement the clothes of the model, usually African prints. They range from solid backgrounds to gradients and various sky textures. I use different cultural accessories both for beautification and also to provide that Afrocentric feel and message. I love to use various beads, bracelets, and traditional cloths with interesting textures to convey these messages of who we are as Africans and where we come from.


Artwork by NK

"Cultural Adornment"

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The s-candle burns bright on Twitter as the Youtuber's 'Sòrò Sókè' candle sparks fury over the political meaning behind the name.

We didn't think this week we would see drama from a candle release. But here we are.

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'Ile Owo' Director Dare Olaitan on Exploring the Human Condition Through Film

Director Dare Olaitan talks about his filmmaking process and his attempt to re-educate the audience on the impact of unchecked capitalism.

Dare Olaitan was 26 when his first feature film, Ojukokoro: Greed,, was released in the cinemas. The crime thriller, which was released in 2016, received positive reviews and was nominated for the Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Nigerian Film in 2018. Knock Out Blessing, his second film, also got an AMAA nomination the following year. Dwindle, his third, — which is coming to Netflix later this month — was co-directed with Kayode Kasum last year.

In his latest film, Ile Owo, Olaitan aims to capture the horrific by exploring social hierarchies, poverty, class politics, and religion in the Nigerian society. The psychological trailer stars Immaculata Oko, Tina Mba, Akin Lewis, Bisola Aiyeola, Efe Iwara and a host of others.

In this interview with OkayAfrica, Olaitan talks about his filmmaking process and his attempt to re-educate the audience on the impact of unchecked capitalism.

Ile-Owo screenshot two women

Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

Ile-Owo is your fourth film, but the first horror. What drew you to this genre and why did you decide horror was the most fitting form to tell the story?

I think horror movies are a great way to deal with social issues by motifs and metaphors to illustrate things that I am concerned about at the moment. I am also interested in the global interest in the horror genre and its ability to travel. I would say Ile Owo isn’t a true horror film. It’s closer to a psychological thriller.

Of course, horror is not new in Nigerian films, and quite a number of millennials, including you, who grew up in the country can attest to watching them. Was there something you wanted to do differently?

I feel like horror exploded in the Nigerian film industry as a reaction to the dictatorship of [Sani] Abacha in the early '90s. This made our films metaphors for the social problems with evangelical and pentecostal churches and movements growing in that time. Ile Owo is a retread of those thoughts and feelings. Just updated for 2022.

It's interesting you mentioned religious movements. Ile Owo confronts social hierarchies, hardship, and the ways religion serves as succor for many. How much can relate to that?

I think it’s impossible to grow up in a third world country and not witness the impact economics has on many people. Religion creates some sense of structure and safety in a chaotic environment. The worse the economic situation of a region the higher the religious fervor.

Can you talk a bit about your technique, particularly on evoking fear on the big screen?

I knew my limitations and the limitations of the crew, so I tried to evoke fear in the mind of the viewer. By creating situations where the audience’s imagination completes the scare thus making it all the more personal.

And did you achieve that? Do you think the audience had enough material to work with?

I think to an extent. There is always room to grow. I learned lessons, I can say that much.

What lessons?

What Nigerians like to watch and how to structure things better. In terms of production, I’ve never done anything of this magnitude. I learned more about VFX.

You've spoken in the past about your interest in making seven films based on the seven deadly sins, which will be titled after each sin. You've made Ojukokoro (Greed). Where does Ile Owo come in? And why is exploring these themes important to you?

The seven deadly sins are an important thematic element for me. They represent some commonality in the human experience. Things people in every culture can relate to and have experienced in their daily lives. Ile Owo is not part of the seven. Igberaga (Pride) is the next one on the slate.

Ile-Owo screenshot man in car

Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

What exactly did you want to say in Ile Owo?

Ile Owo is really a film about the subjection of Nigerian women in the traditional marriage structures, how they are exploited by the expectations of culture and lose their lives and youth to support men who use them for personal gain. That was the nugget that informed the writing and creation of the story. I just had to obfuscate through metaphors and motifs.

Past conversations on social media have shown that some key players in Nollywood don't take criticism very well. How do you navigate unpleasant remarks about your work?

I can only speak for myself but I know I have no problem with well-intentioned criticism. I make art so it’s nice to get the thoughts of the people it was created for. I think the problem comes in with poorly-intentioned criticism. I have gotten reviews that called me stupid or foolish. I don’t think reviews like that help anyone and make it harder for creatives to express themselves.

How does your background in Economics and Business Management influence your work as a filmmaker?

It experiences the way I view life as it was the first viewpoint I used to parse reality. It’s evident in all my work as my subject matter almost always covers inequality and the rising gap between the rich and the poor. I think capitalism has become unchecked and I am doing my little part to re-educate the audience.

I recall a character hallucinating in Ojukokoro. There's a similar element in Ile Owo, portrayed by the protagonist's father. You seem keen on exploring the intersection of mental illness and the supernatural.

What is mental illness and what is supernatural? Are they not two shirts cut from the same fabric? I am not sure to be honest. I just like to mess with themes that are interesting to me. I think there is a thing among indigenous creatures where people who have mental illnesses are seen to be closer to the supernatural. Perhaps this is an extension of that.

Director Dare Olaitan

Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

As the writer and director, you must have had the most influence on the outcome of this film. What other factors impacted the production? If you could change anything in the process, from ideation to premiere, what would that be?

Nigeria. Making films in Nigeria is very hard. Filmmaking is akin to war. We must conquer the reality and bend it to our will in order to for 90-120 minutes, capture the audience in disbelief and play them to our wishes. Nigeria makes this hard as life here is already war. Budgetary concerns, technical inability to accomplish some of our goals are things that will always impact production. I wish I had more time and money.

What are the three things filmmakers just starting out should bear in mind?

Your message. Your reasons for doing it. Your tone. These things will guide you and stop you from missteps. I wish I had that knowledge when I started.

It's fascinating how you're able to move across different genres: crime, comedy, and psychological thriller. You're a big fan of Quentin Tarantino, and that's evident in your work. Who are some of the filmmakers that have had the most influence on your work and why?

Robert Rodriguez. Martin Scorsese. [Francis Ford] Coppola. These are the people whose films I look up too. We might have the same content in terms of premise but I like to see what they do to navigate problems because as a director all you are doing is really solving problems and translating ideas into images. I watched a lot of their film commentaries when I started out, so their voices sort of guide me.


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