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 couple Dineo 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
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."
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.