Date: 11 April 2016
In the black culture of Africa
you cannot become a traditional healer, until you have experienced a “call to priesthood”. This is recognized as an illness, the symptoms of which are caused by Ancestral Spirits who wish to possess the future Traditional Healer.  It is regarded as a holy calling that comes from God via the Ancestors.  In African Culture the ancestors could be the spirits of deceased family members who now wish to continue their healing work through the medium ship of the initiate. The sickness may come at any age, but is most common during adolescence and menopause. When an ancestral spirit possesses someone, the individual becomes ill with a sickness that does not respond to any form of treatment. The onset of the illness is sudden and the person, who has been called, may be present with mental disturbance, emotional turmoil, physical pains in various parts of their body; or the person may become moody, restless, brooding, and nervous, suffer from palpitations, hallucinations, and depression and even have vivid dreams. The ill health may be accompanied with feelings of fatigue and does not respond to any form of treatment.

The initiate (thwasa in the Zulu Culture) may even hear the “voices” of her ancestors calling her and be able to see them clairvoyantly. In the Western culture, this is called a “Spiritual Emergency”. Once the Call to Priesthood is diagnosed, the person may sacrifice a goat, appealing to their ancestors, to release them from the calling.  If she does not recover, her only option is to obey the calling by moving into the home of a “isangoma” (traditional healer) to begin her studies as an initiate.  She then withdraws from society and undergoes her training, which could be from a minimum of six months to six years or more.  Zulu training is rigid and includes abstentions, taboos, rigid observances, daily cleansing rituals and impressive ceremonies. The Initiate is required to work in the home of her teacher, without remuneration, until her schooling is complete.  This is to teach her humility first and foremost.

Prior to being exposed to traditional healing she will need a thorough knowledge of herbs, their habitat, preparation and dosage. During this period she will also be taught how to “throw the bones”, an excellent method of diagnosis which was developed long before x-rays and medical tests came into being. This is a bag, containing carefully selected bones of animals and shells from the ocean.  Few in number, they accurately represent all aspects of life and are used for diagnostic purposes. To be able to read them, the apprentice is given powerful herbs to sharpen her psychic ability and through drumming and dancing, she learns to connect with her ancestors, who then work through her.  Any patient who consults her will test her diagnostic abilities, before she is allowed to treat them. Consultation involves placing a mat on the floor for the patient to sit on, with their legs straight out on the mat facing the healer.

The patient then meditates asking their emotions to guide them.  The initiate proceeds by asking the patient to blow into the bag and after that, the bones are thrown onto the mat.  By observing the position of the bones and shells and the way they fall, the healer must be able tell the patient all his/her ailments, pausing every now and then to allow the patient to respond.  If the patient has some questions regarding his/her life they have the right to ask the healer to explain further until they are satisfied. No money exchanges hands until the patient is satisfied with the diagnosis.

The apprentice will have to undergo several initiations before qualifying as a Traditional Healer.  The final graduation is very difficult with tests of physical fitness, endurance and the length of time it takes her to find hidden objects.  This will determine the strength of her links with her ancestors.  Like medical doctors, the initiate who qualifies as an “isangoma”, will need to develop a reputation in the community.  Those who are perceived to have strong powers and influential connections to their ancestors may become enormously influential.  Not many initiates succeed however; these people are considered “phupha’d” which means they ‘can only dream and can no longer talk reality’.

Once qualified, the Traditional Healer, normally has a multifaceted role which includes training, knowledge, power and ability to serve in a number of medico religious functions, such as herbalist, seer, ceremonial leader, physician, spiritual leader and psychologist, priest and mystic all rolled up into one.

1 – Zulu . Roger and Pat de La Harpe. Barry Leitch, Sue Derwent.  Pub. Struik Publishers 1998.
2 – T/Dr H.B. Zungu. President. Traditional Healers Organisation of South Africa.

© Katharine Lee Kruger
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