How does one become a traditional healer and what do they do? Nqabisa Faku and Aphiwe Mhlangulana examine the training and duties of traditional healers among the Xhosa people of South Africa.
Traditional healing in the Xhosa culture in South Africa is a visceral experience because of the involvement of the ancestral spirit, idlozi, and the ancestors of the traditional healer.
Traditional healing involves a collection of indigenous knowledge, practices, and beliefs to diagnose, treat, and prevent physical, spiritual, and mental illness and maintain a holistic sense of wellness. The indigenous knowledge and practices that a traditional healer possesses are passed down to them through an itasi, typically a suitcase or a bag with writings of spiritual treatments from many generations ago or through their dreams, visions, and intuition.
In the Xhosa culture, there are two types of traditional healers: first, Igqirha, a well-trained and experienced spiritual diviner who can help provide insight into an individual or family situation, problem, or illness.
Second, Umthandazeli, a prophet and healer who works together with the holy spirits and their ancestral spirit to heal people through water, prayers and indigenous knowledge and practices.
Those who are the chosen ones have a spiritual calling, known as ithongo, inherited from their ancestors. They generally have one or a combination of these spiritual gifts, which leads them to begin their journey of ukuthwasa – becoming a traditional healer.
The journey of ukuthwasa is a unique and sacred spiritual path that requires itwasa, an initiate, to exercise discipline, perseverance, patience, resilience, and actively listen to their dlozi and ancestors.
Itwasa need to listen to their ancestors when they communicate with them as they will guide their process of intwaso. The ancestors of a traditional healer predetermine their process of ukuthwasa, such as the beads, animal skin and the ancestral cloths that they must wear, the number of ceremonies they must do and more.
Thus, they are required to surrender to their ancestral spirit and ancestors when they heed their spiritual calling. One of the most monumental processes that itwasa undergo is ivuma ukhufa, a process whereby the selfhood of itwasa dies as they accept a new life purpose as a healer.
When the time comes to go to emphehlweni (initiation school) itwasa must prepare themselves emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically, and sexually to withdraw from their home life, family, friends, romantic partner, and career.
They will experience a metaphysical transformation that will change their spiritual life to help them reach spiritual ascension. The divine teachings, practices, wisdom, and inner illumination that itwasa learn and experience in emphehlweni prepare them for their life purpose.
Lessons on the journey
Gogo Dineo presented a TEDx talk titled “Four Lessons From My Journey” on her experience as a spiritual healer and teacher. One of the first lessons she learnt was that “When things are falling apart, actually something new might be about to emerge.” She had lost her job, which was her only source of income and gave her a sense of pride. The ancestors were preparing her to focus all her energy on her spiritual training and trust the process.
The second lesson she learnt was the power of being non-judgemental. She says, “Judging can actually be a mirror of what your spirit is yearning for, and you are afraid to boldly own it for yourself.” The third lesson she learnt was to honour herself by doing things that can empower you towards your life path, while the fourth was that the journey of healing others begins with healing yourself.
Tabela Mayekiso, a spiritual healer, advises itwasa to seek out their prospective gobela, spiritual teacher. She says, “You need to know the person and their style of teaching. Itwasa need to be patient and to allow their ancestors to guide them when it comes to the process of finding a gobela.”
If the ancestors have shown itwasa the gobela they have chosen for them, they must prepare themselves for changes in their selfhood and lifestyle.
Reflecting on the journey of ukuthwasa, Nobesuthu Mhlangulana, a gobela and spiritual healer said, “My movements had to be guided and approved by my ancestors and gobela. I had to stop working so I could focus on the journey. I went on a strict diet, which my gobela recommended.”
Both spiritual healers advise itwasa to research the rituals necessary for their intwaso, and for these, they should consult their gobela. The journey will be something new for any itwasa, and therefore one needs to be open to these changes and requirements.
The multifaceted purpose of a healer
The purposes of a healer are multifaceted. Traditional healers can assist in clarifying or explaining African spiritual phenomena that cannot be explained by Western culture because of the contrast between the ways of thinking, knowing, and doing.
One of the spiritual gifts some traditional healers have is the ability to interpret dreams. If a client cannot decipher their dreams, the healer, during a consultation session, can explain the messages the ancestors are trying to send the client.
Healers offer counsel to people who seek clarity and direction. Some people want to find out why things are not going well in their lives. To find answers, they consult a traditional healer.
Nobesuthu says: “For clients to get answers to their problems, healers connect with the ancestors to find out if no evil forces are delaying their progress, or if the client needs to perform a ritual to initiate spiritual alignment, or if the client needs cleansing.”
Both Mayekiso and Mhlangulana emphasised the importance of confirming if the healer is registered with an established traditional healers’ association or organisation to ensure your health, safety and healing are not comprised negatively in any way.
These organisations or associations can offer spiritual training and workshops and hold healers accountable for misconduct. Also, they aim to help prevent people from being misled by false healers and from being misdiagnosed and harmfully treated.
Traditional healers play such an integral role not only in the isiXhosa culture but in any African culture. Traditional healers often act as educators, preservers, and protectors of their people’s culture through their knowledge of traditional rituals, teachings, and dress codes.
There are rituals in the isiXhosa culture that require the presence and leadership of traditional healers. These rituals require someone who is a traditional healer because the processes need someone who can communicate with the ancestors and perform these rituals in sacred areas such as rivers and mountains.
During these rituals, the traditional healer acts as an intermediary to relay messages from the client to their ancestors and vice versa. They can also serve as counsellors and social workers when the traditional healer’s ancestors shed light on how to assist the client.
Traditional healers can also spread awareness regarding the importance of knowing one’s cultural norms, traditions, and values. Traditional healers are very valuable within our African culture to bring us back to our roots.