A traditional healer attends Freedom Day celebrations in Kwa-Thema Township (near Johannesburg) in South Africa on April 27, 2019. Traditional African healing practices are still used to this day and considered as a means of treatment by the World Health Organization (WHO). (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor

As a spiritual, self-identifying Christian, with a lot of knowledge and respect for other religious practices and theologies, this reporter has always understood the power of what the World Health Organization (WHO) defines as “traditional healing.” However, it was not until witnessing a traditional healing ceremony in South Africa that I fully understood how much power, ancient traditions and spirituality are involved in such practices. Within this article is a great deal of factual information. Yet, if you dare to read further, this reporter will share the personal experience of participating in a South African traditional healing ceremony in 2008 and how it changed my life forever. A very small piece of this article will include context-based speculation, but all the events in the narrative will be true.

In 2003, WHO defined “tradition healing” as: “health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs incorporating plant, animal and mineral based medicines, spiritual therapies, manual techniques and exercise, applied singular or in combination, to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses or maintain well-being.” Further, “traditional medicine,” as defined by WHO, “is the sum total of the knowledge, skill and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.”  The fact that traditional healing and medicine are valuable to WHO “whether explicable or not,” in itself should stamp its validity in modern medicine. 

Since the beginning of time, people have had ways of treating illnesses that have been passed from generation to generation. There’s a reason some readers may recall that garlic or elderberry they take to boost their immune system, or that onion that was placed in their socks as children to get rid of fevers. However, these life-hacks come with a value that is still recognized by WHO as forms of medicine and healing.

In a 2014 study found in the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, researchers intended to evaluate the inclination medical practitioners had to work with traditional healers. The study was in South Africa, ironic to this reporter’s life and story. The study looked at 319 medical workers from State hospitals and clinics in the South African provinces of Limpopo and Gauteng.  

It found that approximately 80% of Black people in South Africa use traditional healing in some way, and generally look to traditional healers first before seeking Western treatment for what some traditionalists look at as “man-made” illnesses. According to the study, man-made illnesses are those that are considered to be developed by witchcraft and sorcery and because of this, it is believed that it should be treated using traditional healing as opposed to Western medicine.

Traditional healers, just like Western doctors, are not homogenous, though; there are different roles and people to heal certain ailments, with different names and qualifications depending on the tribe or ethnic group. The Bapedi people of Limpopo generally refer to traditional healers as “dingaka” or “mangaka,” and the various traditional healers included diviners (Ngaka ya ditaola), a Sanusi (Sedupe), which is like a prophet who can also be diviner and herbalist, traditional birth attendants (Babelegisi) and traditional surgeons.

A diviner uses bones and spiritual guidance from the ancestors to diagnose and treat various diseases, including mental health challenges. The Sanusi is possessed by the Holy Spirit to tell and warn about future events and can also be a diviner and herbalist. 

Traditional birthing attendants are generally older women in the village trained and experienced as midwives. Traditional surgeons can also be trained as a sanusi or diviner, but also have been trusted by the village chief to perform operations such as circumcision on the baby boys.

Training to be a traditional healer, according to the study, is meticulous and takes great learning and skill level.  The trainee must live with their trainer as they study ancient practices and begin learning how to treat patients.

The 2014 study found overall that South African medical practitioners had positive attitudes about working with traditional healers in both urban and rural treatment settings and that it could be beneficial to combine Western and traditional healing practices.

Now, going back to the summer of 2008, when I was studying abroad in South Africa, I was staying in a small village that welcomed the high-school group I was with to get an authentic “village-living” experience.  We were welcomed by singers and dancers, watched the killing of a sacrificial lamb to honor our arrival and lived in clay huts, which the girls in our group later found out were sealed with cow dung, as it was our responsibility to hand-collect and hand-paste it on the wall.  After such eventful experiences, including not showering but rather washing up from a boiled water pail, my group participated in, what we were told, was a traditional South African healing ceremony. 

(courtesy of unsplash) Approximately 80% of Black people in South Africa use traditional healing in some way, and generally look to traditional healers first before seeking Western treatment for what some traditionalists look at as “man-made” illnesses

There was singing and dancing around the fire, passing around traditional herbs and drinks (all sipping from one bottle or bowl) and stories told of the ancestors that included lessons, blessings and warnings.  We were encouraged to dance and participate in the traditional healing ceremony.  Just shy of 17, I was still a child, but as a preacher’s kid, I grew up with a major reverence for spiritual practices and ceremony; this event was no different.  There were things I thought were funny or odd in retrospect, and there was even a moment where I doubted everything when a traditional healer pulled out a bottle of liquor that could be found in the United States as part of the ceremony.  However, overall I worked hard to dive into the spirituality of the experience, and I’m not sure if it was the hot fire, the little swig of liquor I took as part of the ceremony, or the Holy Spirit, but the whole experience seemed spiritual and far beyond anything I had witnessed or could conjure.  

My amazing group leader, whose name I won’t print due to respect for his family and lack of permission to use his likeness, got all into the ceremony.  He was leading a group of teenagers, so at times, he joked around  during the official ceremony.  Knowing him, it was harmless fun meant to keep us teenagers engaged.  However, what happened the following afternoon stirs me to my core to this day.

The morning after the traditional ceremony we took an hours- long hike to what ended up being a beautiful beach.  After having been in the village picking up cow dung, the blue waters and beautiful sand of the beach was a major treat for the majority of my group. Other group members, myself included, opted out of water fun to enjoy the beautiful views and rest after what had been a long journey.   

However, the sun bathing and taking in sites was short lived when a fellow group member ran to me to find our second group leader because something had happened to the aforementioned funny guy.  I went to find our other leader and she ran to the other side of the beach, with a few of us teens terrified but following behind. We saw members of our group actively struggling in a riptide- everyone but our funny group leader.  

Immediately we ran to an area with rocks where members of the group were getting to for safety.  With the help of the South African villagers serving as tour guides we somehow got every group member out of the dangerous riptide, but as they were being pulled out, they all said they hadn’t seen our leader.  One group member sadly disclosed they saw him go under the water and never come back up.  We looked and searched for hours, hoping he had drifted and found a safe haven at another part of the beach.  That was not the case, he was gone- and we would learn later his body was never discovered.

The experience was traumatizing for all involved.  There were four more weeks of the study abroad program when this happened, yet each student was offered an opportunity to finish the trip early and return home.  A few accepted that offer, but most students, myself included, stayed and weathered the unbearable grief and other arduous experiences on that trip.

I have a lot of thoughts about having participated in the traditional healing ceremony the day before a life-changing and for one person, life-ending experience.  By no means do I directly correlate my leader’s death with the traditional healing ceremony.  There were times, when us kids asked how or why it could happen, where we considered his joking ways to get the teens involved as a possible motive for the village leaders to think he was disrespectful.  However that theory was quickly debunked by South African psychiatrists hired as grief counselors who were familiar with traditional healing.  

However, I did think back on truly spiritual moments and affirmations of protections during the traditional ceremony that I contend helped me get through that traumatic experience.  The invocation of the ancestral spirits made them seem more present than ever after the traditional ceremony and I felt as if I was being guided by forces much bigger than me while there. Trust me, that day at the beach wasn’t the only danger I ran into, as my homestay “brother” in another town later in the trip was stabbed; and then I got a spider bite that got so infected my whole hand swole up and I was taking antibiotics even after my return to the United States. However, with all of those trials, I climbed and abseiled off a mountain, went on a safari and gained lifelong friendships; a South African family, memories that will last a lifetime and a new outlook on the precious nature of life itself.  


Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor