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Traditional healers are the subject of a Museum Africa exhibition, which looks at their importance to and impact on contemporary society.
DELVING into the realm of the spiritual to heal physical ailments is the core of the permanent exhibition, With the Help of the Spirits: Divination and Healing, at Museum Africa in the cultural hub of Newtown.

A drawing of a Baca sangoma, Barbara Tyrrell, 1956A drawing of a Baca sangoma, Barbara Tyrrell, 1956Curated by Diana Wall, the exhibition focuses on the role of traditional healers and herbalists in curing illnesses, using their links to and relationships with their ancestors. “This display uses Museum Africa’s collections, including diviners’ objects, photographs and art works to show the continuity in tradition, as well as items particular to named diviners,” she says.

“One diviner, Mashayelo Maseko, was instructed by a spirit guide to work with the museum in preserving the knowledge he had.”

Traditional healers are important in African culture. They are respected for their skills and consulted by 60 percent or more of South Africans, who may use conventional Western medicine as well, according to Wall.

A holistic approach is used by traditional healers, who have been trained to interpret the life experiences and circumstances of their clients. A holistic approach to healing is also gaining considerable popularity in Western medicine, prompted by its success.

This approach includes traditional healers communicating with ancestral spirits to heal their patients, and serving as mediators between ordinary people and ancestors. In fact, these ancestors play a major role in the healers’ careers, and urge them to take up their calling.

People can be called upon by the ancestors at any time of their lives, usually in a dream. “The signs are usually an illness that does not get better, in conjunction with very vivid dreams and sometimes emotional turmoil,” Wall explains.

“These problems resolve once the calling is accepted.”

Most traditional healers are women, while herbalists are usually men. Because training takes about a year and involves being away from their families, women often try to ignore the calling. However, they often eventually heed the call and set off to train with an experienced traditional healer who has been identified to them in their dreams.

A Pedi porridge dish of marula woodA Pedi porridge dish of marula woodHerbalist knowledge, on the other hand, gets passed down through the family.

Traditional healing has a long history of best practice being passed through the generations and many methods, traditions, clothing and accessories are still in use. The healers are usually recognisable by their distinctive dress such as wigs and necklaces, as well as by the use of colours, mainly black, red and white.

“In addition to items decreed by long tradition, the particular spirit that a doctor communicates with may prescribe unusual and particular items or even colours that should be worn,” she adds. “One doctor may use several spirits for help and may use several outfits depending on which spirit is being used.”

In years gone by, traditional healers were commonly called witchdoctors, but Wall explains that this is an inappropriate label as a witch or wizard often harms other people: “Traditional healers are trained to help, not harm.”

In contemporary terms, the Zulu word “sangoma”, which means traditional healer, has been adopted into South African English to describe the profession.

Traditional healing as a profession has been threatened by urbanisation and modernisation. “However, healers are changing with the times, pushing for recognition in law of their skills and usefulness, forming associations to help ensure effective and ethical treatment of their patients, harvesting sustainably and responsibly, and cultivating important plants to ensure a supply for the future,” she concludes.

Museum Africa is located at 121 Bree Street; it is open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9am to 5pm and there is parking available at Mary Fitzgerald Square. Entrance is free.

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