Into the Spirit World
Bill Long 9/3/08
Exploring Mafufunyana and Ukuthwasa
When I did an Internet search under amafufunyana, the disorder or the spirits that afflicted a person, I also came across the word ukuthwasa, and it was this word that opens up the world of mafufunyana from the perspective of the people who heal, rather than simply the conditions that are treated. So, I found a Master's thesis online, entitled "Three perspectives on ukuthwasa: The view from Traditional Beliefs, Western Psychiatry and Transpersonal Psychology." It was written by Beauty Ntombizanele Booi at Rhodes University, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. This province is the place where the predominant tribal group is the Xhosa.
But first, before going on, one more question. The mafufunyana I described in the previous essay appeared in a study conducted in the Limpopo Province, a few hundred miles north of the land where the Xhosa flourished historically. Can one say that the terminology of mafufunyana was also present among the Xhosa? This article suggests that both amafufunyana and ukuthwasa are used by Xhosa traditional healers to explain psychological phenomena. Thus, let's explore how ukuthwasa functions among the Xhosa. We may also find that we discover the igqira, which the OED mentions and doesn't define..
Sickness and Healers in Traditional South African Culture
Like many other cultures, traditional Xhosa people (a map of their traditional homes is here) see sickness and suffering as manifestations of the body's inherent wisdom, that is, as opportunities for the self to develop new capacties for perception and expression about the nature of life on earth. Therefore, as Booi says, "sickness is regarded as a call for self-realization and self-development," p. 2. Sickness thus becomes the sphere or place where one might discover oneself as a healer.
Among the Xhosa, this kind of sickness which may lead not only to healing but to one's call as a healer is called ukuthwasa.
"This means to 'come out' or to be reborn. It is thus interpreted as a calling by the ancestors to become a healer," p. 3.
As such, this sickness can be seen as both a burden and benefit, a blessing and a curse. Such a diagnosis is often resisted, "and the sick person and relatives can consult several amagqira (the word is related to igqira) to have it confirmed or negated." What is an amagqira? Isn't the fun just cascading for us now?
"The healers or amagqira are in the service of the ancestors because they are knowledgeable about their wishes and needs. They can understand and interpret their messages, which appear in the dreams of ordinary people, they are specialists in rituals and customs, which are required to communicate with the ancestors. They therefore are the mediators between the ancestors and their living kin," p. 3.
Why would anyone resist a call to become a healer? Well, as those of us known who have pursued advanced degrees, some of which have required the learning of other languages as well as cultures, it takes work, a lot of work, to become proficient enough to be a scholar. The same is true for one who wants to be a healer.
Thus, in order to become a healer, one must first undergo this test. I don't know if the amagqira becomes a guide to help the potential initiate interpret his/her illness (women were about 1/3 of the healers in the Limpopo Province study) or whether the sick person is "on his own," but dreams become one of the means of communicating the messages from the ancestors. These dream messages are called amathongo. If these messages persist, the person is to become a healer him/herself. But the experience is a dangerous one, for some who never manage to get through the sickness or to see it as ukuthwasa, might have the diagnosis revised to ukuphambana (the Xhosa word for insanity). Thus, in the Xhosa culture, as in many religious traditions, there is sometimes little difference between being an inspired person (a healer in this case) and one suffering from mental illness. If a person "survives" the experience, s/he then enters upon the regiment to become a full-fledged igqira or healer. The igqira is a sort of the Western equivalent of a psychologist, but, as Booi points out, there are several significant differences, pp. 5-6.
The ten or so new terms introduced in this and the previous essay are only the tip of a very large iceberg. As this article points out, using the work of Manton Hirst (The Healer's Art: Nguni Diviners in the Townships of Grahamtown), the terminology clustering around Southern African healing and divination is vast. For example, the article introduces us to the life history of the "typical" Xhosa healer. Shuch a person experiences a sort of "call" to the office from the ancestors (iminyanya). The ancestors communicate through dreams (amathongo--we have already seen the term, haven't we!) or visions (imibono). The candidate (umkhwetha) is afflicted witha disease called intwaso, derived from ukuthwasa, a term that is much more inclusive than our Western concept of disease, because involved in intwaso is a sense of burden or weight on the person to discern the reality or nature of his/her call.
Well, you get the picture. By entering into the language of the Xhosa culture, we are privileged both to understand a little bit of one of their practices, but we also see how words used by Western people to describe their phenomena might not "fit." There might be, for example, a "75% overlap" between the Western notion of sickness or disease and the Xhosa idea of intwaso. But, wouldn't we be enriched as a speaker of English to bring intwaso into our language, with the nuances that are given it by the Xhosa culture, and see how it might, indeed, fill out and make more supple our understanding of disease. The same could be said for other terms which are part and parcel of the Xhosa concepts of divination and healing. Perhaps their word igqira would, on some occasions, be a more powerful word for us to describe the nature of a healer we would like. Theologically speaking, we might want to describe God as that kind of healer.
Thus, the OED has done us a service, however limited, by deciding to expand its horizons and include mafufunyana in its 2000 (online) version. Though it only whets our interest in the smallest degree, it encourages us to develop our knowledge in a more precise and systematic way. And, if we take the cue from the dictionary, considering it the beginning and not the end of research, we are brought into levels of insight and surprise that, literally, make our day. I hope it made yours...