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Indigenous technology

Aspects of the African Healing system reflected in other systems:

by Peter M von Maltitz / Zanemvula

19 Jan 2006

Technology is defined as the study of the mechanical arts and applied sciences. Generally in engineering it is called know-how.  So how do you do it. There are many onlookers but few who can get results. We are not talking now of why or when to do something. Those are other issues and even more important.

In Africa we see the technologists achieving results that we do not understand. We see then bringing lightning out of a blue sky or healing people who were sent home by the hospital to die.  It seems magical because we seldom make the trouble to understand  what is happening. Making conclusions within our framework from a few fragments of information we collected does not help. This way we just miss the point completely.  We can only start understanding how things work if we study the sphere of understanding within which a procedure or technique worked.

Because Africa has remained a place where little was recorded other than in global symbols and because most of the processes are handed down verbally, there is little literature to go on.  What I have tried to do is see what has been recorded in other parts of the world and how much of that is still buried in procedures and rituals in South Africa.  We have here some of the most ancient of procedures. This Xhosa culture that I learned from in turn learnt much from the San and they seem to have kept it going here for 20 thousand years. Not the two thousand of the Europeans or the four thousand of the Chinese. We are talking of twenty thousand. The problem is detecting what survived that time and what is newly integrated by the new influences of the last 500 years. That what had survived from earlier times was the tested and effective techniques. If you do not use it you lose it. You only used it because it worked.

So, before we come to technology we first need to look at the broader issue of world views within which these operate.  Each sphere is different and the laws pertaining to the different spheres  are not the same.  What we learn in one sphere is not necessarily applicable in another.  You can learn how to move very heavy rocks with a simple leaver by understanding the use of a fulcrum. Using the lever to try and change a stubborn mind is not going to be much use.  I know those who are used to using levers will think that the best thing to do is to break your scull with the lever but that just makes the mind inaccessible and does not change it.

When I was young and at university I tried to understand universal things and tried to reduce things to basics. At that time I was still thinking in reductionist ways, although not totally materialistically. I tried to define the concepts that could not be defined by others, a little like primary numbers.  I found three. Being, force and matter. It completely slipped my mind that I was using the 4th one, form or thought to describe the others.  Dr R Steiner pointed that out to me in his book “Human and cosmic thought”. When you look at anything in one of these exclusive ways, you can only describe part of the issue.

Before we can go into these different spheres however we first have to realize that primarily Africa sees the person as more than a whole. In fact the society is the whole and the person is who he is because of how society has treated him, fed him, educated him and allowed him to fulfil different functions in that society. I am because of my society. Ubuntu. Living for the greater good.  Having been brought up in the western society I did not understand this nor was it ever pointed out to me. I found it very difficult to see anything as more than the sum of its parts.

Example 1

Being initiated into this new life as healer in Khayelitsha gave me my first clear experience of this process.  I did not have warning of what was to happen and I am sure it would not have helped in any case.  They brought a patient before me and asked what was going on with her. I could see that she had a bad headache and said so. My teacher turned to her and asked: “is that so?”

“ Yes “ she said.

He turns back to me and asks: “Why does she have a headache? ”

Oh, am I supposed to know that?

“Because she had a fright” I blurted out.

Teacher turns back to the patient and asks again “Is that correct”

“Yes “ she says.

“Ooooh” murmurs the crowd.

Wow, I feel like i am off the hook.

He turns back to me and asks “ What gave her the fright”

Oh no!

“Because someone climbed through her window at night”

“Is that so”



“Who climbed through the window?”

.... etc ..

It is amazing what one can do when a hundred eyes are turned onto you and you are told to “make it snappy”.  We unleash things that our normal western upbringing has made us believe is impossible.

What it does reveal is that the interplay of society produces symptoms in some individuals and giving a headache pill is not going to cure the real experience of threat and tension now called “stress” in the modern world. It does not overcome or heal the breakdown in human relations that started the whole problem.

Example 2.

When I investigated the issue of hyperactive kids I came across the American therapist who would not even consider treating the issue if the Father was not prepared to come to the table and be involved as it is primarily an inappropriate behaviour of the father that precipitates the situation.

Example 3

Normally the family comes for the diagnosis or “fortune” to find out if the healer can see  their problem and it is up to him to see what the problem is and in who the symptoms are expressing and what the expression is.  If he cannot see the person who is manifesting the problem they do not trust his diagnosis of the stress or issue either.  It is not that he is a bad doctor but just that he is not the right one for them as he cannot see their problem.

The only other place where I have found an absolutely comprehensive treatment of the whole and its interrelated symptoms is in Herrings Law of Cure in Homeopathy.  It helped to not only to create a higher archy of physical disease levels but also mental and emotional levels. I still do not yet see much of the community included in it. They both talk of disease moving down to leave. The also both work with change and not differences.

Having stated the issue of the holistic approach we get back to some of the detail.

1. Matter

Materialism and western science that looked for physical causes to physical effects had to come up with Allopathy.  That is treating a condition with a material substance that creates a physical symptom. It can be something like Aspirin from the bark of the willow that directly impacts on the physiology of the person and relieves the experience of pain. In other words you treat a pain with a pain killer. So you treat it with its opposite.  Or it can be an antibiotic or toxin that directly kills germs and thereby relieves the body from being poisoned by the toxins of the germs.  These are straight forward processes totally understood by the western mind that looks for physical evidence in a mechanistic world view.  That is fine and some of the healing herbs investigated by western science will be found to contain such substances.  The main thing is to give the body a rest and an opportunity to recover while the bad guys are kept at bay with a relieving treatment.

2. Thought

If however we look at the disease symptoms as an expression of the persons response to dis-ease rather than being caused by the disease, then we see a dis-ease picture or form appearing. We are looking for what is peculiar in the response rather than what is common to the “disease”.  This is called Gestalt or form coming into expression from within. Homeopathy developed this into a great exact science by describing disease response pictures in detail with a full symptom having to include the symptom description, its quality, speed of onset and dissolution, timing, better or worse for what conditions, concomitants, etc.. These had to be treated by matching the disease symptoms most closely with the descriptions of a proving with activated substances.  Provings of disease pictures were  created  by giving activated substances to healthy people. These people then developed disease pictures that were assembled by comparing the symptoms and finding the ones common to the provers. The interesting thing is that the process of activation or potentization used dilution and shaking(succusion) which reduced the material content but seemed to exaggerate the message.  The message is a thought.  So here we are working with thoughts or Gestalt. Even though there is much talk of vital force it is the thought pictures that are most relevant. It is not surprising that this treatment uses all symptoms including delusions and dreams. Treating like with like gives the body a glimpse of what it is trying to manifest. This treating of suffering with similar suffering is homoeo = similar and  pathy = suffering. Homeopathy. Out of homeopathy many interesting principles have been discovered by S Hahnemann its founder such as:

Use of the minimum dose

Use of the similimum - the most similar

Use of a single substance - (mixtures alleviate symptoms  but do not heal.) Because we are dealing with a message it is not surprising that mixtures do not work. Ever tried to listen to a crowd talking. Did you get the message? No. You have to listen to one person at a time.

During the training and treatment of the healer or Igqirha the same applies.  The healing herb has to be found. It is one herb.  It has to be stirred to a froth with a forked stick. Similar to the potentization of succusion by the homeopath.

Not only is it potentised but the patient has to stir it every time before taking more so that it also goes through a serial raising of the potency during treatment.

Many of the herbs in Africa are described by what they do and thereby also indicating what they can cure if used in this homeopathic way. Take isiDagwa for instance which indicates the person that walks like a drunk man.  A drunk man walks like he is dizzy.  Not only does he talk too much and is filled with self importance like all drunks but is dizzy too. This is a fantastic treatment for manic dizzy people. Not all manic people.

Among the Xhosa it is taught that healing always takes place from the top downwards. That is also why they cut the body from top downwards when rubbing in medicines. The famous homeopath Constantine Herring formulated the healing process as going from top downwards, from inside outwards, from the more important to the less important organs and backwards in time.

 3. Force

There is a saying that if you hear about something, you know about it, if you see it you will believe it, but if you have done it you will understand it. Wisdom comes with experience of having done things.  Some substances are the product of an activity.  If the person can practice an activity he will get to understand it and be able to do it himself.  Some substances such as umhlonjane or courage by being courage imbues you with courage.  Thus you can practice the energy, force or power of courage.  This is a process I would like to call induction.  In Homeopathy they talk of grafting a disease by giving a substance too often especially in low potency.  This principle is also used regularly in Anthroposophical medicine by trying to teach the body processes it has forgotten by giving low potency minerals that come from a period in the earths evolution during which those forces were active.  The secret seems to be low potencies in repeated doses. The low potency releases the energy that formed the substances (a little like latent energy released from water to form ice)  Many African herbs and fats are used in this way. Talking about fats, what is the means of carrying genetic material into cells to achieve genetic engineering? It is the use of oils or fats. Africa has been using this for eons by using animal fats to take on some of the characteristics of the favoured animals.

Bach flower remedies also make use of induction and the use of emotion.  Every flower is the expression of a single emotion and using them brings specific emotions to bear on the patient who then gets to know those emotions and starts practising them.

If we study the Taoist system of the five organs described in China and the energies that go with them we see the same elements described in detail in west Africa. Malidoma Some has given detailed descriptions in his books about this. In the Chinese system it is all about balance, and in the training of the twasa in Africa it is also about balance. Symbolically there is always an equal representation of the male and female principle. The bladders worn on the head represent male (Gall bladder) and female (bladder). The sticks that are carried are (male) spear and feminine (cow tail or choba). There are as many red beads as white beads in the strings around their necks. They alternate in equal quantities.

If we study the Indian system of energy absorption through the chakras or energy wheels we see them represented in the African healer’s dress: the white head band with 12 short strings attached to where it crosses the apex of the head. That is the 12 petaled lotus on the top of the head. The band that goes around the head and circles the brow has a diamond shape in front or the two leafed or two grouped chakra on the brow.  The long strings of sky blue beads that hang from the neck represent the colour of the neck chakra. The skirts have seven black bands at the bottom, the seven bodily chakra system.  There is great emphasis on kneeling which makes you very aware of the out of body earth centre  below the ground.  The stirring of the ubulau on the head during the initiation ceremonies are clearly meant to activate and awaken the akashic memory that is in that position on the head. Detailed descriptions of the chakras are given by the trained observer CW Leadbeater in his book “Chakras”

The circles of beads around the palms of the hands help to limit the pain of the patient to the hands of the healer. This limiting of the energy is described as very necessary in the “The Rainbow Serpent of the Toltecs”

So healing is often described as a spiritual energetic process and the herbs are only used to take the process rapidly right down into the physical body.  Looking for exciting chemicals in the herbs used by powerful healers is not likely to reveal much as their healing does not depend much on the herbs.

4. Beings

Now finally we come to Beings. The saying goes that it is not a question of what we know but who we know that makes the difference. There are many beings, human beings, animals, plants, crystals, water beings, forest beings.  Each bring their own gifts and challenges. Much of what I have experienced in these things indicate a very effective set of rituals or methods that are applied in Africa. I have read and studied much about Shamanism but I must say the methods are all here in Africa, even though they are not all rationalized or explained, as long as you follow them meticulously they are very effective.  They lead you into experiencing and interacting with all kinds of spirits. The procedures are straight forward: If you want to meet someone, prepare yourself by washing and dressing properly, be humble by going on your knees, state your request clearly loudly and openly, take friends along to help you go through with it,  take gifts and offer them to get their attention, be quiet and listen to the response, accept information, messages and spiritual gifts gracefully. Thank them and take your leave. Repeatedly go over the experience to anchor it in your present awareness.

It all sounds like simple common sense and it is, but most of us have forgotten most of it. Some people have had one or sometimes two such experiences and it had caused major revelations in their work. Take the example of the chemist who tried to understand the structure of benzine until he had a dream of a snake biting his tail to form a circle.  It was a once in a lifetime experience for him that gave him the big break. Very seldom have people sought to gain access to this experience repeatedly.  Narrative therapy also came from the insight of a dream and yet the founders of these systems do not actively seek more dreams.

In Africa the healers seek to access this resource repeatedly so that they constantly get messages as to how to treat individual patients and situations.  When they say they are taught by their ancestors they do not mean it the way we teach in the west by teaching the live by the live, but that those knowledgeable people who have passed on beyond the living  teach their students and grandchildren what to do by appearing to them in their dreams. Literacy, electric lights and television has played havoc with the inner lives and ancestral teachings of Africa. They assume a kind of education that totally denies the other education of symbol interpretation. When symbols that are transmitted by the oral tradition are replaced by the literate word the symbol loses its power to convey insight.

So it is that in Africa we recognise that disease can be caused by beings (ancestral or foreign), materials (poisons and pollution), energy ( jealousy and bad intentions, energy pollution), forgetting (losing your thought, your intention or soul loss or your position and purpose in life)   Each of them is addressed in its own way and a single remedy like Artemisia afra that is an expression of courage can be used in any of these many ways.


Steiner, R. 1931. Human and cosmic thought.

Hahnemann, S. 1994 Organon of Medicine. Sixth Edition. Translated by W Boericke

Some, M.  Of water and spirit.

Tunnesshende, M. 2001 Don Juan and the Art of Sexual Energy. Bear and company, Rochester, Vermont. ISBN 1-879181-63-0

Extraction systems,

Hot water - as in teas - useful for most aromatic herbs and for breathing in the steam of the herb.

Cold water, - there are some substances that are regarded to be active by the very fact that they are cool and collected and soothing so that it would be counter productive to heat them. These are plants like intolwane - Elephantorhiza which soothes and closes stomach ulcers. Ugobho or Gunnera perpensa is used to tone patients and help them pull themselves together.

Soap, - using plants that contain saponins as the basis of a remedy that are stirred in water give the double benefit of dissolving the materials out of the plant medicine and creating a foam which carries the potentised substance to be partaken. This process is usually referred to as stirring ubulau. In the cape Silene capensis is one of the most useful species as it gives a very stable pure foam.

Dry heat, - using fire as in a smouldering process like the burning of incense and creating  smoke causes high temperatures that evaporate fatty substances into the air where they can be breathed in and directly absorbed through the nasal passages. From there it is a short path into the brain. This is used for materials like Vutusa and mphephu.

Fermentation - this is useful to extract substances with a waxy quality when you do not want to use heat as in burning incense. The fermentation creates the alcohol which dissolves the substance and then it is deposited on the dry material when the alcohol is allowed to evaporate.