Traditional healing is based in tribal tradition and has probably existed for about 120,000 years, since tribal structures are thought to have existed before the first city states appeared about 7,000 years ago. It is founded on the experience of the human as part of his/her family and clan (the ubuntu concept). The clan experience goes beyond the physically living and includes the ancestors of the group. Keeping in contact with these ancestors and following their guidance contributes greatly to the health of the individual because it imbues him/her with a sense of belonging, purpose and identity within the community.
A traditional healer is a person who has maintained or re-established his/her contact with the ancestors. Through this contact he/she has access to all the knowledge they impart. Because the ancestors are also part of another world they have contact with other beings to whom they can introduce the healer. A traditional healer also communicates with plants which divulge their healing secrets. Just as any western student needs to learn how to gain access the knowledge of his civilization through libraries, so the student of traditional healing has to learn how to gain access to information through interaction with the spirits. The spirits only speak when all other avenues have been explored.
In western society one is taught that only the physical world exists. Visions are seen as a hallucinatory product of the psyche in which it is inappropriate to indulge. Failure to conform to this norm could result in institutionalisation. But consider that what so called insane people see and hear might in fact exist, or that when someone says that he/she can feel the pain of others he/she is probably telling the truth. Should one experience these phenomena and decide to ignore them, one might successfully suppress their direct meaning.
Instead of a clear message one suffers from a throbbing headache as if someone were knocking to get attention. In other cases intuitions may express themselves as a pounding of the heart. These symptoms usually manifest when one considers acting against the wishes of the ancestors. In Nguni society this condition is known as twasa.
The cure for this illness lies in accepting ancestral messages, best achieved by the study of traditional healing. This acceptance marks the start of a traditional healer's training. First the twasa (new student) needs to find his/her own teacher. Often he/she dreams of this teacher before meeting him/her. In other cases the twasa will meet the teacher, as if by chance, and will feel an immediate sense of recognition. A student may even wake up at the door of a teacher some night after having sleepwalked there for many kilometres.
In South Africa, as in so many other parts of Africa, the start of formal training is demonstrated by the wearing of white beads presented to the student by the teacher. These are visible signs that the student has accepted the call of the ancestors and are named incinbi (chains) since the student is now chained to a new path, cannot leave it and must obey the ancestors. The twasa also is given an arm length stick that they have to carry with them everywhere they go. It is quite a challenge in the beginning to remember the stick all the time. Soon the trainee is taken to meet the water spirits, and later the forest spirits. Light blue beads and green beads respectively can now be worn with the white.
After much work with people and plants under the guidance of his/her teacher and having learned how to dream and to interpret these dreams the student is ready to demonstrate new abilities. Clan, friends and the local community is invited to a festival in celebration of what the ancestors are making known. During this celebration a goat is slaughtered in honour of an ancestral line. Here the student displays his/her ability by explaining his/her latest dream or diagnosing the condition of a bystander simply by looking at him/her and listening to the ancestors advice.
Nomthetho as a student of Zanemvula. At the celebration a goat is slaughtered in honour of one ancestral line. ( See picture on left. )
At this ceremony the student adds seven black stripes to his/her previously unadorned ceremonial white skirts. A broader band of white beads, the bladder, gall bladder and tail of the goat is added to the head-dress. The string of white beads around the neck is lengthened and have bits of the chin goatskin sown onto the ends. Now the student usually receives a special traditional healer's name.
Later (sometimes even years) a second goat is slaughtered to celebrate the other ancestral line. At this ceremony, pieces of skin are added to the skirts and the twasa now wears a band of fox skin around the head to show that he/she is becoming clever. The student is also awarded a digging stick to collect roots and other medicines. It is important that the student should have found his/her own ancestral colours by this time so that the spirits can reveal themselves through the colours he/she wears. These are usually revealed in a dream.
In the final graduation ceremony a cow or bull is slaughtered, a cow for a female student and a bull or ox for a male. The tail skin of the beast is pulled over a stick, beaded and carried as a symbol of having completed the training process. This is the choba. The qualified healer now also wears a closed cap made of the skin of the family totem animal and many more beads. Now the new healer reveals the medicine that has helped him/her become whole again. The ceremony is performed at the home of the graduate's family. It is a homecoming and the whole community is invited to witness a display of the graduating student's knowledge and abilities on the students return from his/her teacher's kraal.
The whole training lasts anything from two to 15 years.