Traditional healers’ status is earned — not given

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Traditional healers’ status is earned — not given

It is 6 in the morning when Sonwabo Nomarwayi lights the fire at St. John’s Apostolic Church.

When there is enough heat, he will begin to boil the pots of water that will be added to the bathtub in the shed next door to the fire pit. Today, he will bathe at least one person, his cousin, who has come to Makhanda to be healed because he is hearing voices.

“We believe that by staying clean, you see every spirit that comes around you because you’re clean.”

Nomarwayi is in the process of becoming a Christian healer. He must first work for free as an apprentice until he has proven himself through his dedication to both the church and God—first, by acting as the church’s caretaker, but also by denying himself of women, alcohol, and extra food.

“We believe that by staying clean, you see every spirit that comes around you because you’re clean,” Nomarwayi said.

Nomarwayi is just one of about 200,000 traditional healers scattered throughout South Africa, and it is estimated that around 70 percent of South Africans regularly visit healers. The art of healing is still so popular in the country that the government has recently started the process of regulating it, but it is a difficult task. South Africa passed the Traditional Health Practitioners Act in 2014, in order to regulate the profession and protect people from those who claim to be healers but have no formal training.

Nomarwayi will bathe any people who believe they need to be cleaned of their sins, or to be healed. He does this twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The process is always the same: he lights the fire, collects the water to be heated, and adds the hot water to the bathtub, which he cleans beforehand. He will then ask the man seeking healing — Nomarwayi only bathes men and says the minister, a woman, bathes the women who wish to be healed — to undress. He bathes them, praying over them as he cleans their bodies.

He does not know what that work will be, but he cannot continue to work for nothing, as he is now.

Only one short year ago, Nomarwayi himself, needed healing. He says he was drinking too much and was too concerned about women. Today, the healed is now the healer. He will soon return home, after his apprenticeship ends. It is hard to say when Nomarwayi will be finished with his apprenticeship; it is not up to him. Rather, the minister who is guiding him through the process will decide.

“God must find me work next year,” Nomarwayi said. He does not know what that work will be, but he cannot continue to work for nothing, as he is now, although he does have a room where he lives that’s situated in a small house alongside the church where he practices his healing.

There are various designations within the healing profession. Nomarwayi is a Christian healer who is associated with a specific church. Other healers, though, are called to be healers through their ancestors, who come to them in dreams, both while they are awake and asleep. These healers use more traditional practices, such as herbal remedies and premonitions to help those who seek healing. These healers, who are often referred to as traditional or natural healers, believe they have no control over becoming a healer; it is a designation given to them by their ancestors, and they must obey or suffer the consequences.

In a different extension in the township, Simphiwe Wewe changes out of his security uniform and begins to prepare himself for his other job as a traditional healer. It’s a position for which he is not yet paid, but once he has completed his studies, the people who come to see him will pay him for his help.

He smears the gray clay he has taken from the river until it covers his face. He puts on his white shirt, his blue-and-white ceremonial dress, and adds his ancestral beads—also blue and white—to his wrists, neck, and head. He is now ready to greet those who need healing. Wewe is a gentle man, his voice is soft, and he is a proud family man. His little children are gathered in the family’s living room, watching as their father situates himself on the floor, various herbs scattered at his side. His oldest daughter takes her tablet computer and begins to film and take pictures of the scene around her, an interesting juxtaposition to the ancient tradition her father is engaging in and to the long and complicated story of how he came to be a healer.

To be a natural healer, Wewe said, you must be summoned by your ancestors. For Wewe, his ancestors came to him in his dreams when he was a teenager, and they told him he must go through the process of becoming a traditional Xhosa healer; if he did not obey his ancestors, they would wreak havoc on his life.

“When someone’s coming to be healed, firstly, you must dream somebody can help you so that you can get a good line from your ancestors.”

Finally, after speaking with his wife, Wewe listened to his ancestors and began the process of becoming a traditional healer, which can take some time. There seems to be no specific timeline for becoming a healer, but there is a process to it. Currently, Wewe studies under the supervision of other natural healers who will determine when he is ready to move on to the next step to becoming a healer.

"I can’t say next year I will be finished,” he said. “It depends—the road is still long—because sometimes you can’t just do your things. Also, the ancestors—they also want you to do their work that they didn’t do—so they are coming to you as a messenger.”

Dreams are an important part of traditional healing: It’s the way Wewe’s ancestors communicate to him, and it’s also how those who need healing find him.

“When someone’s coming to be healed, firstly, you must dream somebody can help you so that you can get a good line from your ancestors,” he said. “It’s not you —It’s your ancestors who give you the message about what you’re supposed to do.”

Wewe said people can come to be healed physically and emotionally. He speaks to them through their ancestors, and he feels the pain those seeking healing feel.

Wewe does not see his gift as a burden, though.

“Now I’m protected,” he said. “Now I show my culture, the people who are Xhosa.”