Traditional healers from the inside

Tiisetso Tlelima

traditionalhealers-text4 Photographer Saddi Khali, born in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA Saddi has made a name for himself as a creative being spreading his knowledge of self and changing the misconceptions of black beauty. Saddi Khali’s spiritual journey led him to his roots in Nigeria. He has answered his calling and continues to grow as a healer.

TraditionalHealers-Text2 Keitu Gwangwa is an amazing singer, actor and writer. She’s a humble, earthy and warm healer who has a presence that instills calm and serenity.
(Images: 1st born photography)

• Tshepo Phologane
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When it comes to traditional healers, there are plenty of negative images depicting them as scary and evil. It is precisely for this reason that photographer and graphic designer Tshepo Phologane, who is training to become a healer, decided to put together an exhibition that shows modern traditional healers in a positive light.

The Truth, as Phologane has called his photographic exhibition, is scheduled to open in March 2013, though a gallery has not been confirmed yet. It will tell the stories of 10 traditional healers who live in and around Johannesburg. Each photograph will be accompanied by a description about each healer and stories of their experiences and specialties.

The intention of the exhibition is to dispel the myth that traditional healers are to be feared, and to make people aware of what a modern traditional healer looks like. “Being a healer is not a curse,” Phologane says candidly.

“I want people to know what it means to be a traditional healer in 2012 and how they juggle their lives. I want other traditional healers to speak about their challenges so that people can start learning and be more comfortable around each other.”

It is very important, to him, for people to see the young, modern traditional healer who goes out and works in the corporate world, and not the stereotypes shown on television, with a traditional healer portrayed as an old man or woman huddled over mpepho, a herb burnt like incense, and covered in blankets in a dark room.

This is not the reality today, explains Phologane. “A message needs to be relayed to people that there has been an evolution of who your traditional healer is today. So I thought it was important to capture and document that in a creative way.”

A graphic designer by profession and one of the brains behind the Strussbob Apparel brand, Phologane began taking photographs at the end of 2010. Initially, he thought he should take pictures of himself and document the process of becoming a healer. But he later decided to go out and photograph other traditional healers to give him a better understanding of what he, himself was undergoing.

Getting the calling

Phologane’s first sign that he was destined to be a traditional healer came in 2007. Hanging out with friends, he would stare off into space and get a sudden feeling that it was unsafe for them to go to a party or to a certain place. He would urge his friends to not attend.

“Sometimes, I would keep quiet like I was listening to something but I wasn’t quite sure what that something was,” he explains.

The following year, during a cleansing ceremony at home, he was chosen to perform a sacred ritual, which surprised him because he wasn’t the most knowledgeable about that particular ritual.

Performing the ritual was an emotional and overwhelming experience, but he thought nothing of it. Three years later, in 2011, he started having strange recurring dreams. His first reaction was to visit the traditional healer who consulted his family at the time to ask him what the dreams meant. He was told they were just dreams and he shouldn’t take them seriously.

But the dreams didn’t stop. A couple of months later, on 14 August, he had an unusual experience and believed a spirit had entered his body. He passed out and started speaking in another person’s voice. Other people’s ancestors had visited him, he said. Again, the family doctor told him he didn’t have the calling.

“I was told I am a spiritual being but I wasn’t going to be a healer,” Phologane recalls.

But the next time he was visited by ancestors, Phologane consulted a different healer, his cousin, who told him he had the calling. “She told me the same things had happened to her before she became a healer,” he adds.

“Then I started seeing the cloth I’m supposed to wear and what type of walking sticks I should get. I also started getting messages about the kind of food I’m not supposed to eat such as pork, eggs and peanuts because they make me weak spiritually. When I eat them my defences are down. So I started getting messages I could decipher myself.”

Spurred by these experiences, Phologane began gathering as much information as possible about being a traditional healer from his grandparents and through literature. According to Phologane, people generally take two to three months to thwasa, the process of becoming a traditional healer.

“You get lessons from your ancestors on how to throw bones, but I haven’t gone in for anything yet … I’m still learning, still collecting. You have to arrive at a place where you are ready.”

Traditional healers today

Regarding whether traditional methods of healing are still relevant, Phologane points out that there will always be a need for traditional healers because there will always be a need for Africans to understand themselves better.

“Traditional healing is not only about muti; for me, a traditional healer is more of a life coach than a medical doctor … Sometimes when you are feeling sick, it’s not because you are feeling sick from something internal within your body. Traditional healers can heal you through talking and also there are herbal things you can wash with.”

Traditional healers are the custodians of African history and heritage. They are the gateway to knowing about the past, where lineage comes from, where culture comes from and how far back you can go, he adds. As gatekeepers of knowledge and information, they are able to guide people through life when they have problems, whether these issues are psychological, medical or financial.

“You go to a traditional healer because they have this wealth of knowledge that they’ve grasped from the people who have passed on and the people around them.”

Learning to become a traditional healer has humbled him, Phologane says. It has forced him to change his behaviour and the way he thinks. He has had to learn more about himself, his pressure points and what makes him happy or sad.

“I had to really hone in on who is Tshepo. And by getting this gift, what do I want to do with it and how do I want to use it?”

He believes that by putting together The Truth exhibition he has already started using his gift the way he should. His subjects have said that the process of being photographed and telling their stories has healed them as well. In the past, healers would not be photographed because of superstitious beliefs that people could use the photographs to harm them.

“So I broke that seal because I believe it’s not about what that person can do with that picture but about capturing who we are,” explains Phologane. “It’s time for some sort of intervention to happen, a change to happen. The way that I want to use my project is to let people know what they don’t know. It shouldn’t be something that we shy away from.”