Psychology in the African context is quite complex, due to the fact that western psychology methods remain more recognised – which often can lead to misdiagnosis and mistreatment. But can African indigenous healing methods truly help treat mental illnesses?
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti & Anele Siswana
Main image: Studio-ocular TK – unsplash
Africans have always had their own indigenous holistic healing methods which are known to treat physical and mental conditions. We have also had our own understandings for certain kinds of mental illnesses and related symptoms, and the relevant treatments. Due to our deep spiritual and cultural beliefs, our indigenous medical systems are often tied to our customs, ancestry and spirit, and the belief that our wellbeing requires that we acknowledge that we are composed of the mind, body and spirit.
Anele Siswana is one of the professional clinical psychologists who integrate both the western methods and the African indigenous methods in their practices. As an African scholar and psychological wellbeing practitioner, he is aiming to decolonise psychology in Africa. A mission he chose after uncovering that in psychology, western healing methods are still the only highly recognised due to the fact that they can be scientifically tested and proven.
“With African methods, the problem is that our methods have not been documented,” explains Siswana. “The difference between western and indigenous methods is that our healing methods (as Africans) are usually not in writing like you would have with existing theories. Our science as Africans is shared through oral traditions and storytelling.
“Most of the time they are not legitimised or they are legitimised through the western science model of healing. Even though as psychologists we work in/with science, I am of the view that we need to also tell and document our own stories. For example, we have always known that uMhlonyane (Artemisia) is a multi-purpose healing indigenous herb (which can be grown in your backyard). However, due to it not being scientifically proven, the western medicine has somehow tried to discredit its legitimacy.”
Along with uMhlonyane, there are a number of ancient African herbs that for generations have been believed to be highly effective remedies. There is Impempho (Helichrysum petiolare), a sacred African plant, which is used in traditional healing ceremonies and burnt in order to communicate with one’s ancestors and for cleansing and pain relief.
African Indigenous Treatments
According to reports, a number of (specific) cultural groups are making use of both spiritual, indigenous healers along with psychiatric services to help treat mental health issues. While others only made use of mostly indigenous healers due to lack of access to psychiatric facilities. It’s also important to note that Indigenous healers vary; there are the diviners, the herbalists and faith healers – which are all different. Often, in the African context, mental illness or misfortune can be linked to a spiritual calling from ancestors (known as ukuThwasa) or other ancestral, cultural, and spiritual problems – e.g. Amafufunyana (evil spirits), ukuPhambana (madness), bewitchment, ukuDliswa (poisoning), ukuBekelwa (poisoning), amongst many.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Siswana says he made an interesting observation, that many of the people who came for psychological consultations were keen on also exploring the spiritual/indigenous healing methods in conjunction with psychotherapy and other western forms of treatment. “I have [had] people who come to me, specifically, because I am a psychologist who is also a spiritualist. Therefore, I am able to understand the realities around African centered problems, from an ancestral or African perspective,” explains Siswana.
“There are many ways in which Africans understand the root of psychological problems. For instance, if someone has certain mental health problems, there may be biological, spiritual, ancestral or medical conditions that can better account for that. However, there is another archaeological spectrum which may require spiritual processes or a spiritual cathartic event to take place.
“As a psychologist, I’m clear about my role as a therapist and all the ethical aspects that come with it, especially as someone who offers diagnoses and treatments. Before I get to any conclusions, I usually also try and investigate other possible factors that could be contributing to some of the symptoms that a specific client may be displaying. I have the capacity to look beyond what the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), to uncover the specific symptoms that a client may be grappling with, so I can offer a better diagnosis.
“As a result, I have found that some of the people that come for consultations may have some kind of spiritual awakening/calling, rather than clinical depression or mental disorder. Their ancestors could be communicating something that transcends beyond the cognitive, transcends psychology, and therefore requires a certain level of spiritual understanding.
“I am aware that at times, there may be some things that are beyond my scope of understanding and I would therefore require a spiritual healer (iSangoma or iGqirha) to help shed more light. I have aboGogo (Spiritual healers) that I work with who are able to do a thorough assessment that may be able to better account for the archaeological factor that may not necessarily be accounted for by the DSM of the western psychology. Then, based on the outcome or the treatment plan suggested by the specific healer, I can then try and find the meaning behind the prognosis that may be suggested.”
Mental Illness vs. Spiritual calling
According to a 2017 study in Bushbuckridge which conducted interviews with multiple indigenous healers to prove the effectiveness of using indigenous methods to help treat mental illnesses, the healers agreed that in certain instances using modern/western methods could prove “to be fruitless” when treating certain mental illnesses, as some mental or psychotic symptoms could be spiritual. Siswana, who is currently in the process of ukuThwasa (undergoing initiation of becoming Igqirha), since 2017 has suffered from mental symptoms and was even admitted in a psychiatric facility, an intensive unit for Epilepsy, for an in-depth examination, before deciding to explore the more spiritual route.
“I was diagnosed with a condition called Temporal Lobe Epilepsy,” he shares. “I had an emotional breakdown and I physically crashed. When I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital; they did a series of tests and assessments, as part of the diagnostic process, which were all inconclusive. What liberated me from that experience was that my psychiatrist was so open-minded in dealing with my case. I had told her that before my admission I had been experiencing psychotic symptoms – I felt things that other people did not feel; I had hallucinations (sounds and visions) and déjà vu moments.
“I had this deep-seated feeling of hollowness; emptiness and sadness. My moods changed constantly; I had personality changes, cognitive deficits such as decreased attention, concentration and memory problems, in particular to short term memory. It was a combination that was difficult to discern and give a direct and proper diagnosis. After the tests came back negative, my psychiatrist then advised me to check with my Gobela (a spiritual teacher) to see if there may be other underpinning factors that contributed to my condition.
“That is when I was alerted that because I have a spiritual gift (someone who is beginning his process of accepting their calling), I am experiencing psycho-thematic experiences and the mental related symptoms were my ancestors communicating something to me.
“It took me months to fully understand that no science or medication could fully treat my condition because it was more of a spiritual and ancestral problem. After consulting with my medical team, we then realised that this was more of a calling than a mental illness/disorder. Now, I don’t take any (western) medication.
“I realised that there is no amount of science that can explain what I went through. I needed a spiritual release, a spiritual connection, a rhythm (sounds) that could unleash my inhibitions. After Imvuma Kufa (a ritual that serves as a public declaration of Ithongo and willingness to undergo uKuthwasa) ceremony I felt free – now I sleep well and dream nicely, moreover, I feel so connected with the essence of my being. My mental health has improved because I went through a cathartic experience that was instrumental to my healing.”
Practising ‘Holism psychology’
Due to his recent experience, Siswana believes there is a need for some kind of recognition which needs to happen in the psychology field, especially in relation to holism. “Holism means that we need to be open-minded in our interactions and understanding of (our) patients – there is not only one approach of explaining and making sense of psychological disorders or mental illnesses.
“If psychologists are not open to diversity, or other possible factors, then it would be hard for them to understand other world-views. When our patients bring forth different views that may not necessarily be western or in our current psychology textbooks, we have to open enough to investigate and confront those realities.
“Yes, the DSM-5 and the diagnostic process that has become the manual tool gives us a universal understanding of psychological and psychiatric disorders, however, for some people it may be something beyond the symptoms. Someone may display all the depressive or mental symptoms, but we have to look at the experiences of the symptoms, along with collective history – which is all the evidence that may not necessarily be in the DSM but could be significant in coming to a conclusion about the diagnosis.”
Through his spiritual initiation, Siswana adds that he learned that the world of the ancestors has no logic. “The world of ancestors relies on two things: Obedience and discernment – you need to discern first before you can be obedient. It has taught me that I am not in control of the process, I just have to be obedient to those who have chosen me (my ancestors) because they have also left the path I have to follow, and all I have to do is to be obedient to the process.
“I know that even though I accept this gift, I don’t own it. I have to hone it [the gift] and go through a process of initiation – ukuThwasa. This helps me understand that I am on a journey; a process of rebirth. I have to allow the spirit world to take over me and allow God and my ancestors to guide me.”
He adds: “For the longest time we have been made to believe that if you believe in your ancestors then you are denouncing God. However, the African epistemology and cosmology has long found that there is a great connection between the dead and the living.
“Western theologies and certain religious practices have disqualified who we are as African people. But as Africans, we always have had uMveligqangi, Qamata, Nkulunkulu etc. which is how we identify God. I believe that our ancestors are closer to God, and therefore serve as intermediaries between us and God. Our problem is that we have always allowed the western theologies to tell us who we are and how to be.”