Oma Djo, a highly respected elderly Ju/’hoan healer, referred to n/om spiritual energy as something that “helps keep us alive.” N/om lies at the heart of the Ju/’hoan practice of healing, a practice that follows the pattern of classical shamanism. During all-night community healing dances, n/om boils within the healers to create an altered state of consciousness (ASC) called !aia. Experiencing !aia, the healers can interact with the realm of the gods and release the healing effects of n/om, which become available to all in attendance.
As recently as the 1960s, the Ju/’hoansi (also known as !Kung San or Bushmen) of the /Kae/kae area in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana subsisted primarily through hunting and gathering. At the most basic level of Ju/’hoan existence is the land—Ju’hoansi’s home, which they call their n!ore. The n!ore is where they exist—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The n!ore feeds the Ju’hoansi bush foods, social support, and spiritual sustenance. “Our n!ore is who we are,” said =Oma Djo.
But inroads of a capitalistic economy—expressed locally through cattle ownership by the Tswana and Herero people living in the /Kae/kae area—have eroded the Ju/’hoan hunting-gathering base without providing them with viable subsistence options. “The cattle have taken over our place,” said =Oma Djo, “and sucked the land dry of its water.” As layers of oppression are introduced in everyday Ju/’hoan life by multinational corporations, nation-states and their religious and educational institutions, and in the Kae/kae area by the ruling Tswana and Herero, the healing dance tends to be removed from its strong community base where the healing effects of n/om were once shared by all. The capitalistic ethic has shown it cannot easily tolerate such a sharing context with open and easy access to healing.
At the same time, forces of resistance and revitalization among the Ju/’hoansi are increasingly present. Community-based groups have built on their shared communal purposes—which include restoring their land base, empowering themselves politically and economically, and sustaining institutions of Ju/’hoansi self-determination—to demand government support for local development projects. Ju/’hoan voices, always articulate about their needs and visions but previously excluded from government-sponsored gatherings that decided their futures, are now heard at such gatherings—and remain articulate.
The Healing Dance
The healing dance is the primary ritual of Ju/’hoan life. It is one of the main vehicles for maintaining harmony and consensus in Ju/’hoan society. As the Ju/’hoan struggle for land and self-determination builds, we can ponder what contributions the healing dance and its activation of n/om may make. How is the healing power of n/om related to the contemporary Ju/’hoan struggle for self-determination? What contribution, if any, will the healers and their work with n/om make to this struggle? We are not proposing answers; only a series of considerations. In this reflective effort, our guiding principle will be =Oma Djo’s statement: “N/om is just the same as long ago, even though it keeps on changing.”
N/om and its healing function seem relatively unchanged in many ways. From the time of our first research in /Kae/kae in 1968 until the time of the second piece of research in 1989, and onward until the present, Ju/’hoan healing has shown the key elements of classic shamanism: healers enter an altered state of consciousness to interact with the spirit world, often by traveling to God’s village to provide healing on behalf of the community.
Boiling n/om is a painful, frightening experience; healers need courage and strength to accept the boiling within, which is said to be “hot and burning, just like fire.” It makes healers cry and writhe in agony. A death is required to enter the altered state of !aia, in which the healer is reborn to be able to heal. “In !aia your heart stops,” said /Ui, a powerful healer. “You’re dead; your thoughts are nothing. You breathe with difficulty … You see spirits killing people. You smell burning, rotten flesh. Then you heal, you pull sickness out. You heal, heal, heal. Then you live.”
Journey to God’s Village
To meet the gods and thereby rescue the sick, the healers must travel to God’s village. They “slip out of their skins” and leave their bodies. =Oma Djo said leaving his body was like “breathing, like your breath leaving your mouth.” Sometimes healers become lions or other animals in order to travel more rapidly. “You feel like the wind. Your breath turns into an animal, and your soul changes,” said =Oma !’Homg!ausi, another strong healer, about the transformation.
Outside their bodies, the healers climb the tortuously thin and fragile “threads” or “wires to the sky” that lead to God’s village. These threads can break—and the fall to earth is frightening. =Oma Djo put the function and gift of these threads into the perspective of one who knows about the workings of n/om. He described how such a thin thread can carry healers:
Isn’t the thread a thing of n/om, so it just has its own strength? You learn to work with it. You learn to do it, to lie on top of it. You come to know it well. You watch and watch where it’s going until you can see straight where it’s going. … The one who helps you climb is God.
The healing dance and the healers’ work with n/om is meant to benefit the community. The community activates n/om at the dance, and receives its healing effects. When healers are asked why they seek boiling n/om, given the pain and struggle of the journey, the answer is almost universal: “We seek to become healers so we can heal the people.”
Changes in N/om Healing
=Oma Djo said that in many ways n/om is “just the same as long ago,” retaining many ancient characteristics of a classic shamanic nature. On the other hand, n/om and its healing function seem to be changing, as any vibrant spiritual practice must.
Several important changes occurred between 1968 and 1989. It seemed that in 1989 more healers, even those still in the early stages of learning, talked about experiencing the more intense forms of !aia, such as traveling to God’s village and turning into animals in order to heal from great distances. At the same time, there was more doubt and questioning among the young—especially those who had completed all the schooling available to /Kae/kae villagers—about the reality and efficacy of Ju/’hoan healing. Some of these young people questioned such aspects of the healing work as healers’ ability to turn into lions, or to climb the threads to God’s village. Others questioned the general healing efficacy of n/om.
There was also more discussion in 1989 about healers wanting to be paid for their efforts, though we did not notice any being paid. Payment goes against the historical characteristic of Ju/’hoan healing, namely that it should be made freely available to all who come to the healing dance. There also seemed to be more discussion about not inviting all the camps at /Kae/kae to dances, which are typically held in one camp or another. We did not actually observe such exclusory actions in either 1968 or 1989. But both these differences in what was being discussed reflected the commercial thrust of the incoming capitalistic ethos, and the way it distributes valued and limited resources so as to exclude some people.
Other changes in the daily lives of the Ju/’hoansi of /Kae/kae have caused lessening of respect for the healing dance and its n/om, and a decrease in the practice’s influence in the community. One change came in the mid-1970s when home brew alcohol became widely available via military border camps between what was then South West Africa (now Namibia) and Botswana. The Ju/’hoansi have always maintained that alcohol and n/om do not mix; that becoming drunk prevents one from experiencing !aia and thereby being able to heal. When Ju/’hoansi attend a dance drunk, they usually become disruptive. Another change came in 1974 when a mobile clinic—now the permanent clinic—began visiting the area. The clinic promotes a Western biomedical approach to health and sickness. All too frequently it dispenses penicillin as a cure-all for ailments that the dance historically treated. A third major change came in 1976 when a government school opened. The school curriculum does not support the healing dance and its spiritual approach to healing. Teachers discourage students from attending the all-night healing dances, saying it interferes with their attendance at school the next day.
N/om’s Potential in the Struggle for Self-Determination
We cannot predict where these changes will lead. A people’s realization about the weakening of their healing tradition can bring a concerted effort toward revitalization. Whatever the future, because the healing dance remains a central experience of contemporary Ju/’hoan life, it is appropriate to reflect on any contributions it might make to the Ju/’hoan struggle for self-determination. The following thoughts and questions could facilitate such a discussion:
The Ju/’hoan healing dance at its foundation is a process of community healing, an experience through which the people who participate in the dance can heal rifts within the community, making the community whole. Ju/’hoan often say: “Let’s have a dance. We haven’t seen each other enough.” They are seeking time to talk things over, to come together, to be healed together. Could a community that heals itself express a common will and capacity to bring power to its own people?
Drawing on the social structure and values of the Ju/’hoan hunting-gathering mode, the healing dance is a community experience of egalitarianism, harmony, and sharing. During the dance, a valued resource (healing) is made renewable and available to all, rather than hoarded and given to the few who are in power. Can the expression and promotion of such values during the dance provide strength in the struggle to make capitalism more responsive to the needs of all, especially those historically denied access?
“N/om is our thing. N/om is a Ju/’hoan thing,” said =Oma Djo, expressing a common feeling among the Ju/’hoansi. Others have said that n/om is a “human thing.” Could this identification with the healing and spiritual power of n/om provide a psychological, cultural, and spiritual strength that could favorably impact the Ju/’hoan ability to meet current challenges to their community? Healers need courage, confidence, and vision to face the painful and fearful experience of boiling n/om, to enter the unknown and often frightening territories of !aia. Can this courage, confidence, and vision serve the healers and their community in the difficult negotiations needed to secure economic and cultural resources, especially since some healers have become active participants in these political negotiations?
When =Oma Djo spoke of !aia, he spoke of the feeling healers have of becoming more essential. “I want to have a dance soon,” he said, “so that I can feel myself again.” Could this connection with what feels essential within oneself support the conviction and strength of identity needed in the struggle for community self-determination?
Finally, if opportunities to practice Ju/’hoan healing remain open to all who choose to follow the path of boiling n/om, and if many continue to take up the challenge, could the movement offer a catalyst to the larger efforts at socio-political empowerment? As =Oma Djo put it, “If you have n/om, you know things … You see how things are.” He referred to community and relations, to conflicts and visions of resolution. “After a dance, my heart feels happy,” =Oma Djo said.
“We Ju/’hoansi don’t dance to settle issues about our land,” he said. But the dances still seem to have an influence on these issues. Having a “happy heart” is a powerful experience for the Ju/’hoansi; it speaks of a sense of wholeness and completeness in the community, an experience that “sets things right.”
The way healers, healing, and n/om contribute to the Ju/’hoan struggle for self-determination will be guided by their own communities’ responses to forces of economic and political oppression. Meanwhile, this struggle for self-determination continues within the context of the increasing globalization of resources, the increasing control exerted by local nation states, and the increasing strength, vision, and power of the worldwide indigenous peoples’ movement.
Richard Katz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor at First Nations University of Canada and works in the area of community healing. In addition to his books about Ju/’hoan healing, he has written about Fijian healing in The Straight Path of the Spirit. Megan Biesele helped found the Kalahari Peoples Fund in 1973 and is currently its coordinator. Her research and activism range from San healing and folklore to human rights issues.
Relatives of =Oma Djo, a deceased Ju/’hoan healer, can be reached at: c/o Nyae Nyae Conservancy, P.O. Box 45, Grootfontein, Namibia.
For more information about the Ju/’hoansi and their efforts at self-determination, including ways to help, please contact the Kalahari Peoples’ Fund, a U.S. nonprofit organization: Kalahari Peoples Fund, P.O. Box 7855, Austin, Texas, U.S.A. 78713-7855. You can also visit the Web site for information and to make online contributions: www.kalaharipeoples.org.
References and further reading
Katz, R., Biesele, M., & St. Denis, V. (1997). Healing Makes Our Hearts Happy: Spirituality and Cultural Transformation Among the Kalahari Ju/’hoansi. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.
Katz, R. (1982). Boiling Engery: Community Healing Among the Kalahari Kung. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press.