The Healing Spirit
The Healing Spirit
For the Kalahari Bushmen, if you’re sick, it’s time for the community to sing, clap, and dance to bring on the spirit to the medicine man so he can heal you. Although the ancestors are gender-neutral about who is powerful enough to hold the spirit, there are more men who take on the role, and many who feel the spirit is too hot to handle. Here a (San?) bushman medicine man Komtsa Xau and former medicine woman Nxuka Soria share their views.
Komtsa Xau, bushman medicine man
We have eight medicine men and six medicine women in our village. Our village has around 400 people.
There are two ways to receive the spirit to heal. The first is if you carry the gemsbok, you will receive power from a drink made from its parts. When the dance begins, you will naturally vibrate and shake. The other way is that a medicine person transfers their power to you by touching and shaking you. My father transferred his power to me this way.
When I dance the spirit starts to touch the bottom of my spine. This causes my belly to vibrate. I feel the fire that is responsible for my shaking and vibrating. The movement of my feet dancing starts this process. It creates the inner fire that makes me tremble.
Sometimes the vibrating takes place on its own, like when I am lying down to rest. This means that the spirit has arrived. Otherwise, I have to dance for the spirit to come.
When you see the light in a dance, this means that you are in the world of the spirit. You can see sickness and travel to anywhere. Your spirit will enable you to do many things. It may give you a string that takes you to other places. Sometimes it takes me to my ancestors and to the Big God. When this happens, others think you have fainted or passed out. The people will try to awaken you.
When I’m in spiritual heaven, I discuss a person’s sickness with my ancestors. They will tell me whether I can help that person. They will tell me what to do—whether to get a medicine from the bush or touch them or something else. Sometimes I speak to the Big God and He tells me how to improve my medicines. He has helped me many times.
The Big God has no particular color. He has a different color each time. He is an old man, but not too old. He can change into any form that he wants.
In the dance, the light that comes to me is like a flashlight beam. It is a shaft of light that comes on my body. This light makes you shiver. It causes your body to shake and tremble.
If someone is sick, I start to shake. The shaking of my body shows me that they are sick. I do not necessarily feel hot; I just shake. I then try to pull out their pain. Their pain looks like little bullets. I pull them out and throw them away. Sometimes the pain goes into my hand, travels to my stomach, and then out my mouth. At other times it just comes out into my hand, and then I throw it away. I have to shout in order for their pain to be thrown away. This shout makes you feel good, because you are happy that they are being healed. But more importantly, your body feels very good when you do this. It takes out the sickness and tiredness from you. It is a very good feeling, and it makes me very happy.
For the new doctor who has never felt this before, they will be fearful. The first time when the spirit touches them, they are fearful. The fear makes them think this is a painful experience. When I was a boy it scared me. But now it feels good.
Every time there is a dance I go into the spirit. It is now automatic for me. It feels completely natural. The spirit comes from the Big God. It comes from my ancestors, through my father, into me.
When I sit in the evening I may sing a song to myself to bring the spirit into me. I then send the spirit to touch and heal my family members.
When I transfer my spirit to you, I hold you and shake you for a long time. This is a very powerful experience.
Sometimes the spirit just comes to you by surprise, like right now while we are talking. Then you must stop whatever you are doing and ask the women to sing. For a moment the spirit will shake you and allow healing to take place. Again, this may happen at any time.
I haven’t had a death-like experience in the dance. I move naturally into the spirit without any struggle. I don’t know of any medicine person who dies in the dance in order to go into the spirit.
Every Bushman medicine person sees the same thing in the spirit although we may each go into the spirit in different ways. In other words, the first step may be different, but after that, all Bushmen medicine people are the same. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or woman. The spirit treats you the same.
I do all of my healing through the spirit. It is not about learning for me. It is about letting the spirit do its work.
We do not use any medicines to help us see the light or feel the spirit. The spirit brings all the power we need. When I am filled with the spirit, it makes me very happy because I can speak to my ancestors. Sometimes they give me new songs, but they never show me how to dance.
Some of the young people are trying to learn the medicines. Unfortunately, when the spirit gets into them, they get scared and stop coming to the dances. But there are a few who are still learning.
Tonight we will dance! There you will see the spirit healing. I want you to know that when I get into the spirit, I move into other spiritual places in order to get more spirit. This helps me help other people.
Nxuka Soria, bushman medicine woman
Even though some people here don’t stick to the culture, my family and I are keeping the Bushman culture. The spirit was given to me by the old blind man, Xixae Dxao. I only get into the spirit during the drum song.
If a medicine woman is strong enough, she can transmit power to someone else. At present, there are no women who can do this, although there were some in the past. Xhwaa Xokga was able to do this. She was a very powerful woman who could heal very sick people. She was as strong in the spirit as any medicine man.
If you are not scared of the spirit being inside you, you can be very strong. It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman. The spirit and the medicine are the same for both men and women. However, there are no stories about women becoming lions or other animals. I know that this has happened to some of the more powerful medicine men.
In the drum dance, the spirit taps my lower back and then it shoots up my spinal cord to the top of my head. It makes me shake all over. I then see the light, and it takes me to the person who is sick.
The spirit was so strong in me that it scared me. I don’t allow it to take me any more. Today I only sing at the dances. The spirit scares all the women in our community, and we only sing and clap at the dance. We are healed by the dance, but we tend to stay away from having the spirit entering our bodies.
Most of the men are braver than the women. That is why there are more men who hold the spirit. In the case of Xhwa she stayed with a family of doctors. It was her father that transmitted the spirit to her. When she transmitted the spirit to you, her hands would grab your belly and shake the spirit into you.
There was also a blind medicine woman named Xuka Dxao. She was the leader of medicine women She was a good doctor and was very powerful. She was one of the bravest women we ever knew. This helped her hold the spirit. When she was in the dance, she held the people tight and shouted loudly. I don’t know whether women will be brave like that in the future.
When we women sing around the fire, some of us get the spirit and shake as we sing. If a woman gets the spirit in the dance, the men come over to help her calm down. They calm the spirit down by stroking her chest, because she is scared.
If a person falls down in the dance, they get up and dance again. They may fall down again later, over and over, throughout the night.
At the beginning of the dance, the women may tease the men and tell jokes. This doesn’t always happen and it doesn’t mean anything when it takes place; it just happens naturally.
The men are more serious about the dance than the women. They go there to get the spirit while the women go for more social reasons. When the men get the spirit they touch everyone. We usually don’t feel anything when they touch us, but we believe they are healing us. If we have the spirit inside us, they tell us and if it gets too powerful, they help calm it down. When Xixae transmitted his spirit to me, I didn’t know beforehand he was going to do it. It surprised me, and I was a little scared.
This text is adapted from Kalahari Bushmen Healers, published by the Ringing Rocks Foundation