The Significant Role of Chizimba in the African Traditional Treatment of Illness and Healing
African methods of traditional treatment of various illnesses and diseases are widely known. The treatments generally include use of traditional roots or herbs and rituals that often accompany the treatment procedure depending on the complexity of the illness. One of the most important aspects of the traditional treatment is what is called chizimba among the Tumbuka, Chewa, and Ngoni peoples of Eastern Zambia and Northern Malawi. The Bemba of Northern Zambia also call this phenomenon chishimba which shows the minor linguistic variation. The information I am going to use was collected when I was growing up among the Tumbuka and when I conducted research and field work into Zambian and African traditional healing methods in the Lundazi district of Eastern Zambia in 2002.
Chizimba is a substance usually made from a special part of a wild or domestic animal or a living creature. That part is collected or harvested from the animal or creature and often dried and ground into powder and may be stored away in a special small gourd by the traditional healer. Many of the ordinary illnesses like a headache, simple diarrhea, eye and ear infections, sores, and ordinary coughs were all traditionally treated with commonly known tree roots. For example, diarrhea was treated using the bark of the mutondo tree. The patient drank the herb after the bark had been soaked in water and also cooked and ate porridge made with the herb. The patient may have drunk this three times a day for may be ten days. After that, the illness was gone. In the same way, headaches were treated using the bark of the muzakaka tree. In today’s life style, many urban and rural Zambians mostly go to the clinic for such illnesses and get pills and other antibiotics for these types of illnesses. In the vast majority of the ordinary simple illnesses, the chizimba was never used. What is chizimba?
Chizimba is the special onetime treatment of a very chronic, mysterious, and very overwhelming illness using the powder or a ground organ of a special animal or creature. The treatment is the final ritual that is meant to lock away, dismiss or seal the illness away hence for the patient to achieve a permanent cure for the illness. The traditional healer does not administer chizimba casually or routinely. The chizimba is only administered after the healer has treated the patient for weeks, months and both the patient and the healer are convinced that the illness is gone and the patient feels very well. During that final ritual, the patient and the healer will sit together and the healer will explain the conditions of administering of the chizimba in great detail. After the careful systematic expalanation, the healer will finally reveal or disclose the name of the chizimba. The healer will tell the patient that since he or she is now cured, the chizimba will seal the illness away never to come back again. The patient may have sought and tried treating the illness using other traditional methods, Western medical practitioners and medicine but without success. Since the patient was often tormented with pain and suffering for months or even years with the illness, they will agree to have the chizimba administered. The patient will carefully listen to all the new conditions, rules and taboos that they are to follow from now up to the end of their lives if they are to avoid risking having the illness return.
Chizimba might be difficult to administer sometimes because the prescribed chizimba for a particular illness may be very rare and very difficult to obtain. Sometimes the healer may not be in a position to obtain the chizimba themselves because it may be very expensive, it is very far, or the animal or creature from which the chisimba might be obtained from is so rare that it may be nearly extinct. This difficulty sometimes might occur even when the traditional healer is trying to heal a difficult marriage between previously estranged but now reconciled marriage partners. This example which I observed is a good illustration of the use of the chizimba. The real names of the traditional healer, the village, and the patient have been changed to protect their privacy.
Michael Miti was a 22 year old young man who had been brought to the healer Mr. Chagima for very serious depression. The young man was in college and dropped out due to the depression. He had consulted modern doctors and therapists who had prescribed anti-depressant medications which they said he would take the rest of his life. The medications made him hyperactive, sleepless, and increased his anxiety. The last incident is when his parents accidentally found a note on the bed in his room that had suicide thoughts. Michael agreed to come travel from the Capitla city of Lusaka to the village as his last resort to consult with the traditional healer.
Mr. Chagima gave him 2 piles of roots to last a month and some black root powder. The patient was to soak the first roots in a large container of water. The herbs were to be added to Michael’s bathing water once a day every day. The second pile of roots were to be soaked in a large one gallon container of water. These herbs he would use to drink a small cup three times a day. The same herbs were to be used for cooking a small half a cup of thin porridge. He was to cook and drink this porridge three times a day. The root black powder was for making two small very thin cuts using a clean sharp razor blade. These cuts were to be on both sides of the temple of his head, on the back of both his hands, and on both his feet. This was to be done one a week. The patient was told to abstain from alcohol and avoid eating any unusual foods besides the Zambian traditional meal of nshima with meat, beans, or vegetables. This treatment happened everyday for over three months.
Three months later Michael came back to Chibvwati village healed and his deep depression a thing of the past. The patient Michael, sat next to the healer Mr. Chaguma. Before applying the chizimba, Mr. Chaguma explained to the patient that from now onwards, he should never have depression again or anxiety, known as mtima or heart illness in Tumbuka. He should live life like a normal citizen. He can go back to college, get a job, or do anything he would like with life. The healer said that the chizimba for Michael’s mtima illness is mtima wa mbelele; the heart of a lamb. From now up to the rest of his life it was a taboo for him to eat lamb meat. His future wife and all relatives should know this. If you are visiting people and you are served a meal you have to tell them that you can’t eat lamb which is known as kulema in Tumbuka. If you eat lamb, your illness is likely to come back.
Mr. Chigima proceeded to make two tiny cuts on Michaels throat, two behind both his hands, two on the back of his neck, and two on both of his feet. The healer then pinched the black powder and rubbed it into all the tiny cuts that had tiny droplets of blood on them. The administration of the chizimba was complete and Michael returned home.
I had a long discussion with the healer afterwards about the chizimba. Mr. Chigima said that many chizimba may be very difficult to obtain. He mentioned examples of the challenges of obtaining the heart of a python, a lion, a leopard, the claws of an anteater, hairs and various parts of many rare or difficult to find wild animals. Mr. Chigima said obtaining the heart of a lamb was relatively easy because he could easily ask friends and relatives who may be slaughtering a sheep for meat to save him the heart. Many people in the villages will understand that if you are a good healer, you will be looking for some of these animal parts for a good cause or to heal people.
Without my asking him, Mr. Chigima said he was appalled that some healers are witches or full fledged witches who might seek certain parts of dead humans for evil purposes including getting rich and practicing witchcraft. These are not real healers at all as they abuse chizimba and use it for evil purposes.