Conversation: African Traditional Healing

Conversation about Life and African Traditional Healing

The First Conversation Between Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D and John Glick, M.D.
The conversation took place in May 2002 in Harrisonburg in Virginia.

Tembo: So it’s like that really gets in the way of observing; one of the things in modern life.  So I did really observe a lot of that when I was growing up in the village in Zambia.  And when they said that someone who was educated  gets mad, my dad always says, with  tongue in cheek, often he used to say: “Yeah, this is really not true, you know, look at me, I got a good education, I try to teach  —- so education is good for you.”  But, over the years, I kept saying wait a minute, there’s something really peculiar here.  And then now is when I realize that the saying is really true because when you get a lot of Western education, you not only gain education but you begin to become alienated.  And I think I was exactly at that spot of alienation five or six years ago where now, when I look back, I had become so —- so removed from everything, that I had things going on in my head that were unrelated to my life.  I was sort of floating in thin air.

So now I’ve come to believe that that saying is true, that too much of the Western education, especially when you take it to heart and seriously like most people do, it really creates a certain type of insanity because you begin to regard with contempt the very things that are going to enrich your life.  You begin to divorce yourself from those things.  You begin to question values that actually may enrich your life because maybe you’re pursuing individualism; because you think well I’m just so clever.  If I want to solve this problem, all I have to do is x, y, and z.  And it’s that cleverness that I think is a form of insanity in a way.

So, what I realize is, I said to myself gee, I wonder what would happen if I talked to  you cause if I’d talk to anyone they wouldn’t understand.  If I talked to an African educated man, they would probably, my words would say, I’m becoming insane myself because what I’m saying makes no sense, you know.  “You have a Ph. D, you have a good job, and look at yourself!  How can you say Western education is bad? “  There’s all that sort of cliché discussion that usually is taken as educational talk but is really, in my view, just clichés that are turned to at the moment.  There’s not really a true exploration of life about its deeper meanings and things like that.  So, in a way, I’m now convinced that this education, to a certain extent, introduces a level of alienation.  And its true, it’s a form of insanity cause you go against the very things that are important for your life.

Glick: Are you now insane?  I heard you asking these questions about what’s going to happen to you.

Tembo: I think you can say that because normally without this Western thinking, I would have naturally listened to my body, maybe, or to my own spirits, to my dreams.  And I would even have had to be afraid of what I said.  Yeah it is the calling from the ancestors saying to go ahead and do this.  And I think that, in a way, I’ve known that from all the years, from when I was born, that I was different in a way because now I think I realize that I see things that other people don’t see.  I feel things which other people would say “You’re feeling that?  For me I don’t feel anything…” or something like that.  And I see ideas that other people, even people who are in their fifties, they will read this and they will not appreciate what it is.  So, all those things I think, to me, imply that my unique perspective might be coming from a special place that I have over the years have ignored.  And maybe that’s what makes me afraid that I’ll find out when I go this time because it looks like, you know how sometimes when things work out in such a way that pieces begin to fall together in a way?  That’s what I’m feeling right now because I was supposed to have a big research grant to go ahead and do this research and I never found that.  I was supposed to be doing all these things that would have made it almost difficult to go see a traditional healer.  But now it looks like I’m gonna have a lot of time.  This has never happened to me before.  I will have, technically between now and December, where I can make choices of how long I want to stay.  That kind of time I’ve only dreamed of in the past of having.  That kind of open time when you can focus on something.  That’s never happened before.  So, everything’s sort of pointing in that direction and part of me says I should just lay back and the path that was already chosen for me except I was never really conscious of it.  I should just go ahead.

Glick: That line of thinking comes from a less alienated sense of one’s relationship with the world than does the other line of thinking which is going to happen to me.  My father’s warning me, I don’t want to become separated, I don’t want to lose what I have in terms of my relationships.  I’m so necessary to all these people.  I think I feel in that line of thinking of relating to the world, a fear (again, fear is not bad), but a lack of trust in where life is opening to you.  This other way of thinking that you’ve described feels more integrated where you notice that the world is saying here, follow the path as it unfolds.  I believe that clinging to the notion that you have told hold onto certain things is different in terms of attitude and belief than this idea of noticing how the world opens up to you and relaxing and taking your time; keeping it more simple.  Do you know what I mean by that?

Tembo: Yeah, in fact that is something that has intrigued me recently.  But I’ve just been telling you that I seem to see or realize all these things that have always been there.  In all my life, I’ve never had problems with simplicity, in fact, I crave it.  And I think its because I lived it when I was young and so I tend to cherish it now more than ever.  So this is something I find so fascinating because in the Western world, if you mention the world simplicity: if tomorrow I said to myself “well “I’m gonna give up this and give my professorship  this…” and other people say “that’s the sign of insanity! Oh it must be a midlife crisis!”  I regard that as nonsense, by the way, because its that whole notion of you want to identify and express something by one simple explanation of life.  And I’m realizing now that life is much richer and much more complex and I’m not sure that you can have just one cute explanation to explain everything.  That’s not really a good approach.

Glick: William Butler Yates, one of our great poets in the West says that “life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.”
Tembo: That’s the way I feel, that it really talks to me directly cause now I feel like if I try too much to control this or be afraid of this, then life becomes some type of, something that you, like you’re trying to write a schedule or bend around, and I think you experience more friction that way.

Glick: It’s interesting to me that your father evokes Christianity as a talisman in the way that he does, in a way.

Tembo: He’s a man that I’m really trying to understand because, when he talks, it almost feels like someone who talks, I think in the West this is more derogatory than it’s supposed to be, you might almost say that he talks from two sides of his mouth.

Glick: Yes, of course.  Right.

Tembo: Because when I talk to him about all these problems he says “No no no, Christianity is the way, I’ve never had any problems since I began to believe in Christianity.”  At the same time he’s a man who is deeply entrenched in the traditional African culture.  Some of the things that he still does just intrigue me.  And I think that his life is very well centered precisely because of that.  But I have this suspicion that he probably is also afraid of me.  That if I pursue that, I might experience so much dislocation, as if it were some type of insanity that you might say well, gee.  Because I think that he has invested so much in me, you know.  “You’re educated, you’re in America…” and all of that.  And maybe his worse fear is that all of this will fall apart and I’ll end up in the village because you see that sort of association in the village that if I go to the village, I’m not just Mwizenge, I’m somebody who is educated.  And I’m not supposed to be doing certain things, I’m not supposed to experience the same things so it is almost: in the Western world you could almost call it some sort of censorship in a way: where they say to you, “Because you are educated, these types of experiences are beneath you or not for you.” And I kind of sometimes resent that.

Glick: How did you deal with the status?

Tembo: Exactly because when I go this time, I not only want to work with the traditional healer but I also want to learn the  Muganda dance.  I forgot to bring that tape, maybe I should bring it next time so I can show you the dance.  If you learn that dance you’d be one of the happiest people in terms of just self-expression.  It’s incredible, energetic, and I just crave that.  I want to be able to go and learn  dancing.  When I was young, the elders in the village, including my uncles used to dance that dance.  But with the Western world coming in, most of it was relegated to young people and then now, those who are educated were almost prohibited from dancing because its meant to be something for the uneducated in the village which was one of the worst things to happen in Africa: is that superimposition of Western values there.  But those dances are the very spiritual things that would really enrich people’s lives.

Glick: And here maybe is a clue to understanding your father’s admonition to you.  Which is he is, perhaps one feature of it, is that he’s afraid of your loss of status.  That there would be, what would be, appearing to him, insanity, would be for you to step outside of that rank.  To do something that from his eyes would be degrading to you.

Tembo: Many people have thought it to be that it is ok to go out and work with a healer and pretend that I’m doing this for science somewhere, to go out and teach Americans, that’s ok.  But if I truly wanted to say, which I obviously have attempted to do, to say that this is really a legitimate way of healing and it is good.  They’ll probably say “Oh, how can an educated man believe in this?”  And that’s a very serious contradiction and I resent it because I think that it is something that is really very very destructive.

Glick: Here’s another clash of cultures.  Isn’t it?  In the West we have this sense so we like to believe that all humans are equal.  We believe in a very democratic, and supposedly egalitarian culture whereas in Africa and other traditional societies there is a very strong issue, particularly in local communities, around rank.  And rank is very very important to the function of the community and people are to understand what their rank is, and how rank is negotiated and earned.  That’s a whole other discussion but your sense of that being unimportant to you, your rank as a doctor.  And doing this dance puts you under the same footing as some of the underprivileged classes in your community.  It’s not important to you but to people in this village it might be very difficult.

Tembo: Yeah, yeah it must be very difficult.  The only way you can be able to do that, again, is through a sense of disguise where you say “oh, I’m just doing this so I can go and teach about it.”

Glick: Right, right.

Tembo: And I think that I will probably be excused on that level cause they’ll say “Oh, yeah he’s gonna teach some white kids where he teaches somewhere in the West there.”  I think people will think that it’s really interesting.  But if I begin to argue that this is really a legitimate way of living one’s life, this is something that is useful and good and people should practice it.

Glick: As a form of self-care, healing, or?

Tembo: Of healing, of entertainment, and I think it would bring a lot of discomfort.  But at the same time I feel like I’m in a very powerful role because one of my most cherished desires of the years, was not just the simple desire that is often, people well say, well one is just being nostalgic when you say “lets return to the past”.  But my feeling has been that many of the ways of, I don’t know of just healing, but of dance are the very things that are gonna enrich people’s lives.  And people can reintegrate themselves with it only if you demonstrate that it’s ok that I’m educated, I can dance it, and I’m still me.  I’m not different and I haven’t lost anything.  As a matter of fact, one of the things that has always struck me, where I’ve always said I noticed I’m different: occasionally when I’m in the village there, I’ll meet some young people normally.  People who, you know, have 6th-7th grade education, they’re kind of in school and in the village there.

One day I remember meeting two young men, they came up to me a bit excited.  One of them says “Yeah, Dr. Tembo!  I understand you’re an American.”  And I said “yeah, yeah.”  “I’m surprised and glad to talk to you.  I’m surprised you’re so simple.”  And obviously I knew what he meant right away because normally, if I did not I would have said “What do you mean?! This makes me angry!  I’m an important man!”  But I knew what he meant.  I think what he meant was that I did not have the façade of someone that was unreachable.  Someone who, because, lets face it, most of the people who are educated over there make sure that not only do they demonstrate, but they make sure that they don’t talk to certain people, you’re kind of educated.  You have a PH.D. and so you make sure that you have that idea of rank.  You make sure that you walk, and dress, and do that way so that people will tend to think that you’re unreachable, they can’t talk to you.

Glick: I see now that not only will you be going there as a student, but, it will be very difficult for you not to be a teacher while you are there by virtue of just this very example.  That your humanity, the way that you relate to them, no matter how clinical and rational you try to present yourself, you’re communicating something to your people by how you talk that is going to change them somehow.  The notion of rank will need to be talked about somehow.  Or at least it will be very important for you to be aware of this issue.  And it will be interesting, it’s possible to talk about and what impact it has on their communication with you.  You may not be able to learn this dance unless you disguise yourself just like you say.  It will be interesting to explore that.  Just to see how they adjust to you and how they respond to you; how much can you surrender your rank.
Tembo:  I think that’s the most difficult part.  It will be very difficult, so.

Glick:              Or should you even surrender your rank?  I don’t even know.

Tembo: I don’t even know what it means to surrender my rank, honestly.  Because this is one thing which, to me, I’ve been very consistent in most of my life and all my life.  I’ve never been a two-faced person.

Glick: Right.

Tembo: I’ve never been one who comes to you and says “I am this person” and then I go to someone else and say “Oh, you know, I’m this simple person”.  Because that’s really patronizing when you try to go there.    So I try to just be myself as much as I can all the time.

Glick: To be simple.

Tembo: To be simple and when you try to have so many faces it’s like a burden cause then you have to figure out how you present yourself to this person.  It’s so much easier to be yourself.

Glick: Well your name, “you’re welcome”.

Tembo: Yeah. ::: laughter :::

Glick: And if you are you, if you are simply you, then you are welcome.  I’m sure that’s true not only in your community but also when you are in your studies as a healer, the spiritual world may open up and there might be a terror.  You’re welcome to enter and you’re also welcome to leave.  I believe that’s part of being simple in your life.  The less pretense there, the more welcome you are to move freely into an outer — realm.  I say that because I have a way, just based on my own life and also my belief, is that gives you an immunity in traveling through life.  My experience as a clown, around the world.  And I’ve traveled over many dangerous borders in this world in a clown outfit…

———- Tape Side End ————–

———- May 14th, continued…———
Tembo: Anyway, I have a feeling that I will probably need at least one or two more sessions because something happened.  Well it is not something that just happened yesterday, something that has to do with my son.  So maybe, since I was not prepared to talk about that today, we could probably talk about that next time or sooner or later.  Essentially it is one of those things, which is very unfortunate, the kid is probably a victim of that, where my understanding that his soul is tied up in knots.  And I think that it needs somehow to be opened up and unleashed and there’s no way of doing that, and going to college won’t do it.  In the West we believe in fixing things and that’s not the kind of thing that a father can do.  If he was at home, there would be other adult men that would be able to work with him.  So, I think I’ll probably spend some time talking about that the next couple of meetings, next time, cause some things are still brewing up.  I think by that time, because we just found out some of the other things yesterday.  It has just been an ongoing thing where he just hasn’t seemed to know what he wants.  — It sounds very contemporary where you go out and do things, but it really has to do something internally.

Glick: With who he is.

Tembo: Yeah, with who he is and especially with how he has experienced life and things he has avoided doing.  So, we’ll talk about all those issues and at some point, depending on how I discuss it with you, I may probably recommend that when he comes back from Tanzania that he comes and maybe has a couple of sessions with you.  And by that time, probably, I’ll be gone.  Have you worked with the young men before that I…?

Glick: We’re having a lot done.

Tembo: Yeah, but the way that I’m looking at it now, I feel that my life is very richer for it.  I feel like I’m just in the middle of things and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  When I talked to you many years ago, I think it precisely said four years ago, I was at a very important point in my life.  And sometimes I have a feeling that I knew that I had to wait and the way was going to be very —.  But a lot of the things now are beginning as it were to, in my language they call it to ripen, things have been stewing for some time and they just begin to ripen.  And that’s what is happening right now.  A lot of the things seem to be coming to a head, some in a very positive way and some of it negative.  But that negativity reflects something that is going to change maybe sooner or later, —.  Like with my son, things are coming to a head because he’ll probably have to be kicked out of school this coming fall.  I guess I got to wait for it.  — — — So that in itself is a very negative thing, cause when I talk to my wife, my wife and I have a very, sort of, different way of looking at all these things which makes it obviously a lot more full of tension, of those contrasts that perhaps is precisely why we were initially attracted to each other.  It was that contrast that was fascinating, so…

Glick: And very balancing.

Tembo: Yeah and in a way very balancing. So, that was something I couldn’t figure out when I talked to you four years ago.  Things were going on in my life and I know that the last session I had with you, you just kept pushing me: saying, “do something about your marriage”.  And obviously something that was very tempting at that time was to, as it were, in fact the Western style today is to get rid of baggage so your life is clean.  And some people were telling me that there was something awfully wrong with that.  So I’m glad I kept that session because your pushing me kind of convinced me that maybe I didn’t want to, that there was something telling me no. There was just something about this that was just interesting.  Cause I was looking at my kids, looking at my wife, saying four or five years from now there’ll be some things I would have missed because I’d of had a separation or a divorce and some of the changes that are happening now are very very interesting —.  And my wife too is just something that is very interesting.  So, again, last time we talked about life being painless.  Life can’t really be painless and now I accept that.  It is something that is there but you just have to learn how to really balance it.  I’m not saying that you have to be sadistic or masochistic where you hurt yourself.  But the pain that is usually internal is usually the sign that you’re alive.  That’s the pain that I’m referring to.  I’m not talking about the raw pain where someone will just hurt you or just do stuff to make you feel pain.  But it is a pain of tensions.  You want this but you don’t have it completely.  Your son does some positive things but he’s also doing some negative stuff.  So sometimes I realize he’s growing and it’s really an exciting time for me: that he’s growing and changing.  So anyway I’m hoping that’s what I can talk to you about maybe next session because last time, — there was some things that I thought, I think I had written some of them.  Because last Friday I almost didn’t call you, you know I was in my office.  Because sometimes I feel like my mind has all these things that just keep coming out and I feel “oh, I really wish I could have come in and talk with you that time”.  But I said well was — that was really something else.    But I was just writing down things that I thought I would be able to discuss with you.  I think last time when we finished the session, I wanted to mention to you some of the illnesses that exist in traditional Zambian society that I myself saw, and sometimes I even experienced myself that really indicate that there’s something much more powerful about healing in some of the areas of traditional culture.  And one of the things which I came up with, you’re probably already aware of this, but there is in my culture what they call Nyamakazi.  And nyamakazi happens to people who are older like usually they are in their late 30’s.  By that time they would have had a couple of kids, maybe their kids might be adolescents, or teenagers.  Generally almost every older person among the Tumbuka has some type of nyamakazi.  That nyamakazi, I know that my mother had one which was always in her stomach.  It was very reminiscent of my stomach problems a couple of years ago.  And she used to complain that this nyamakazi would hit up her stomach, in part of her belly, and it would rise up and sometimes go up through her back and neck.  And it would go away for a couple of weeks and come back.  And almost everyone has a nyamakazi. Some of the nyamakazi is in their foot and they’ll say “nyamakazi is in my foot and it has begun attacking me”.  And — then everybody tries to accommodate it because the nyamakazi is there.

Glick: To accommodate it.

Tembo: Yeah, because they live with it, it’s an accepted thing that older people go through.  They live with this nyamakazi. Now what I find fascinating is that in my reading, cause I’ve done a lot of reading in the last couple of years with AIDS, cause I was going through some of the same experiences myself.  I think I may have told you that I’ve worked with so many doctors in town and everybody was giving me all these tests, blood tests, all that came out to negative.  ———— And what I’ve come to conclusion is that combine the African traditional approach to the sort of Western…I believe what it is, is that every human being, when they reach middle age, their ability to absorb nutrients, especially vitamins and all that, goes down.  I mean that process, a symptom of that is that you begin to get very chronic reactions in your body.  Because I think one of the symptoms is anxiety where you begin to, where they call it midlife crisis, where you are very anxious, it’s like they call it your heart problems. Your heart begins to experience some type of break as if your heart is going to be scattered.  So you need to find a traditional healer where in the West they would say reassembling your heart and keeping it together.  So that is one symptom.  And the other one is the various chronic aches and pains that involve too much heat in your stomach.  Or maybe your swelling on your foot, they call that all the generic symptoms of nyamakazi.  Everybody experiences that so when you reach that age, I think — because with all the older people experiencing it, everybody is displaced and they are obviously able to find some ways of accommodating so that they may be able to live relatively stable lives.