Greetings GREEN ANKH WORK readers, I have not posted in a while. Here is something I thought I should share. It’s the presentation from LitFest Harare’s Black History Symposium.
LitFest Harare: Black History Month Symposium
Event Held at AFROTOPIA, 1st Floor Construction House, Harare, March 4, 2022
Time: 09:30am to 18:15pm
My Topic/Discussion Subject: Under the Theme Afropoetiq
“How Has Literature and Art from Africa and the Diaspora Contributed In Promoting Traditional Medical Remedies”
Names that immediately come to mind when I think of Literature from Afrika and the Diaspora include:
Octavia E. Butler; Ben Okri; Malidoma Some, Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa, Wangari Maathai; Alice Walker; Toni Morrison; Queen Afua, Ra Un Nefer Amen, Sebau Muata Ashby …
In his book The Dialectics of Cultural Economy: Moral Economic Core, (2012), South Afrikan philosopher and Ubuntu advocate Mfuniselwa J. Bhengu offers numerous examples of how Afrikans lived in harmony with the environment, neither desiring to subdue it for private purposes or to own it for individual gain. He quotes many scholars from within and outside the Afrikan continent but he essentially attributes this attitude towards Nature to the philosophy of UBUNTU, UNHU or Ma’at.
On page 131 of this book under the title Medicines of Therapeutic Value in an African Setting he bases much of his thesis on Dr. MV Gumede’s book, ‘Traditional Healers: A Medical Doctor’s Perspective’ (1990), illustrating the significance of local traditional knowledge, what is now commonly termed Indigenous Knowledge Systems or Wisdoms. Bhengu then continues to list various medicines used for a vast number of common ailments since time immemorial and even today. He uses both local/native names as well as their scientific terms.
It is important to note that in the Zulu culture, traditional medicines are actually referred to as sentient beings or even in human forms. They are regarded as assistants or help-mates in the holistic healing process, a process that often involves talking or singing to them as they are prepared and applied. Among the Nguni people’s we talk to the plant medicines as one would speak to and listen to a friend.
Bhengu writes: “As a result of the colonial misfortune much of what constitutes contemporary Africa both metaphysically and epistemologically is, – to a large extent a product of the European gaze.
As the gazing subject, the European enjoyed the privilege of seeing it’s ‘Other’, the African, without being seen for some time and in the process took this opportunity to define the African as its negative Other. As a result, much of what goes into defining African cosmology is what is developed from the privileged position of the outsider.” (Page 136, Bhengu)
To this I must add that many European-trained and Eurocentrically educated Afrikans still view themselves through the lens of the European or in simpler terms, we view our own lives through the White man’s opinionated eyes. With all this said, let us turn to the Poetics, Arts, and Sonics of our own Lived Experiences.
We will start with stories told through the medium called Literature. The writer/storytellers I have already mentioned are similar to Shamans, Nyanga’s, Sangomas, and other forms of Afrikan mediums. In my teenage years, I saw the likes of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and the plethora of writers in the African Writers Series as Diviners and Healers. When I read Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Healers in the late 90s I was quite sure that the Ghanaian sage was speaking to me and my experiences. Although I was not yet called to work with Traditional Healers then, the story of the young man who endures various challenges as he was being prepared to become a healer resonated with me as a Poet and Activist in my early 20s. Reading the rest of Armah’s work made it abundantly clear the medicines that the writers and artists of the past and present generation were talking about were not just the Traditional Type and that the illnesses we were experiencing were psycho-social and spiritual rather than just physical.
The natural medicines they wrote and sang about were often used as metaphors for remedies for a wide range of isms. When Thandiswa Mazwai sings “Sizilibele Ukuba Sizalwa Ngobani …” in IsiXhosa, meaning ‘We have forgotten those who gave birth to us/our forebears …” While the song speaks of political and social activists who were heroic in the fight against apartheid and colonialism, the way artists such as Thandiswa present their work is also emblematic and ritualistic. Like Blue Note recording artist Nduduzo Makhathini, as well as Mangoma and GudoGuru, the artists present themselves symbolically and actually as Healers, Mediums, and Channels for the Ancestral and Futuristic Vision of a whole or healthier society.
The Mythopoetic Historical work of Vusamazulu Mutwa as well as Mazisi Kunene and Malidoma Some were intersectional even before the term was made popular. In Mutwa’s books, there are visual arts, metaphysical imagination, poetry, songs in addition to giving an alternative view to popular or traditional histories as well as traditional medicinal practices. South Afrikan poetry laureate Mazisi Kunene composed a lot of poetry, parables, and proverbs during his lifetime and Natural Healing featured very prominently in his work, including The Ancestors and The Sacred Mountain, Amalokotho KaNomkhubulwane ( a collection of short stories), Anthem of The Decades, Igudu LikaSomcabeko, etc
References from Literature:
- “Giving no outward sign, she went on tending her garden. As long as she knew where the intruder was, she had no fear of him. Perhaps he would lose his courage and go away. Meanwhile, there were weeds among her coco yams and her herbs. The herbs were not the traditional ones grown or gathered by her people. Only she grew them as medicines for healing, used them when people brought their sick to her. Often she needed no medicines, but she kept that to herself. She served her people by giving them relief from pain and sickness. Also, she enriched them by allowing them to spread word of her abilities to neighboring people. She was an oracle. A woman through whom a god spoke. Strangers paid heavily for her services. They paid her people, then they paid her. That was as it should have been. Her people could see that they benefited from her presence, and that they had reason to fear her abilities.” – Anyanwu, on page 3, Wild Seed, Octavia E. Butler
- In his 1988 thesis on Ayi Kwei Armah’s novels, Art and the Revolutionary Content of Ayi Kwei Armah’s Novels with special reference to Two Thouysand Seasons, George Odera Outa states:
“But as is always the case with Armah, “healing” as an African practice is not just lauded because it is African: Everything earns praise or condemnation on its own merit. Thus, “quacks” who cash on peoples miseries and yearning for cure are so sarcastically condemned: …”They stuffed her stomach with scrapings from the backs of innumerable trees. They fed her scratching from snakes, rhinos, lizards, spiders, and scorpions, a most impressive array of beasts. Each doctor promised with his concoctions to give Araba Jesiwa the key that would unlock her love gift and open her to fruitful life…” – 95
This highlights the importance of self-criticism not only in the works of Armah but that of various Afrikan writers from Achebe, Lewis Nkosi, Noviolet KaBulawayo, Pettinah Gappah, and our Sisters and Brothers in the wide Diaspora – including Nnedi Okarafor, N.K. Jemisin as well as the Poets we have been blessed with – who act as oracles, warners, and seers guiding us with their wit and verbal medicines through the tedious terrain of neo-colonialism.