Traditional healers not sure if they are essential service

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Traditional healers across SA have been left in limbo, and there is  confusion on whether they are classified as an essential service or not in the state of disaster lockdown regulations.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the nationwide lockdown to reduce the spread of Covid-19 with a strict set of regulations.

However, the traditional healers believe the government had sidelined and undermined their services, with many supporting the banning of cultural rituals and gatherings but insisting they still needed to considered as essential services.

Health MEC Siniswa Gomba said if the healers were registered, they should bring their plight to their respective associations.

“I would advise them to go that route. [The associations] can best advise them what to do during this time,” Gomba said.

Nosisa Sobantu Simanga, a traditional healer in Cape Town, said her business was at a standstill, leaving her frustrated by how the government had sidelined her.

“I’ve been having sleepless nights. The government only focused on ancestral rituals and forgot about our services and the ways in which we render services,” Simanga said.

She said as the delivery of medication to pharmacies, clinics and hospitals was essential, traditional healers should have the same rights to gather herbs used to heal people.

“We were not considered at all. We are also doctors in a traditional way. This is what we do for a living. Our patients can no longer come and we are also running out of herbs,” she said.

A traditional healer in East London, Zandile Ntombela, said that amagqirha [sangomas] were traditional doctors led by ancestral spirits.

She said the ban on ceremonies and gatherings was understandable but the regulations were unclear on the movement of those who sought traditional medicine.

“We don’t do as we please. We are instructed by the spirits and now the concern is what would happen when I need impepho (incense) and I am stopped by the police or soldiers for a permit.

“Sometimes igqirha needs to go to komkhulu (the river) for cleansing or ukuphahla (to communicate with ancestors) and now we can’t because we are restricted to our homes.

She said in the case of an emergency she would go to a police station for a permit and hope it would be granted.

A sangoma who declined to be named said if the government had engaged with traditional healers, they would have contributed their knowledge to fight the coronavirus with their herbs.

“We support the call of banning the ceremonies but there was not fairness with amagqirha. If our representative within the government sphere and society could understand how amagqirha works, then we would not be sidelined,” she said.

A trainee sangoma in Stutterheim, Malakhiwe Siyata, also voiced her frustration and said amagqirha along with herbalists were meant to be essential as they were also doctors.

“If we were given a chance to work with western doctors maybe we would suggest herbs that might fight certain symptoms of Covid-19,” she said.

Siyata said the uncertainty would be worse for trainees who constantly needed spiritual guidance.

“I fear that if I go to the person who is training me with no permit, I won’t be able to explain to the soldiers without suffering some kind of humiliation,” she said.

Gogo Popi, a healer, and herbalists in Johannesburg, said amagqirha and herbalists were a part of society but no-one bothered to engage with them.

She said the government had treated them like ordinary citizens.

“We have people in our society who prefer to consult with traditional doctors. How are they going to do this during this time? Should they lie and say they are going to the clinic when visiting a traditional doctor?” she said.  

African National Healers Association member Nthuseng Libopo Makhalemele said healers had been neglected.

“This has been a very difficult period. We have amathwasa [trainee sangomas] stuck at home that can’t get help. We are running out of herbs and we don’t have any other income besides healing. This is unfair.”

Eastern Cape cultural activist and Icamagu Institute founder Dr Nokuzola Mndende also agreed with the banning of traditional ceremonies but urged the government to classify healers as essential services.

“During this period, we can postpone our rituals and plead with the ancestors but we should also be able to operate as the western doctors do.”

She said that as the pharmacies and surgeries were still open, the services rendered by healers was no different.