Dobe Ju'/hoansi healing practices

Medicine and Health for the Dobe Ju/’hoansi

The system developed by the Ju/’hoansi to make sense of their world involves supernatural forces. They believe in a high god, a lesser god and various minor animal spirits that bring luck and misfortune. The //gangwasi play a key role in their world.

The //gangwasi are the ghosts of recently deceased Ju/’hoansi that hover near the Ju villages. The people believe that when serious misfortune or illness strikes, it is the //gangwasi that cause it as they are the main agency that brings misfortune. Not all deaths are caused by the //gangwasi. If someone has lived a long life and died peacefully, the Ju/’hoansi will simply say “n/ama”; heaven ate him or her. However in most serious illnesses or accidents, the //gangwasi are involved.

The Ju/’hoansi can defend themselves from these ghosts. They have many spells, herbs, magic formulas and practices for restoring health or good fortune. Their most powerful weapon against the //gangwasi is n/um. Specially trained healers are able to enter a trance state (!kia) and heal the sick using n/um. The n/um k”ausi (healers) in trance see the //gangwasi in a variety of forms.To some they look like real people and can be touched and felt. To others, they appear like smoke and transparent. Some //gangwasi speak to the healers and give details as to why they have appeared while others remain silent. The healers go to the //gangwasi and cajole, plead, argue and if necessary do battle with the ghosts to make them give up their grip on those living, to leave them in peace.

The Ju/’hoansi are uncertain as to why the //gangwasi injure and cause sickness to the living. The Ju gave different reasons for such a phenomenon. Some say it is in the nature of the //gangwasi to do such things. Others did not have a clue to the answer. One Ju lady believes that it is longing for the living which drives the dead to make people sick. They miss the living so try to go to them, in the process causing sickness. There are contradictory views to this topic among the Ju/’hoansi.

The Ju/’hoansi have an effective method of healing and medicine in the form of n/um which is used during healing dances. N/um is the spiritual medicine or energy given by gods to men and women. It is a substance that lies in the stomach of men and women who are healers and becomes active during a healing dance.

Healing Process
The Ju/’hoansi believe that the movements of the dancers heat up the n/um and when it boils it rises up the spinal cord and explodes in the brain. The n/um k”ausi then feels enormous power and energy coursing through his or her body. Their legs tremble, their chests heave and their throats feel dry. Strange visions may flood their senses. They are in the!kia state. After a period of disorientation, the healer will move unsteadily towards the dance fire. He or she lays trembling hands on the chest and back of a person and begins a series of moaning lamentations punctuated by loud shrieks. The healer then moves on to the next person then the next, repeating the procedure until everyone in attendance has received supernatural protection. The healer will pay special attention to sick people present in the dance, spending up to an hour on a single person. The sick person’s back, chest, arms, legs and forehead will all be rubbed with magical sweat. More than one healer can work on an extremely sick person on a single occasion. The presence of sickness is not the only reason for these healing dances. They have a social function too. The healing purposes of the dance are not spoiled by the socialising but in fact aided by it according to the Ju/’hoansi.

Giraffe Dance
The healing dances involve the sacred dance fire being lit after sundown. One of these dances is the Giraffe Dance. Women singers arrange themselves in a circle around the fire. The men dance around them, beating a circular path in the sand several inches deep. There is a strict division of labour in this dance. The women sing and tend the fire, and the men dance and enter trances. Occasionally a woman will dance with the men for a few turns and very occasionally a woman healer will enter a trance. The n/um songs are sung without words and have beautiful complex melodies.

Besides being able to see the //gangwasi, the n/um k”ausi also have the ability to speak with them. They have other skills like being able to put n/um into the bodies of sick people as mentioned in an earlier paragraph. They also have a skills involving knowledge about dietary prescriptions and prohibitions. Every young Ju/’hoansi, especially males, aspires to become a healer and a large proportion of the Ju/’hoansi do achieve this. However becoming a healer is a long and difficult training process.

Outside Influence
The Ju/’hoansi have their own beliefs but are aware and receptive to other theories of illness and health. They are not keen about European theories of why illnesses occur but they have easily accepted the efficiency of European medicines, particularly antibiotics. Their Black neighbours have well-developed beliefs in sorcery and the Ju/’hoansi have struggled to accommodate these within their own explanatory system. Sorcery is a belief in the ability of one person to consciously do harm to another by magical means. This is contradictory to the belief that any illness or misfortune is caused by the //gangwasi. This new explanatory system (sorcery) competes with the older theory of //gangwasi causing harm for dominance in the Ju/’hoansi society. Some injuries or illnesses are thought by the Ju/’hoansi to be caused by Black sorcery. Hence some of the Ju/’hoansi have approached Black diviners who diagnose the source of illness as coming from living relatives of the Ju/’hoansi. This may cause a breakdown in the solidarity of their community.

In the past, the healing process was done freely without any payment. N/um was given freely and the rewards to the healer include personal satisfaction, the love and respect of family and gratitude as mentioned by some healers. However there is a new professionalism to the Ju/’hoansi healers. A Ju/’hoansi healer received material goods in exchange for her healing work with the Black neighbours. Since then, other healers have followed suit. Putting a price on healing removes it from the communal sphere. When a healing is done for payment, it belongs to the individual who paid for it rather than the community at large. However there are still some healers who continue to heal in the Dobe Ju/’hoansi society for free.

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