HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Traditional healers in Zimbabwe say the nation is experiencing an economic crisis not because of mismanagement or international sanctions but because ancestral spirits that aided freedom fighters during the country’s liberation struggles are angry.
“All this discord that is taking place in our country, the droughts and hunger, are a result of bad auras [mhepo],” says Sophia Machaka, chairwoman of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (ZINATHA) in ward 35 of the Zvimba District, a rural district adjacent to Harare.
Cultural rituals — and the traditional mediums who perform them — have been neglected since 1980 when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain, Machaka says.
“The new black leadership was supposed to host a thanksgiving ceremony [bira] to thank the ancestors and spirits for guiding and protecting the freedom fighters in the war of liberation,” she says. “That never happened.”
In the Shona tradition, it is believed that ancestral spirits choose a medium within their bloodline or clan through which to relay instructions — normally to avoid or rectify impending disasters. The healers also provide traditional herbs and roots that serve as medication to help produce a positive result.
Most authentic healers are living in poverty, Machaka says. Norms within the Shona tradition do not allow traditional healers to charge for their services. Healers and mediums are mandated by custom and by ZINATHA regulations to assist people regardless of whether they can pay for such services.
In addition, many clans have turned to Christianity, and some that have done so have abandoned traditional Shona healing practices.
“Look at the house I live in,” Machaka says. “I am the chairperson, but look at where I am living. We need places to set up our practices so we can heal people truthfully.”
Sharon Munjenjema, GPJ Zimbabwe
Spiritual healer Grace Tsitsi Shonhiwa, who uses herbs to treat cancer, asthma, diabetes and other illnesses, also remarks on the lack of dignity accorded to healers in present-day Zimbabwe.
Shonhiwa says she struggles to fulfill her mission due to lack of funding and, like Machaka, believes the Mugabe government should support them. National support and further acknowledgment of traditional healers and spiritualists can only help as Zimbabwe moves to staunch economic turmoil, they say.
“We are a class of people looked down upon by today’s society,” she says. “As such, usually the underprivileged of society seek my services. Just look at the house I live in, how many people would want to be treated in a shack like this?”
Nisbert Taringa, who chairs the University of Zimbabwe’s department of religious studies, classics and philosophy, says traditional healers have a point: Things happen for a reason.
“It is our traditional belief, as the Shona people, that people do not die. We just move from this physical world to a spiritual one,” Taringa says. “And we believe that every bad thing that happens to us in our lives can be traced to a person. Their anger and hurt may cause our misfortune. Every misfortune has a spiritual explanation and a root.”
The liberation war could not have been won without the help of the ancestral spirits and the interaction between the mediums and spirits, Taringa says.
“There was no soldier who entered into a different area or district without knowing the chief and the mediums,” Taringa says. “They would then be advised how to tread in that area – the taboos they need to observe to not offend the spirits protecting that land and the people who inhabit it.”
George Kandiero, president of ZINATHA, also supports the claims made by the traditional healers.
“Those are very genuine concerns that should be taken seriously,” Kandiero says. “It’s the truth. It has been years since legislation was put in place to recognize traditional healers.” What’s more, “the recognition is only on paper, not in practice,” he says.
The legislation to which Kandiero refers is the Traditional Medical Practitioners Act. It recognizes the existence of traditional healers and spirit mediums, and it legitimizes their practice upon acquiring a license and a certificate from ZINATHA.
Abedinico Ncube, the minister of rural development, promotion and preservation of national culture and heritage, declined to comment on the spiritiualists’ requests.
John Robertson, an economist and managing director of Robertson Economics, a financial services consultancy in Harare, says the government is right in not funding the spiritualists.
“If you go to a shoemaker and have them fix your shoes, he can’t go to the government to demand payment for fixing other people’s shoes,” he says. “Asking the government to pay is asking the entire taxpaying population to pick up that fee, and not all of the population are patients of traditional healers.”
Robertson suggests that ZINATHA should rethink its policies to help spiritualists and healers sustain themselves. One way would be to revise ZINATHA regulations to allow traditional healers to charge for their services, he says.
“That way the service would become more widely available and probably better as well,” Robertson says.
Machaka and ZINATHA have repelled market suggestions like Robertson’s and say that government aid is necessary because many Zimbabweans would not have the funds to seek their services.
National support and further acknowledgment of traditional healers and spiritualists can only help as Zimbabwe moves to staunch economic turmoil, she says. But if government aid never comes, she says, she is ready to meet the spiritual needs of everyone who comes to her nonetheless.
“These people in political positions are children of Zimbabwe,” Machaka says. “They are all my grandchildren. If they need help, they all need to be free to come. That is why we are here. Why I am here.”
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa and Sharon Munjenjema, GPJ reporters, translated some interviews from Shona.