Celebrity Shamans and the Question of Indigenous Knowledge: A Review of, and some stray Reflections on ‘Inyanga: Sarah Mashele’s Story’

inyanga-1

I was wafting around a second-hand clothing store when I was in Cape Town, South Africa in December last year when I came across a curious little volume hidden behind some piles of clothing and gaudy costume jewelry. The book’s single word title ‘Inyanga’ caught my eye. Inyanga is a technical term in isiZulu and isiXhosa for a particular kind of traditional healer or curer (more on the technical specifications or lack thereof of this designation later). Written by white South African writer and journalist Lilian Simon, Inyanga was published in 1993, one year before the abolition of Apartheid, and constitutes a kind-of memoir for prominent black South African traditional healer Sarah Mashele. From roughly the 1950s until the present (I have not been able to determine yet if she is still alive) Sarah Mashele worked full-time as a healer in and around Pretoria and Johannesburg – and in the formally blacks-only segregated urban neighbourhood of Soweto in particular – providing services to patients across the race, class and cultural spectrum. I just finished reading the book, and so I thought I would offer a review of it as well as some reflections on its contents and Simon and Mashele’s collaboration for interested readers. Continue reading

Illuminati Penis Enlargement: Foreigness and Cross-cultural Healing in the South African Magical Market-place

Recently, for laughs, a friend of mine shared this picture on Facebook:

image1 (8)

It is a somewhat unique example of a certain type of advertisement that one commonly sees plastered on various public surfaces, handed out as flyers, or posted in classifieds sections all over South Africa. These notices, which advertise the services of various kinds of spiritual doctors, healers and ritual specialists – have become their own genre, and their curious English phrasings, frequent references to exotic materials and methods, and claims to provide such services as penile enlargement, vaginal tightening or the magical return of straying lovers are a regular source of amusement for non-customers and skeptics.  Continue reading

Tibetan ‘Yogi-Doctors’ Today: Professor Gojo Wangdu’s Preface to Dr Nida’s new book on Mantra Healing

image1 (7)

The following is a translation of Professor Gojo Wangdu’s preface to Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s new Tibetan-language volume on the ‘Interdependent/Auspicious Science of Mantra Healing’. In his preface, the Professor supplies a brief overview of Dr Nida’s upbringing, education, and achievements. He describes the important contributions that Dr Nida has made to re-invigorating Tibetan traditional medicine, like his efforts to preserve and revive lapsed oral lineage practices such as the ‘stick-therapy’ methods that were taught by Padampa Sangye and others centuries ago. The Professor makes a strong case for why Tibetan doctors today should practice as the founding lineage masters of Tibetan traditional medicine did, as ‘yogi or ngakpa doctors’, that is, as practitioners who seamlessly integrate mantra healing rituals, yogic practice, and medicine. He also responds to questions readers might have about the issue of secrecy, and of the pre-requisites – the transmissions and training – required to put mantra healing into practice to benefit beings. While the Professor follows the traditional Tibetan style of modestly talking-down his own achievements, he is a highly respected and learned scholar, and his endorsement of Dr Nida’s book speaks to its value.

Continue reading

Depersonalization Disorder and Living Corpses: Psychiatry, Religion, and Alienation

milarepa emaciated

(The 11th century yogi Milarepa, in his retreat cave.  He appears here  in his iconic emaciated, green-tinged form that was brought about by subsisting on a diet of nettle soup)

I tend to read pop science pieces on neurological/psychiatric conditions with interest, as I’m sure most cultural and medical anthropologists do. I’m versed in neither neuro-anthropology nor neuro-theology but I do often find myself wondering about the broader social, historical, economic, and political landscapes through, in, and in spite of which specific bio-medical conditions emerge. It’s probably far too reductive and glib to characterize the cases below as merely examples of a contemporary willingness to ‘neurologize’ sicknesses of society. Still, while I’m not about to advocate for a hard-line social constructivist take on these kinds of ‘bizarre’ neurological conditions, I do think it can be interesting to reflect on contemporary psychiatric disorders and discourse in parallel to, and against religious vocabularies. Continue reading