Medicine And Healing Practicesof the Sukuma by Mark H.C. Bessire
Traditional doctors continue to play a major societal and medical role within the Sukuma community. In Usukuma it is possible to seek the medical aid of a traditional doctor, a medical clinic or a hospital. Although not all Sukuma consult traditional doctors, many people have a close connection with their personal healer. Traditional doctors practice herbal healing and different divination rituals which stem from a long history in Usukuma. These practitioners are consulted for ailments ranging from malaria, psychological problems and stomach aches to good luck medicines. They combine a knowledge of local plants and Sukuma ancestral beliefs with experience in making medicines to provide herbal remedies, amulets, and long term care.
There have been many influences on Sukuma traditional medicine. For centuries, the area east and west of Lake Victoria has been used as a corridor for trade which connnects Usukuma to other areas. Some of the stronger influences come from the Bagandans of Uganda, the Maasai, the Baswezi, and from Rwanda and Burundi. There is also an increasing presence of majini, a practrice of spirit possession which stems from Muslim and Arab influences.
Many Sukuma traditional doctors claim descendance from the teachings of Gumha, the founder of the Bagalu Dance Society and Ngika, the founder of the Bagika Dance society. Both of these traditional doctors received much of their training from traditional doctors, such as Ng'home, outside Usukuma near the turn of the Nineteenth century. There are many stories and myths about which leader gained the most knowledge, was the most powerful and how the two separated from each other to eventually create their own societies. The split, says Joseph Mahyegu Lupande, the Manager of the Bujora Cultural Center (and Sukuma historian), and the competitiveness of the second generation of Bagalu and Bagika leaders, led to the intense dance competitions that became a vehicle for battles of traditional medicine or dawa which could result in the death of ones opponent. The competitiveness, not the violence, endures until today and is acted out during the dance season at the end of the harvest in June, July and August. Even though dancing and dawa are often interchangeable, many Sukuma people depend on traditional doctors for physical and psychological ailments. Today the classic boundaries of Bagika and Bagalu have become blurred among many of the traditional doctors as have the specialists given way to general practitioners.
There are many different types of Sukuma healers.Traditionally, one may have consulted a ngemi wa mbula for information and aid concerning rain, a nfumu wa ngoko, a chicken diviner, for advice on the future, or a manga for spirit possession. Some will read the entrails of a chicken in divining the future while others may use a gourd rattle. Each doctor has their own methods; yet, most believe that their power for healing is dependent on the goodwill of their ancestors. Traditional doctors inherit shitongelejo, or objects of ancestral remembrance, from their ancestors. These objects, such as a fly whisk, gourd rattle, or beaded headband, are used in healing practices and are said to stimulate the aid of the ancestors in curing a patient. Bulungute Muleka, the current leader of the Bagalu Dance Society and a famous traditional doctor in Usukuma, explained that his ancestors give him advice concerning the condition and treatment of a patient. Nyumbani Shilinde often gives offerings to his ancestors, and seeks medical guidance from his deceased grandmother, who was also a healer and his teacher. Mbula, a young practioner, also gives offerings to his family and uses shitongelejo when contacting his ancestors for assistance. Bertha Milroth describes shitongelejo in Traditional Religion of the Sukuma as,
"objects believed to possess supernatural power because a spirit inhabits it and endows it with strength and spiritual energy....they bec[o]me shitongelejo once the property of those who have become masamva and [are] now in possession of their grandchildren. Strength, energy, powers of healing, of giving peace, of bestowing children, cattle, good crops, etc, are believed to reside in these shitongelejo."
Just as each doctor has their own tools, methods, and followers they have personal and often elaborate and mystical shitongelejo. Mariam Sweya, who lives in Kanyama (near Igoma) created a small swamp area within her compound to grow reads that were used to build a specific type of traditional dwelling. The tree and its reeds, she explains represent the region where her grandmother came from, the water, Lake Victoria that she crossed, and the dwelling the one her ancestor used to practice medicine. The entire architectural layout is a shitongelejo which was communicated to her in a dream by her ancestors. Ibogo Muhangwa, the current, though disputed, leader of the Bagika lives like most traditional doctors in a round house with a thatched roof, has built many nyumba ya Masamva or ancestral huts, and has a sacred area surrounded by euphorbia where he creates medicine.
Although the styles of traditional healers' compounds
may differ according to how the family's ancestors lived, certain similarities
abound. Most Sukuma doctors encircle their compounds with a dense, protective
fence of Euphorbia hedge. Inside the compound there may be several different
areas for healing: one section for divination, another for the grinding
of herbs and another for mixing and prescribing medicine. Other areas within
a compound are sectioned off for ancestral shrines (numba ya masamva).
The memory of the family's ancestors is crucial to a traditional doctor's
success in healing. Many doctors consult patients in round houses called
iduku (maduku is plural) which are thatched from top to bottom. Only traditional
doctors build maduku and these serve to advertise a healer's compound to
those who pass by. In some areas a doctor will build both an iduku lya
shigele, with consecutive rows of grass thatching and an iduku lya buzwelele
thatched in one long row. The shigele dwelling honors the patrilineal ancestors,
while the buzwelele recalls those on the mother's side.
Most traditional doctors maintain their practices in rural areas because of the expensive costs of running a business in the city. City dwellers will sometimes travel great distances for consultations. Wealthy Sukuma business people and others might visit their trusted traditional doctor for a divination or for good luck medicines, called samba. Yet, not all Sukuma consult bafumu. While traditional healers still have thriving businesses, modern medicine and technically equipped hospitals are also widely used in Usukuma. Even some Sukuma traditional healers recognize the benefits of modern medicine. Several have suggested that there are certain ailments which only a traditional doctor can cure, yet other sicknesses which a modern hospital can more readily heal with such technologies as intravenous fluids and store bought medicines. Traditional doctors such as Ndalo in Ntulya village and Ibogo Muhangwa in Ng'walwigi have both travelled to modern hospitals to cure their own acute illnesses such as appendicitis. In Mwanza and other large towns and cities, hospitals and clinics are accessible for those seeking medical cures. But the reality of modern medicine in Tanzania can be difficult as technical equipment is often outdated and in rural areas some medicines are in short supply. In the remote countryside, a sick person may have a day's walk to reach the closest clinic. In cities as large as Dar es Salaam or Mwanza, hospital facilities are equipped with laboratories, surgeons and medical supplies.
With the renewed interest in Sukuma traditional culture that is sweeping Usukuma, many are interested in combining aspects of modern medical technology with traditional Sukuma healing. Mahyegu Lupande, a Sukuma from Kanyama village, is one such person. He manages the African Clinic at the Bujora Cultural Center where he combines his training as a Medical Officer with an interest in his family's history as traditional doctors. As a member of the Sukuma Research Committee and a historian of Sukuma culture, Lupande is well versed in Sukuma traditions. He uses his training in both types of medicine to determine the best cure for patients. Lupande is likely to prescribe herbal Sukuma remedies for certain ailments and store bought medicine for others. The African Clinic compound signifies these two distinctive types of healing. There is a concrete building with technical equipment such as a microscope and examination rooms as well as a large area with ancestral shrines (numba ya masamva) and two traditional, thatched houses associated with a nfumu. In the Clinic, Lupande brings together two thriving realities of contemporary African life: traditional belief systems and technical developments. His work in the African Clinic symbolizes the contemporary dynamic in places like Usukuma, where rather than turning a back to cultural traditions, these are integrated with daily life in a changing world.
Among Sukuma traditional doctors there are as many similarities as there are differences. Each doctor has hers or his own shitongelejo or methods, yet most believe that their power for healing, knowledge of making medicine and botany is dependent on the goodwill of and communication with their ancestors. In many ways their compounds and culture or way of life are living shrines to those ancestors they depend on for their livelihood.
|Bulungute Muleka||Mariam Sweya and Mbula||Nyumbani Shilinde|