Written by HeJin Kim
Which is a very loaded statement; not in the least because the word “healer”, in English has all sorts of new age connotations, but mostly because of my own positionality. More accurate would be to say that I am iSangoma, which would be confusing to anyone who doesn’t know what that is (basically anyone who is not from Southern Africa and/or doesn’t speak a Nguni language.) The problem is that there are two ways for me to look at it: personal and political… though the two aren’t separate (it would be easier if it was), the old saying “the personal is political” might be somewhat retro, but it still applies in many of its interpretations.
But let me start in a more linear way to explain what I’m trying to explain. I am iSangoma, I am also Korean (South-Korean… and a Korean adoptee, specifically), and as I write this, I’ve been living in Cape Town for the last four years. iZangoma are traditional Zulu healers, though it is hard to really translate it; its etymology lies in the word ngoma which in various places in Southern Africa means drum, and in others refers to a song. Still, that doesn’t explain much, and nowadays the word iSangoma is used in South African English to refer to any traditional healer, from any of the many of the indigenous cultural groups in the country. The easiest way to explain it is that such traditional healers are “called” by their ancestors to take up the profession of a healer, this calling is innate to a person – meaning, you either have it or you don’t – and presents itself as a period of illness, then you find a healer who will initiate you, and Bob’s your uncle.
I could spin an interesting story, about how I found out about my calling, how I’ve suffered, how I’ve been shown the iSangoma who initiated me, and describe all the personal hardships that the initiation entails; but I’m not going to. I understand the interest in the story, especially with the unusual factor of not being a black South African; but that’s just the thing, that simple fact means that telling the story isn’t, and shouldn’t be, so simple. I am asked often why and how I became iSangoma, and in some cases this is done in the context of “are you a valid iSangoma?” or am I being a new-age hippie; the story of my calling and initiation would answer that, but not in the right way, I feel.
Whether me being iSangoma is valid or not would be a nice discussion, on a spiritual level, but in essence is mostly relevant to myself and those patients I treat. But on a broader political level, it needs to be criticised in the context of post-colonialism and cultural appropriation. I have been questioned regarding my initiation by other (black) iiZangoma, and by other black people in general, and I don’t mind; in fact I think it is important that they do. They rightfully question why I entered something that is so intrinsically linked to their culture. It doesn’t offend me, rather it gives me hope. Too often we forgo questioning cultural appropriation. At its best, it is justified in the spirit of a some sort of utopian “nobody owns spirituality”, and “we are celebrating a culture”; at its worst it is exotification. In the context of a post-colonial world where white privilege endures, whether they are the minority or majority, it if needs to be questioned further; is such cultural appropriation simply a new form of (spiritual) colonialism?
I am actually urging people to critically look at me and what I do and say; wait, correction, I am urging people of colour, and specifically those black people whose culture I have entered, to criticise and analyse me – don’t really give a damn what the rest of the people think. Whatever I feel and believe on a spiritual level does not ever mean that it should simply be accepted. Being a person of colour has been brought forward by some friends of mine as a reason why my situation is different, and perhaps to a certain extent it is, however, racial dynamics are different depending on context and locality and being in South Africa means that being of East Asian heritage is quite different than in other places. I think it is also too simplistic to say being a person of colour precludes any possibility for cultural appropriation.
I have accepted a calling to be initiated, and was resistant at first. The whole thing didn’t make sense to me; why should I be iSangoma? It would make more sense to be Manshin – a Korean spiritual healer – but then on a personal/spiritual level it wasn’t at all about choice. I have, however, learned – and am still learning – the fine line that is my responsibility to walk, and talking about the political issues at hand is critical.
Apart from being ambushed by one friend, I’ve tended to hold off discussing it too much in the public sphere. The only thing I have realised is the fact that I needed to acknowledge the personal stake, the validity (to a certain extent) in some places, in order to respect those who were gracious enough to accept me into their spiritual and cultural realm (i. e. the people who initiated me, and opened themselves up for criticism as much as I have been opened up to it).
Above all, my own positionality is important, and something anyone engaging in spiritual practices that are not their own, needs to acknowledge. I have a privileged position in this context, and discrimination towards black iiZangoma is something I don’t face to the extent they face it, black iiZangoma are often stereotyped as backward, anti-Christian, etc. all too often. My own context means that I don’t have to face this, as I don’t live and practice in the same context.
For the most part, I’ve learned that it is a continuing journey, and a constant struggle to find the balance; it is the same struggle anyone with any privilege must endure. And often, it is about learning when to shut up.
* HeJin Kim, apart from wondering why she writes this in the third person, is a blogger and an activist. She is a Korean adoptee who wastes what little spare time she has getting lost on the internet, and ends up writing about issues of race, gender, sexuality, and her troubles as an overworked NGO worker. Check out her blog at http://universityofbrokenglass.wordpress.com