Sunday, April 15, 2012

Abroad Reflections: Intersections in Health

Taking leave of the oppressive sun, I head inside the home of my host mother, Gloria, who has the television turned on to a sermon being held outdoors elsewhere in South Africa. Gloria lives in a modest, yet comfortable house in the older part of Zwelethemba, an apartheid-era black township in Worcester. She is a family matriarch, perhaps in her 70's, with two daughters and a son, from whom she has become a granny and great-granny. I tell her I have visited a sangoma—a traditional Nguni healer that specializes in medicinal herbs and ritual communing with the spirit world. Gloria asks me what the sangoma said and I recount the story of the traditional healer’s calling: wracked with terrible visions and pain, the woman had been compelled by ancestral spirits to join her profession. Gloria asks me if I believe in such things, but before I can respond, answers her own question in the affirmative because I "don't know about it." We turn our attention back to the television, which cuts to a woman publicly confessing her (extensive) sins. Gloria tells me, assuredly, that the woman is a sangoma. She tells me that, as a Christian, she doesn’t believe in sangomas, only Jesus.

As if to illustrate, Gloria shares a story of when her boy, at age 6, developed a brain tumor. To treat this tumor, the doctors told her that a surgery was needed, surgery that could only be performed in the distant city of Cape Town. Once there, Gloria realized that she should have had her pastor at church lay on hands. So, she asked the doctors in Cape Town to delay the surgery, then travelled home by train several hours and went to her pastor in his church. He knew why they had come without her telling and did lay on hands. When she returned to Cape Town, she prayed, the doctors took another x-ray and the boy's tumor was gone. Gloria attributes his healing to her prayer and to her faith: "I believe in doctors, I'm not saying that I don't, but mostly I believe in Jesus Christ and prayer."

This account, one of many personal stories I heard during my stay in the township, only serves as an introduction to the entangled traditional, post- and neo-colonial influences in Zwelethemba. A sociologist might approach this interaction using the lens of ‘intersectionality,’ the multiple facets of a person’s identity that mediate oppression. I am not a sociologist, but one thing I learned abroad is that any individual's beliefs are produced by their relationships and interactions with other people, or as a mentor put it, their "web of witnesses." It was precisely these that the South African apartheid regime sought to control. The physical separation of the township from Worcester by a DMZ-like barren expanse constantly reminded me of this. We often hold our beliefs without context, as unquestioned habits divorced from the people and structures that influenced them. In particular, one might miss the oppression or privilege wrapped up within one's worldview. Open-minded recognition is the first step to emancipation.

Connor Barnhart
Real names withheld.

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