In The Dobe Ju/’hoansi, Richard B. Lee discusses cultural anthropological topics regarding misfortune, healing and faith that he learns during his time with the Ju/’hoansi, an indigenous tribe in the southwestern Sub-Saharan section of Africa known as the Kalahari Desert.
The book focuses in part on how the Ju/’hoansi cope with the calamities of life – illness, misfortune and death – through their various spiritual beliefs and healing methods.
Lee first became acquainted with the term //gangwasi, the malevolent ghosts of dead Ju/’hoansi, when he arrived at the Dobe area to experience his first curing ceremony.
Kasupe, the popular Dobe man among the Ju/’hoansi, happened to be lying in front of his hut, surrounded by people, as a small group of women sang and a healer rubbed his body with sweat and moaned screeching cries. Just hours earlier, Kasupe had shot a small duiker while hunting and when chasing it down, stepped into a lion trap, tearing his ankle into a bloody mess.
With the pain intensifying ever minute that passed, one tribe member, â‰ Toma//gwe, cried to another, /Tontah, telling him that Kasupe didn’t have much longer to live. He described that he saw dead â‰ Nisa, who he believed was the //gangwasi trying to put an end to Kasupe’s life. (Supposedly the deceased only turn evil when they die, not during their life on earth.)
Fortunately for them, no signs of â‰ Nisa appeared again, allowing Kasupe to slowly recover and eventually hunt again three months later.
When it comes to belief and folklore among the Dobe people, there is not a universal myth for the Ju/’hoansi. The praying mantis is the central character in most Ju/’hoansi myths, which represents a “trickster god” that constantly creates mischief and is punished in return. Aside from the “trickster god,” the other major deity or higher being in the Ju/’hoansi culture is the superior god (//gangwasi).
Although the Ju/’hoansi have different beliefs about the identity of each deity, they do agree that the //gangwasi do bring evil into the world, playing a part in most of the deaths, including illnesses and diseases. In Chu!ko’s mind, death is a struggle between the living and the dead because both miss their loved ones.
For Ju/’hoansi men and women who are medicine owners (n/umk”ausi), N/um is a substance that lies in the bottom of their stomachs during tribal ceremonies. As the healing dancers move to the beat of the drum, the n/um becomes active as it boils inside of the n/umk”ausi.
Eventually, the n/umk”ausi feel an explosion of power and energy through their entire bodies. After feeling comfortable enough to walk, the n/umk”au (also referred to as a healer) will to attempt to move toward the dance fire. The healer lays trembling hands on the chests and backs of many people while he or she expresses sorrow through loud shrieks (kow-he-dile).
Healers can also put n/um on bodies of the sick (novice healers use sweat) and can pull â‰ twe (sickness) out of bodies. Healers can argue with certain //gangwasi, and they can also prescribe and prohibit certain medications.
The main ritual activity for the Dobe Ju/’hoansi is the healing dances, which occur frequently depending on the season, size of the camp and other conflicting issues. The healing dances serve not only as a sacred function, but also a social one – a time to relieve stress and enjoy life as well as heal the sick.
The sacred dance fire begins after dusk when the women form a circle around the fire. The men dance around the women as they beat a circular path in the sand.
The labor is equally divided between the men and women. The women sing and maintain the fire as the men dance and enter trances where they envision the //gangwasi. Sometimes a woman will join the men during the dance but very rarely will a woman enter a trance.
However, the women’s singing is the most significant aspect of the entire ritual and ceremony. The n/um songs do not contain lyrics or words but are rather composed of intricate, lovely melodies, including various versions of Giraffe and other older songs.
The dance slowly builds from the social, relaxed gathering to the more significant part when the men begin to show signs of trance. These signs can be an assortment of different actions such as glassy stares, intense footwork, heavy breathing and large amounts of sweat exhibited.
The other men dancing (that are not in a trance) yell to the women to sing louder. Then, the healer will fall into a number of trances and begin to cure. Dances can last very long – sometimes until two or three in the morning or even through the next day.
One of a Ju/’hoansi man’s goals is to become a healer, which many achieve in doing. But the process to seek n/um is very tedious and difficult.
The Ju must first find someone willing to train him, usually the man’s father or uncle. Novices practice at the dances with the guidance of their teacher, who rubs sweat into the “key centers” – the chest, belly, base of spine and forehead – of his student. At a certain point during the dance, novices often become frightened, decide to leave the dance and sit down away from the dance area to regain their composure.
Achieving the !kia (trance) state is both a psychological and physical challenge. After entering the trance, the novice will begin to act wild and boisterous by either running off into a bush and gathering branches or thorns, or by running through the n/um fire.
After these acts of lunacy are performed, the novice’s teacher will bring the student to the ground to calm and soothe him as well as release tension by massaging his body.
One of the main overarching concepts that remains different between American society and Ju/’hoansi society is the fact that there is more equality between Dobe men and women. The United States and other western cultures, on the other hand, are much more male-dominated societies.
This effort to keep both sexes equal is quite evident in Ju/’hoansi rituals. For example, in recent years, a new dance has become popular among the Ju/’hoansi – the Women’s Dance, also known as the !Gwah tsi.
Similar to the Giraffe Dance, both men and women play a role. Women dance in a semicircle and enter trances as the men beat sophisticated rhythms on the long drum – the central symbol of the !Gwah tsi – off to the side. While dancing, the women sing along and clap their hands to keep the rhythm of the drumming, dancing in one place until they enter !kia.
At this point, they collapse to the ground and are accompanied with massages by the other women. However, there is no type of healing during the dance. This is an important difference between the Giraffe Dance and the Women’s Dance, which is not a healing dance but rather a dance to familiarize women with the mysterious, abstract !kia.
However, like the men, women can go on to become healers through intense training.
For many years, the beliefs of the Ju/’hoansi were unquestioned and unchallenged by any other indigenous peoples. But during /Tontah’s stay with the Ju/ hoansi, the Blacks’ belief in sorcery – the idea that one person can cause detriment upon another individual through magic – became an outside belief that Ju/’hoansi have adopted to connect the actions of the //gangwasi.
Like in all other modern-day societies, diseases are contagious, spreading from one person to another. It is plausible that a Ju could become ill from a member of the village rather than from the sorcery of the //gangwasi.
Nowadays, healers have brought their talents to a professional level to help others in need. Some travel to agricultural areas such as Botswana, where they heal the San and Black workers.
Still, many healers complain that their hard work to heal other Ju/’hoansi goes to waste due to inability for these groups to pay for the treatment. By making people pay for their healings, the Ju/’hoansi culture has consequently lost part of its unity and community.
For this reason, it becomes difficult for healers to perform their work without expecting some sort of reward. In a way, the system is reminiscent of how American society functions today.
As a matter of fact, U.S. citizens are not often willing to put in their hard work and time for nothing in return. American society has long been built on a system of work and reward, and that logic continues to be the way Ju/’hoansi healers approach life on a daily basis as well.