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“The knowledge practice of bungoma is a deep knowledge” – Robert Thornton at the launch of Healing the Exposed Being

Think ‘sangoma’. Images of ‘primitive’ practices, promises of solving money issues plastered on lamp posts, and pseudo-science medicinal practices most likely come to mind.

This is exactly what Robert Thornton, author of Healing the Exposed Being, writes against.

Addressing the audience at the recent launch of his book at Wits’ Institute for Social and Economic Research, Thornton emphasised that a Western perspective of the practice of bungoma, the knowledge and practice of ‘traditional’ healing, is a warped one, shrouded in ignorance.

Jonathan Stadler, Robert Thornton, and Sinethemba Makhanya


According to Thornton, bungoma is not a Christian influenced discourse, but an autonomous, consistent, intellectual practice. He also refrained from using Christian vocabulary to describe the practice of bungoma in the book.

“It’s not a primitive religion at all,” Thornton stated, neither is it pre-proto science; he refers to the practice as “medicinal parallelism” – it extends into various branches of medicine, as well as religion (religious parallelism), thus the practice of bungoma is not restricted to a certain religion, as the core beliefs thereof doesn’t stand in direct contradiction to other religious practices.

One has to respect bungoma as a tradition, Thornton continued, and he aims to do so by decolonising knowledge and knowledge practices attached to the practice, and describes the healer as an ethnographer; they attach personal identities to earth, minerals, plants and animals and are thus fully engaged with their environment and surrounds.

“The knowledge practice of bungoma is a deep knowledge.”

“We are all essentially exposed to another,” says Thornton, “and the focus of my book is the person as an exposed being.”

Exposure and recognition of the other creates conditions for the possibility of healing, yet it can also cause harm. Thornton cites exposure to illness, misfortune, and death as harmful aspects of exposure.

The healer protects via apotropiac magic (a type of magic focused on turning away harm or misfortune), which augments the person. The art of crafts and creating is pivotal in bungoma tradition, Thornton explained, as this embodies a sense of professionalism. Sangomas are thus contemporary professional persons, and should be respected as such.

Thornton’s interest in and introduction to healing stems from his great-grandmother, an Appalachian healer.

“I was teachable and had access to my ancestors.”

He was a potential candidate to practice as sangoma, yet his healer died and he didn’t go through the initiation process.

Respondent Sinethemba Makhanya praised Thornton for expanding the notion of what it means to be human – that it extends beyond the body.

She was curious about the notion of evil; whether one can co-opt it with Christianity, and what one loses or gains when writing about notions of evil. She also mentioned her concern with Thornton referring to Western philosophers, including Plato and Socrates, to explain the tradition of bungoma.

Thornton responded by saying that one shouldn’t co-opt the practice of bungoma with Christianity, as it isn’t a hierarchical practice. The philosophers described by Makhanya, according to Thornton, shouldn’t be described as ‘Western’ philosophers, but Mediterranean thinkers “at the threshold of radical analytical thought.”

Second respondent Jonathan Stadler described Healing the Exposed Being as an important contribution to South African ethnography and anthropology, and asked Thornton to elaborate on the similarities between his previous book (Unimagined Community: Sex, networks and AIDS in Uganda and South Africa) and Healing the Exposed Being regarding the necessity of exposure. He also touched upon traditional healing being pulled into the health bureaucracy and enquired about the entrepreneurial opportunities of sangomas.

Healing the Exposed Being is the second book in a trilogy about the history of sangomas, Thornton replied, and stressed the importance of exposing South Africans to others and other knowledge pools as method of gaining insights on the spreading of sexually transmitted disease, and how to prevent it.

Regarding sangomas as entrepreneurs, Thornton asserted that the traditional crafts created by sangomas are intellectual objects and as such sangomas are automatically included in the sphere of entrepreneurs.

(And, no, as one audience member enquired, sangomas are NOT zombies.)

Healing the Exposed Being

Book details


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