In Africa, religion is not merely about the world to come. It is not about self-denial for the glorification of deities. Rather, religion is viewed as a system of the ultimate meaning of human existence. It provides a comprehensive healing of mind and body and enhances spiritual and physical well-being. At the core of this religious worldview stands the nganga, or healer, who acts as a powerful mediator between the visible world and the realm of spirits and ancestors.
The nganga is an indispensable agent in the African tradition of healing and peacemaking. The word nganga is used in the Kiluba language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in many other Bantu languages, from central Africa to Zimbabwe and South Africa. It refers to the healing function of religion. Although referred to by some scholars with less offensive lexicons as “medicine-man” or “shaman,” the nganga has been widely disparaged in Western scholarship, in which he is often referred to as a witchdoctor.
In Africa, however, the nganga is a savior of lives who plays an honorable role in the religious and social order of Africa. As a healer of body and spirit, the nganga works in close relation with the spirits and is often a priest who bridges the world of the living and that of the ancestors. In other words, the nganga is a complex and polyvalent agent. He is at once an herbalist and a priest, a diviner and a prophet. He may be regarded according to other taxonomies as a clairvoyant, a shaman, a psychic, or a medium. His medicine is closely intertwined with prayers, incantations, songs, dance, offerings, and sacrifices to the deities. While performing his divination, the nganga often enters a trance to better communicate with the spirits.
In African cosmology, it is believed that the world of the ancestors abounds in peace, joy, harmony, wealth, health, and happiness, whereas the current world of the living is beset by evildoers, danger, illness, and death. Therefore, genuine healing cannot be achieved without the intervention of the world of the ancestors. Moreover, physical and mental illness is viewed primarily as a form of disorder or imbalance resulting from disunity between mind and body, the individual and society, or humans and spirits. A proper diagnosis of the root causes of disease requires an investigation of social relations and spiritual transgressions. These negative forces of disorder are often referred to as witchcraft (buloji, kindoki, or butsbi). Hence, the nganga employs divination and spirit possession to determine the cause of the disorder and plays the role of an “anti-sorcerer” (the one who neutralizes the power of witches). His healing process restores the psychic, social, and cosmic balance of the individual, as well as that of his community, and involves the observance of fundamental ethical rules to avoid sinking in chaos that brings about sickness.
The notion of nganga emerges from the fundamental vision of African theological anthropology (i.e., African understanding of human nature, the nature of African social structures, and the nature of illness and well-being).
Ngangaism is based on the fundamental African understanding of the interconnectedness between the material and the spiritual realms, and between the individual and society. In this world-view, physical health largely depends on spiritual well-being and harmonious social relations.
- Campbell, S. S. (2000). Called to Heal. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.
- Heusch, L. (1972). Mythes et rites bantous. Paris: Gallimard.
- Mulago, G. C. (1980). La religion traditonnelle des Bantu et leur vision du monde. Kinshasa, Congo: Faculté de Théologie Catholique.