Preliminary results from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Student Wellness Service (SWS) Indigenous Health Survey show that 25% of the students sampled are undergoing an indigenous or African spiritual rite of passage that impacts their academic experience. They, and others, need appropriate support systems within a holistic UCT health and wellness framework that recognises diverse traditional medicine practices.
The survey findings were shared by the director of SWS, Dr Memory Muturiki, at UCT’s first African Traditional and Spiritual Practices Indaba: The Route of Holistic Justice. The indaba’s focus was squarely on psychospiritual stress experienced by students where indigenous wellness systems were not recognised – or incorporated into the student wellness programmes.
SWS is preparing a follow-up qualitative research project that explores student experiences, barriers and facilitators to obtaining indigenous health services within the university setting. This will provide more insight into the needs of stakeholders on the ground, said Dr Muturiki.
Conducted by Muturiki, Dr Christie “Gogo Bazamile” van Zyl, and research officer Warren Lucas, the survey provided a baseline indicator of students’ knowledge, awareness and expectations of indigenous health practices and services at UCT and the normalisation of traditional wellness services and medicines.
The indaba was initiated by the Department of Student Affairs’ (DSA) SWS’s holistic Health and Wellness Programmes for Mental Health Promotion and Awareness on campus and convened by Dr Van Zyl, SWS’s first indigenous healthcare advisor. It was hosted at the newly refurbished All Africa House during the Department of Health Awareness Calendar’s African Traditional Medicine Week from 26 to 31 August.
“Eighty percent of the world use traditional medicines, so even students who come from Canada, France, Germany, China, New Zealand or Australia arriving on our shores may be using these medicines. So, it’s important to recognise that it’s an international phenomenon,” said indaba panellist Dr Fikile Vilakazi, the director of the Gender Equity Unit at the University of the Western Cape.
“So when we come to UCT, we come as we are; we don’t leave ourselves at the door or at the gate.”
“The time is right for the revival of traditional medicine in the country for millennia. We know that traditional healers around the world have healed our ancestors and oral medicine recipes handed down over the generations for centuries.”
As the executive director of the DSA, Pura Mgolombane, said in his welcome address, indigenous practices are integral to creating a sense of recognition and belonging at the university.
“If we are in Africa and we are Africans, we need to know who we are … So, when we come to UCT, we come as we are; we don’t leave ourselves at the door or at the gate. We have done that for too long.”
Traditional medicine and practices
Traditional medicine, as defined by the World Health Organization, is “the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement, or treatment of physical and mental illness”.
At UCT, the role of traditional medicine within student wellness supports Vision 2030 and its pillars of transformation and sustainability, said Van Zyl. This work has also been supported by the Student Mental Health Policy, which was launched in 2018. This recognises diverse cultures and belief systems that inform the meaning of mental health challenges and ensure appropriate approaches.
“It’s an important part of building and supporting the diverse community that works and studies here. With this gathering, we aspire to foster a dynamic and intellectually stimulating platform where esteemed thought leaders, scholars, and practitioners can converge [and exchange] insights and experiences,” she added.
Understanding African spirituality
According to Muturiki, those seeking the indigenous health services provided by Van Zyl at the SWS present with several main needs.
These include counselling, help for psychospiritual stress, academic concessions and leave of absence concessions (for those undergoing spiritual rites of passage, or ukuthwasa, and other customary rites and rituals) and guidance on safely practising cultural rites such as burning imphepho, a plant widely used as ritual incense. The team also assists with Fit-for-Study assessments after students have completed spiritual and customary rites, rituals or indigenous treatments.
Ukuthwasa, particularly, came under the spotlight at the indaba. Often, students struggle to manage or cope with the psychospiritual stressors that are prompted by customary and indigenous spiritual callings, rites, and rituals. And this affects their mental health, especially on campuses where these practices are not understood.
As Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation, Student Affairs and Social Responsiveness Professor Elelwani Ramugondo said in her introduction, ukuthwasa often comes as a burden to students, a “situation riddled with inter-generational disparity”.
“Most young people are now struggling to decide on how to navigate having callings because their families no longer believe in indigenous wellness systems rooted in ancestral veneration.”
The support students need calls for an indigenous practitioner who can offer appropriate guidance, psychospiritual therapy, spiritual consultations, traditional medicines, and access to a register of legitimate gobelas (spiritual healers or initiators) on campus who can provide capable and insightful assistance.
Professor Ramugondo said that UCT’s Student Mental Health Policy sets out UCT’s commitment towards realising a comprehensive approach to transforming student wellness. It is one that is in line with current best practice recommendations for student mental health policy while also being appropriate to the specific needs of students in the South African context.
“We also look at what other institutions are doing, learning from other institutions and learning from best practices in Africa,” said Ramugondo. “We aim to ensure that everyone on campus, especially staff who encounter students in the classroom, in the residences and in service departments, know what resources we have in place, and what strategies and approaches inform what we do when students are challenged with mental health issues.”
She added, “But ultimately, at the core of the transformational framework, is a humanising praxis. We work to humanise the human in one another. If we have not had the privilege of being seen in our wholeness, it means work to insist that we be seen and that we are not complete without our spiritual core.”
Understanding and research
Beyond policy, an institutional sensitisation process is also seen as vital. Over 81% of the surveyed students said UCT should hold workshops for students to understand African spirituality.
One respondent said, “There will be more acceptance to these alternative health services, without shame [and guilt].”
As a measure of the broader need, one comment from the SWS survey summed it up succinctly. “My advice is to stop limiting the service to just people who are going through spiritual rites of passage [ukuthwasa]. As an African, I could argue that everything between birth and death is a rite of passage and I do not need to be a sangoma or ‘gifted’ to require access to indigenous wellness services as I do when I am at home.”
Finally, in her address, Vilakazi also called on UCT as Africa’s leading university to do more research on the allied facets of traditional medicines in fields such as ethnobotany and medical anthropology.
“[We must] incorporate and integrate indigenous theories of science in this work to understand how we interpret plants … It’s a matter of embedding it in the core business of the university.”
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