You are likely not to find this indigenous population on their native lands in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique as they have been displaced in the name of conversation.
Known as the San “Bushmen” of southern Africa, the lives and cultural practices of these traditional hunter-gatherers will, however, forever be etched in the minds of many, especially their trance dance, an important religious ritual that healed the sick and negativities in the community as a whole.
For the San, dance is a powerful tool; it is magical and sacred and seen as a form of prayer to the spirit of the ancestors and the gods.
More about this
The trance dance can last for many hours and even throughout the night and though it is performed in many ways, the common feature is the fire.
Women and children sit by the fire, sing songs and clap at the rhythm of the music while the healers, particularly men, dance around this fire with rattles tied to their ankles until they enter the state of trance where they come into contact with the spiritual world.
During this state of trance, they experience a change in themselves which they feel can give them enough energy to heal the sick by channelling this energy into them.
According to the Rock Art Institute (RARI), which has some knowledge about the ritual through the artistic rock art paintings of the San people, the height of the ritual is a moment of intense energy and communal rhythm, where the shamanic dancers enter a trance that grants them admission to the “half-death” realm of spirits.
“They attain ecstasy simply by means of their dancing,” the Institute said, adding that the men eventually get to a point of extreme “concentration and hyperventilation with the help of the women’s insistent, complexly rhythmic singing and clapping.”
In half-death, these “shamans battle with malevolent spirits of the dead, who, [they often believe], come to the dance and try to shoot small, invisible, ‘arrows-of-sickness’ into people.”
Essentially, while in trance, the healer or shaman is able to consult with the spirits of the ancestors and understand who causes disease and pain, and would subsequently take out the illness of people present.
“They do this by touching those who have sickness, sometimes generally on their torso, but also on body parts that are affected by the illness. This can take the form of the healer drawing the illness out of the person and then yelling to eject it into the air,” according to accounts by thoughtco.com.
Lorna Marshall, an anthropologist conducted six expeditions to the Kalahari in the 1950s for the purpose of studying the San.
She wrote that as the dance intensified, “the n/um, or energy, was thought to be activated in the bodies of those who heal (most were men). The n/um is so strong it can become dangerous. Healers experiencing this must not point their finger fixedly at anyone, especially a child, because a “fight” or “death thing” might go along their arm, leap into the child, and kill it.”
For Richard Katz, an associate professor from Harvard University, “the women’s singing of these powerful n/um songs helps “awaken” the n/um and the healer’s heart so they can begin to heal. The healer undergoes a transformation, which comes after a painful transition into an enhanced state of consciousness, called !kia.
“This connects the healer and their spiritual healing power with the community. When dancers are experiencing !kia, they can heal all those at the dance.”
The trance dance, which occurs averagely four times a month can last for the entire night and even though people get tired they continue till sunrise.
Historians say that as the sun rises, the dance becomes intense and then it will suddenly end. The people will subsequently collapse in exhaustion, and when they fully recover, they share their trance experiences with one another.
As earlier mentioned, the trance dance and healing rituals are depicted in paintings and carvings in caves and rock shelters in South Africa and Botswana, which show women clapping and people dancing as in the trance dance ritual.
It is interesting to note that the San healers do not just cure physical illness as they expel social ills such as anger, jealousy and disputes and in the process ensure societal unity.
These healing dances are sometimes accompanied by drums and offerings may also be hung from nearby trees.
The San, one of the oldest people in the world and the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, where they have lived for at least 20,000 years, have gone through a period of social rejection, discrimination and poverty.
These people of the Kalahari desert, have, for over 20 years now been evicted from their lands to make way for tourism and mining activities.
Since they are considered a threat to wildlife, many of them have been evicted from their homes, their water supply has been cut off and they have been restricted from hunting.
The Central Kalahari game park is now a no-go area for them even though they have lived on the desert for years, meanwhile, the site is hosting one of the largest diamond mines in the world.
In 2006, the high court granted the Bushmen the right to return to their land, but as of 2016, the government was still enforcing a permit system.
Below is a video of the San performing the Trance dance: