Profile of a Hai//om Healer: Video and Biography
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This page provides a brief introduction to one of the healers I have met.
Paul's healing strategy juggles many of the shamanic and ‘supernatural potency’ healing ideas
and practices found amongst the better known !Kung or Ju/'hoansi Bushmen. His style of
healing is typical of many Hai//om healers. This video and biography raises important
questions concerning the cultural relationships between different KhoeSan groups and their
neighbours and by implication how old and how different Kalahari Bushmen healing might be.
Paul confirmed that he is happy for me to present this material in a public arena.
The two 6 minute videos below are excerpts taken from, firstly, a 15 minutes bead reading in
which Paul established what was wrong with a lady that came to him for help, followed by the
second stage of a similar treatment session, Paul's healing dance. The healing dance lasted
about two and a half hours. The footage was taken in 2001.
The brief biography is a combination of material from 2001 and 2008.
Paul lives on a community farm not far from the south west corner of Etosha National Park,
Namibia. He is around 61 years old (2009). He moved onto his third of an acre plot in 1998. He
farms cattle and goats but because his land is so small he has to take them to his brother-in-law’
s farm for grazing. When he was younger he worked on white owned farms, riding horses and
moving cattle. As a boy he had to teach himself to hunt because his grandfathers were dead and
his father was busy working on the farm. Both his father and grandfather were healers.
Paul treats many kinds of sicknesses but when I first asked him he replied ‘sticky pain’ and
problems walking. Sticky pain is a term used amongst Damara and Hai//om. It is applied to
different scenarios involving sharp pain, like that caused by the jabbing of a needle. It might, for
example, be used in the context of pain caused by the !arab being dislocated (!arab seems to
equate to the aortic artery, see Low ‘ Finding and Foregrounding Massage’, 2007). It is more
commonly used in cases of chest pain and joint pain. Paul believes sticky pain is often caused by
tendon problems. Paul elaborated on his treatment for walking difficulties that, if someone is very
sick and he is not treated, then their joints become ‘loose’. The association between loose joints
and illness is a common one amongst Damara and Hai//om healers and certain conditions are
diagnosed by the ability of a healer to insert their finger into the ‘gap’ of joints, a confirmatory
sign that they are loose. This particularly applies to diagnosis of spinal trouble. Paul noted that
loose joints illness is caused by God and ‘people who bring these loose joints together work with
God because everything is from God and if that God helps then the person can walk, if he does
not answer, the person can die , can lie down’. Lying down is a typical KhoeSan idiomatic
reference to death. The God that Paul speaks of is the God of the local Christian churches and
the missionaries that have had a presence in the area for over a century. Despite this longevity
of contact though, and Paul’s ready talk of God and praying to God, his relationship with
Christianity, like that of many rural KhoeSan, retains a distinctive unfamiliarity and distance from
that of literate educated Namibians.
Paul determines what is causing a person’s sickness by listening to them, reading his beads,
garas (possibly a variant of karas), or by holding a healing dance during which he can ‘see’ the
cause of sickness within a person. He sees how ‘big’ the problem is when dancing, and if the
problem is too big for him he will tell the person and suggests they attend an alternative
‘traditional doctor’ or visit a medical clinic or hospital. He cannot treat the ‘new sicknesses’ such
as AIDS. Paul charges a small amount for healing, in the region of $60.00 N. for a healing dance.
When I was with Paul he reported treating problems by sucking the body of the afflicted person
or giving them a herbal remedy. As part of the sucking procedure he also beseeched dead
people to leave the afflicted person alone. I suspect, however, that he will equally use animal
based cures and incorporate a range of rural folk remedies that draw mainly on Afrikaans
commercial medicines and medical practices he has encountered amongst his family circle and
from working and living amongst other farm workers from a range of backgrounds and ethnic
If someone complains of sticky pain in their joints Paul will not just suck where the problem is but
will suck over the body according to what he sees. Paul observed that often leg or knee pain
must be treated by sucking over the back or chest. Paul relied largely on ideas of tendons as
both the cause of local joint problems and as something that might explain pain that is remote
from the cause. If Paul is typical of other KhoeSan healers, ideas of how the body is connected
by God-given motive force revolve around blood, wind ( see Low ‘KhoiSan Wind’, 2007), tendons
and ligaments. Pathology is often attributed to ‘dirtiness’ in the blood or knots or other blockage
in the tendons and ligaments. He, like all the other ‘uneducated’ KhoeSan I have met, does not
seem to have a concept of a ‘nervous system’.
Paul described a series of extraordinary events in his life that eventually led him to recognise his
transformation into a healer. He believes being a healer is a difficult thing, it can be painful and
frightening but there is nothing he can do about it. His transformation started when he was a
teenager and was out one day hunting after dark. Whilst walking about he passed a tree in
which he noticed an animal, a khai dow (?), that was like a baby oryx. As he passed by the tree
he became lost but kept walking through the night until he saw a fire, which he approached
thinking it would be by a house. It was not, however, a house, but the khai dow. When he
approached it, the animal attacked him and threw him over. As he fell the animal ‘grabbed him
under the arm and ran and left him at the gate of a farmhouse’. From that time on he became
unwell. To help him his mother took him to traditional doctors who told him he had a /gais (see
Low ‘Khoisan Healing: Understandings, Ideas and Practices’, (DPhil thesis, 2004) ). Afraid of this
news he fled to Outjo where he stayed until the police came to find him at the behest of the white
farmer. The police took him to stay on another farm. On this second farm further events heralded
the onset of his ‘seeing things like a dream’ and his becoming a traditional healer.
Similarly to his previous encounter with the khai dow, not long after arriving at this second farm
Paul was out with the goats when he became lost in country he knew very well. Whilst wondering
where he was he encountered a lion. Paul ‘didn’t want the lion’ but the lion came over to Paul and
pushed him with his head. Paul stood their crying with panic when a voice came to him saying,
‘why don’t you just follow the lion?’. At the same time the lion pushed Paul, encouraging him to
hold onto his tail. Paul didn’t want to and resisted. Nonetheless he took the tail and held onto it,
whereupon the lion guided Paul back home. Paul knows lion do not live in that area. This was,
however, a ‘real’ lion and he thought things particularly started to happen after this encounter.
On another occasion, whilst living on this same farm, Paul was once out with the goats when he
was struck by lightning. The lightning struck because Paul had a /gais, ≠nubis. It was this /gais
that lay behind his lion encounter. He contrasted this /gais with the !Kung (Ju/’hoansi) /gais that
stand up ( mabis). His /gais sits down. Other Damara and Hai//om reported that, the more
lightning strikes a healer has undergone, the stronger they become. Paul went on to describe
that he was subsequently struck by lightning a number of times and he currently has three /gais.
These /gais seemed to have different names and the relationship with his ≠nubis /gais was
unclear. This increase in number may be attributable to these successive lightning strikes. His
/gais live in the body the whole time and in places where they‘touch onto things’. Paul’s three
/gais respectively lived, one each side of the lower chest and one at the base of the spine.
Typically /gais refer to attributes or animal helper spirits.
This early time was difficult for Paul and he asked local people if they could help him but nothing
made it easier. On the recommendation of others he went to dance with the Ju/’hoansi at
Tsumkwe to learn how to deal with his /gais. The Ju/’hoansi are known by many northern
Namibians to be the strong healers. The Ju/’hoansi were singing and dancing another way and
they could not help him. They just opened him and helped him deal with the ringing in his ears
that he sometimes gets while walking in the bush. Whilst his ears ring he just runs madly in the
bush. Whilst searching for a way of handling his /gais, Paul increasingly recognised that he must
dance his own steps and heal in his way. Characteristically what he now does carries elements
common to healing across northern Namibian KhoeSan.
During a ‘healing dance’ Paul sees the illness in a person. With the clapping of the
accompanying group the back /gais becomes warm and as he sucks the /gais in his chest make
his whole body warm. Sometimes when he is dancing ‘naughty’ people try and steal his /gais as a
way of testing him or to have it for themselves. At these times he says he rides a kudu and may
travel long distances, even as far as the sea. Sometimes when he is sucking he doesn’t feel well
and he splits blood and even wants to die. The tokolosie, black magic, witchcraft (machite)
things, like the ones from Alexandria in South Africa, are the ones that really make him ill. Then
he needs the help of the //gawa, the rain spirits, or more idiomatically, rain devils, and they will
enable him to cough the sickness out.
© 2009 Chris Hewson Low, All Rights Reserved
Paul's Healing Dance