Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Dezember 2005
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"Kankerbos" - "Cancer bush"

Traditional and modern knowledge production

Peter Horn (Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand)


In our garden in Cape Town there grew a weed, Sutherlandia, Lessertia frutescens, which was called "Kankerbos" in Afrikaans and "Unwele" in Xhosa, and which, according to an indigenous healer, Credo Mutwa, radiates energy and well-being, cleans the blood, is a tonic, combats the symptoms of flu and can be used to combat cancer, because its fruit is cancer-like.

"There is no similarity without signature", this is how Foucault (1974:57) describes the knowledge system of the 16th century. The face of the world is covered by "hieroglyphics". All plants are that many books and magical signs. The form of magic was inherent in the way of knowing. Giovanni Battista della Porta (1545-1615) investigated in his Phytognomica (1588) an entire system of plants according to the doctrin of signatures, i.e. according to outer morphological distinguishing features, which give away the hidden powers of healing.(1) Does Credo Mutwa return here to an outdated magic of similarities, or does the weed have some truly healing properties? Magical thinking is characterized by the misconception that things which are similar to each other are connected causally with each other in a manner which cannot be tested scientifically.

On the one hand, on the level of natural sciences, our thinking has stopped to move in the element of similarity. The main change at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, and which still determines our present-day form of knowledge, is the idea that knowledge is a form of being which exists in advance between the cognitive subject and the object of knowledge.(2) We are separated from the thinking of Mutwa by two discontinuities of the episteme of Western culture."That does not mean that thinking has made any progress."(3) And that does not mean that the African healers did not know anything. The medical effect of this weed (in case it does have any effect) was "discovered" by the African nature healers.

Two operations separate their understanding from that which is called knowledge today: the analysis of the effective substances and the analysis of their effects in the human body - and the tests of the effectiveness in clinical trials. Theory on the one hand, practical knowledge on the other. Old wisdom of the people has little chance against products that derive from modern scientific laboratories, even if it is rediscovered and freshly packaged.

Scientists in South Africa are engaged in testing 10 different plants that seem to have a potential for healing illnesses like malaria, tuberculosis and diabetes, or could be used as immune modulators for liver transplant patients. Next to Sutherlandia the African wormwood (Artemisia afra) seems to be particularly promising.(4) South Africa’s biodiversity is by no means adequately researched, and indigenous knowledge systems can help us to discover potential medical properties. Similarly we can learn from indigenous knowledge about foods and their preparation.

It is not only a question of technologies, but also of cultural systems. Indigenous knowledge systems do not only have to offer possible industrial products, but also social and cultural knowledge which could be used in the management of the problems of globalisation and modernisation in traditional societies. Ethical and legal systems, educational methods, strategies to deal with conflicts, religious concepts, cognitive functions of indigenous languages, sciences and technologies - all this needs to be researched in how far it determines and eases the life of people in a region. In this process we need to observe the maxim that the research of this knowledge should take place in cooperation with the local communities and for their benefit. Indigenous knowledge systems originated in specific local circumstances and are still handed on in their entirety or partially, even where indigenous communities were colonised or oppressed.

The question that interests me is: what kind of knowledge is that, which the natural healers have, and how does it differ from the knowledge that is taught and researched at European universities? This question has a determining influence on the way in which indigenous (African) knowledge is perceived in Europe and America, but also, on how European and American knowledge is used in Africa. Thus it is important to understand how indigenous African people relate to a globalised economy, which often has destroyed their own production of the means of survival. The extremely impoverished people in many African states believe e.g. that prosperity can be conjured up in some way - and they act accordingly. The anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff have coined the concept »occult economy« for that: it describes the use of magical means to produce material riches, means which cannot be explained rationally and which often are based on the killing of other human beings.(5)

Fred Khumalo describes how he was introduced as a young man to a "medicin" with which one could get work or attract girls.(6) While Khumalo and his educated friends could laugh about this, such "medicins" are not a laughing matter for most of those who, in desperation, are prepared to believe anthing. Especially, if an inyanga (healer) tells them that they have to kill a child, in order to become healthy, or that they are the victim of a "medicin" (muti) of their neighbour.(7) The number of the suspected penis shrinkers, which were killed by the mob in Ghana, is unknown. One also does not know how many women have been persecuted as witches in South Africa and have fled into protective villages. The continental extent can only be suspected, if one studies a statistic from Tansania. According to the estimates of the Family Ministry alone between 1994 and 1998, more than 5000 »witches« were killed there.(8) In this way the belief in witches becomes an instrument of social control, even of terror, which cements the relations of power and possession, which prevent the social ascent, punishes the hardworking, paralyses people mentally, and blocks the development of a modern homo oe­co­nomicus .(9)

Naturally there are tensions everywhere, in Europe too, in this simultaneity of the non-simultaneous: miracle healings in Fatimah when modern chemotherapy fails, African rites of healing against the hopelessness of those ill with AIDS; the one denies the other its validity and legitimacy. Clinical trials displace old medications, which refer to traditions that are older than the decyphering of the genome.(10) Adorno und Hork­hei­mer criticise the enlightened and modern praxis: "Nature should no longer be influenced by assimilation, but controlled by work."(11) And : "Animism had given the object a soul, the industrialism had objectified the soul."(12) But it is very much the question whether the cancer bush "with a soul" was curing people better (or at all) than the objectified cancer bush.

People do not feel at home at all in modernity - "in the bright light of unprejudiced knowledge things and human beings" have taken on "demonic distorted shape". In Europe we have, on the one hand, modernity and its scientists, but also a lot of magical thinking, which connects two events without bothering about a true causality;(13) there is parapsychology(14) and ho­me­opathy.(15) But at the same time modern people see only "dazzlements" in "magicians and medicin men", which point backwards towards the "power, the principle, which effected the specification of the Mana into spirits and Gods."(16)

As in Europe, certain irrational discourses, which refer back to traditions that, however, never existed in this form, also hold sway in Africa. The Belgian cultural researcher, Filip de Boeck, examined the witch-discourse in the Congo. A pathological fear of pretty little girls has taken root here. They are called kamoke su­ka­­li, sugar-dolls, who apparently transform themselves into Femmes fatales, in order to seduce their fathers and to tear off their testicles. Often Aids-orphans, street­kids or child-soldiers are accused of black magic. In Kinshasa the mob persecutes the »children of Lunda« as witches; they have made money by seeking diamonds in war-torn Angola and invoke the jealousy of their impoverished, unemployed fathers. The success of the boys threatens the gerontocratic order; the elders perceive their authority to be eroded. Therefore they make the returnees responsible for poverty, illness and all the incomprehensible misfortune. And those very movements, which fight full of rage for conversion against these phenomena, the Christian fundamentalist free churches and sects, re-inforce with their apocalyptic screaming the fear of devils and witches.(17)

The Nigerian-South African academic, Kole Omotoso, has pointed out that many African intellectuals boycott anything that comes from Europe as Eurocentric, but that most Africans have acccpted the consequences of the meeting between Europe and Africa. Africans cannot avoid becoming a part of that which Europe has achieved in the world, without forgetting that they, too, have something to offer from their cultures and their knowledge. Instead of following those politicians and intellectuals who constantly demand an Afrocentric position, but who are in a minority in Africa, one needs to arrive at a new integration of indigenous knowledge and that of the rest of the world. It does not help to propagate an Africanisation of poverty.(18)

Sikhumbuzo Mngadi has called the belief that one can distinguish between "European" and "African" concepts of universities a new exoticism and as naively ahistorical, even if it is true that these European institutions have been changed more or less by the cultures outside of Europe which appropriated them.(19)

What characterized the European sciences is their systematics. Or as Kant says: "Their prescriptions are instructions to construct the concepts hierarchically." ... "The »systematic form« of knowledge is »the connection of them [the concepts] through a principle«" (Kant). In totality, reason is instructed by science. Reason must obey science, and that means the most developed science, the one that is most strongly developing. Reason does not have the right to overemphasize an immediate experience; reason must achieve equilibrium with experience, with that experience which is most richly structured. Under certain circumstances the immediate must give way to the constructed.(20)

Thinking, in the sense of the Enlightenment, is the production of a unified scientific order and the deduction of knowledge of fact from principles: these may be defined to be arbitrarily posited axioms, inborn ideas or the highest abstractions. The laws of logic produce the most general relations within this order, they define them. The unity consists in the univocity. The law of contradiction is the system in nuce.(21) "Thinking that does not keep system and perception in agreement, offends against more than isolated impressions of sight, it comes into conflict with real praxis. Not only does the expected event not materialise, but also the unexpected happens: the bridge breaks down, the seedling withers, the medicin makes sick."(22)

© Peter Horn (Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand)


(1) Ilse Jahn, Grundzüge der Biologiegeschichte. Jena 1990:181.

(2) vgl. Foucault, Michel 1974. Die Ordnung der Dinge. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp: 309.

(3) Foucault, Michel 1974. Die Ordnung der Dinge. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp: 25.

(4) Brett Horner, Sangomas’ medicines undergo clinical trials. Sunday Times (Johannesburg) 13.11.2005:12: "Sutherlandia is used treat opportunistic infections and prevent early wasting in HIV-positive patients, while African Wormwood is administered for respiratory problems such as TB. The wormwood’s efficacy in the treatment of cervical cancer will also be tested." Die Forschung wird an der University of the Western Cape, Cape Town und KwaZulu-Natal durchgeführt. Projektleiter ist Prof Quinton Johnson (UWC).

(5) Bartholomäus Grill, Die Macht der Hexen, Die Zeit 15.09.2005, Nr.38: "Jeden Tag fragen sich Millionen von Afrikanern: Wie können die Weißen Raketen ins All schießen und Computer bauen? Warum sind sie so reich und wir so arm? Und jeden Tag antworten sich Millionen: weil sie mit übernatürlichen Mächten im Bunde sind und die besseren Hexen haben."

(6) In Zulu heißt diese "Medizin" velabahleke, das ist "a foulsmelling ointment that you applied to your face so that wherever you appeared the girls would fall for you. Not only that, but if you went looking for a job, you applied the stuff to your face, and the groot baas would love you to bits and give you a job on the spot, promote you to an induna within a few weeks."

(7) Fred Khumalo, Pedlars of false hope mustn't profit from our freedom. Sunday Times (Johannesburg) 9.10.2005: p.35.

(8) Bartholomäus Grill, Die Macht der Hexen, Die Zeit 15.09.2005, Nr.38.

(9) Bartholomäus Grill, Die Macht der Hexen, Die Zeit 15.09.2005, Nr.38. Vgl auch David Signer, Die Ökonomie der Hexerei. Oder warum es in Afrika keine Wolkenkratzer gibt (Peter Hammer Verlag, Wuppertal).

(10) Bartholomäus Grill, Die Macht der Hexen, Die Zeit 15.09.2005, Nr.38.

(11) Horkheimer, Max, Adorno, Theodor W. 1971.Dialektik der Aufklärung. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer: 20.

(12) Horkheimer, Max, Adorno, Theodor W. 1971.Dialektik der Aufklärung. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer: 29.

(13) vgl. James Alcock

(14) Dean Radin (1997), a foremost apologist for parapsychology, notes that "the concept that mind is primary over matter is deeply rooted in Eastern philosophy and ancient beliefs about magic." However, instead of saying that it is now time to move forward and give up the magical thinking of childhood, he rebuffs "Western science" for rejecting such beliefs as "mere superstition." Radin, Dean (1997). The Conscious Universe - The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. HarperCollins .

(15) Fallacies in homeopathic claims have been discussed by many, including Barrett (1987) and Gardner (1989) in this journal; but it is curious that this healing system has not been more widely recognized as based in magical thinking. The fundamental principle of its founder, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), similia similibus curentur ("let likes cure likes"), is an explicit expression of a magical principle. The allegedly active ingredients in homeopathic medications were "proved" effective against a particular disease when they produced in healthy people symptoms similar to those caused by the disease. According to a survey about alternative medicine in the November 11, 1998 Journal of the American Medical Association, Americans' use of homeopathic preparations more than doubled between 1990 and 1997 (Eisenberg et al. 1998). Eisenberg et al. (1998) found that "alternative" or "complementary" medicine use was significantly more common among people with some college education (50.6 percent) than with no college education (36.4 percent), among people aged 35-49 than older or younger, and among people with annual incomes above $50,000.

(16) Horkheimer, Max, Adorno, Theodor W. 1971.Dialektik der Aufklärung. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer: 29.

(17) Bartholomäus Grill, Die Macht der Hexen, Die Zeit 15.09.2005, Nr.38.

(18) Kole Omotoso, The Africanization of poverty. Scrutiny2 - issues in english studies in southern africa vol 2 no 1: 13f.

(19) Sikhumbuzo Mngadi (1997), "Africanization", or, the new exoticism. Scrutiny2 - issues in english studies in southern africa, vol 2, no 1: 17-23.

(20) Bachelard Epistemologie 130.

(21) Adorno/ Hork­heimer 1971:74.

(22) Adorno/Horkheimer 1971:75.

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For quotation purposes:
Peter Horn (Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand): "Kankerbos" - "Cancer bush". Traditional and modern knowledge production. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005.

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