Migration, Insecurity, and the Steaming Body: Healing Rituals in Johannesburg

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 09:20
Location: Hörsaal 32 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Lorena NUNEZ, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Peter KANKONDE, African Center for Migration and Society- Wits, South Africa
Melekias ZULU, African Centre for Migration and Society - Wits, South Africa
Hidden away from the public gaze, women and men, migrant and members of different Zionist and Apostolic Churches, gather to participate in healing sessions using the steam bathing structure they have constructed next to a mining dump site located in a southern suburb of Johannesburg. Steaming is a common practice in Southern Africa as well as in various other geographical contexts worldwide.  Although participants report to have used steam baths at home before, this practice was less frequent and mostly used individually to treat minor physical ailments. Now it is also to address spiritual problems. With steaming people become shielded and their powers enhanced.

We argue that the body is at the centre of the experience of insecurity, it is the preferred target when harm is intended and also when harm is inflicted through invisible agents. This work conceptualises the religious practices of the body in the practice of steaming as performative acts in search of healing and the state of 'being healed' as an unaccomplished one which requires investments of the body through physical and emotional work. The spiritual work encompasses body techniques (Mauss, 1979) such as observing sexual abstention, fasting, and observing sexual abstention, vomiting, praying, and wrestling against the devil. The work of healing in turn, involves body practices to cleanse, to open and to enhance the body such as the induction of vomits, performing body incisions and steaming. Genealogically these body practices rooted in both Christianity and in African traditions. While this amalgamation of tradition is well documented in the literature and often explained in the syncretised origins of the African Independent Churches, not enough has been said regarding differences and tensions between these traditions.