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Observations placeholder

Friedson, Steven M - Dancing the disease; music and trance in Tumbuku healing – Part 02



Type of Spiritual Experience


In the traditional health-care system, there are two kinds of healers:

nchimi, dancing prophets who divine the cause of illness and on the basis of these prophetic diagnoses treat their patients; and sing' anga herbalists who, for the most part, do not practise divination but dispense medicine (mankhwalal) according to the presentation of symptoms.

Sing'anga employ a kind of local knowledge, usually acquired through handed-down family traditions or by apprenticing themselves to older, more experienced practitioners. Both kinds of healers use an extensive pharmacopoeia to treat a wide range of illnesses, but only nchimi can directly access the world of spirits. Sing'anga neither dance nor employ music to any significant degree; on the other hand, the medical praxis of an nchimi is musically inspired. Nchimi are called to their vocation through a special form of spirit affliction called nthenda ya uchimi, 'the disease of the prophets'. Once afflicted, the only cure is to dance the disease and enter the world of prophet healers. If this initiatory call is not heeded then the result is madness and eventually death.

These dancing prophets are the diagnosticians nonpareil in Tumbuka healing. As with many indigenous African health-care systems, in Tumbuka medical praxis etiology drives therapy. It does no good to treat malaria if it is caused by a witch, nor will anti-witchcraft medicine work if the affliction is caused by the spirits. The symptoms may be the same - fever, headaches, general body malaise - but the treatment differs according to what caused the affliction. This is why the divinatory trance is so crucial to clinical efficacy.

While entranced, nchimi access a wider and deeper world where causality is not sequential but simultaneously linked; it is the time when healers name the disease, and through the name produce a therapeutic.

A description of the experience

Steven M. Friedson – Dancing the disease; music and trance in Tumbuku healing

Mseka Mwana means the man who laughs with children. As he danced there was much ululation from the women; patients and their relatives were singing out in full voice, and the energy in the thempli raised to a new level. Music was not only heard, but physically felt.

Mseka …began to 'see’ (kuwona) the remaining patients who had gathered in the temple. As each woman came forward to have the cause of her misfortunes divined, Mseka would dance to heat the spirits inside of him. It is this musical heat that fuels the divination trance; as the Tumbuka put it, 'the drums are the batteries for the spirits'. Tumbuka consider music in these situations to be an important part of medical technology and make explicit metaphoric reference to this technological fact.

When he had finished seeing most of the patients, he sat down to oversee the rest of the proceedings. It was now time for mutwasa, new moons, adepts who were in training, to dance.

About an hour had passed and several of the apprentices had already danced their disease when suddenly, and unexpectedly, nkharamu possessed Mseka.  Without warning, Mseka jumped up and started to circle the dance floor while beating his chest. After several minutes of circling, he stopped in a rigid bent-over position with his arms akimbo. As Mseka held this posture, the drums began to play nkharamu's mode, and his arm muscles began to twitch as a result of a sharply increased muscle tonus that quickly spread to his face, causing his eyelids to flutter, his cheeks to contract, and his eyes to fixate.

His visage was threatening, seemingly out of control, and once again he slowly began to circle the temple. This is when people started to become concerned and the women grabbed their babies and rushed out of the temple, leaving only the drummers, the several healers in training, and myself.

His main assistant, a young man in his mid-twenties who had been in training for the past two years, threw maize flour (ufu) on Mseka's back to try to cool the spirits. Ufu is used to make the staple food, a stiff porridge called nsima. lf. nsima is not served with a meal, then a Tumbuka does not consider that she has eaten. It is a symbol of hearth and home and, by extension, the ancestors, especially since the flour is white, a colour explicitly related to these spirits. Throwing the ufu on Mseka was a move to cool nkharamu and increase the power of the ancestors, to bring the possession trance back from its wild state.

Mseka stopped once again, and once again the drums renewed nkharamu’s mode. Ziloya, one of Mseka's wives who was also an nchimi, raised one of nkharamu's songs:

Haulane madimba yaye mwe
Shout for help at the dry season gardens

And those who were left responded:

Nkharamu yakora mwana mwe
A lion has caught the child

This song refers both to a lion killing a child and a spirit possessing someone.

While people sang and clapped, Mseka rushed over to a corner of the temple where a large piece of the poisonous candelabra cactus (mulangali) was stored and began to eat it, something that he himself says in his normal state would have killed him. But in a way, Mseka was not there at all; it was the lion who was actually doing the eating, and this was precisely the problem. The balance between spirit and healer necessary for divination was disrupted, tipped in the direction of nkharamu's wild nature. But to the relief of those of us who remained, as Mseka ate the cactus nkharamu began to dance, bringing its overheated energy into culturally shaped patterns.

The next morning Mseka told me he had gone very 'far out', and wasn't sure what was going to transpire. The reason nkharamu had unexpectedly possessed him (he decided) was because the spirit had not been properly informed of the recent death of a relative. His wife's first cousin had died, and the spirits were not formally told of the death, as they should have been, during the nkufi clapping. The failure to inform the vimbuza spirits - it seems that someone forgot - was why nkharamu came with so much pressure. You need to be clear with the spirits at all times, to uphold your obligations, or else you could become seriously ill and run the risk of going completely crazy (chifusi).


Healers are not born into this divinatory trance but must grow into it, have a history with it. The disease (nthenda) needs to 'mature' (kudankha) as with a fruit ripening. When Mseka first became afflicted with nthenda ya uchimi, the disease of the prophets, nkharamu would possess him and he would run wild into the bush tearing off his clothes, disappearing for days, a classic case of the primary phase of an initiatory illness. According to Mseka, it was only the sound of the drums that called him 'back-into-place', back from the bush to the parameters of hearth and home.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps


Music therapy