Fragile yet unbreaking : an ethnographic exploration into young people's entangled experiences of traditional healing and HIV

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The following study is an ethnographic exploration into young people’s entangled experiences of health and illness in relation to both HIV/AIDS and traditional forms of healing. The research employed a creative, didactic methodology based around a series of workshops conducted with two non-governmental organisations based in Grahamstown’s peri-urban townships: The first, Siyapumelela, maintains a focus on youth and HIV/AIDS; the second, Sakhuluntu, is a cultural group aimed at keeping young people off the streets. The argument begins by challenging the dichotomous relationship that is maintained between Modern Scientific Medicine and traditional forms of healing and calls for a dual standard system in which both epistemologies can be free to operate according to their own medical standards. The study explores young people’s therapeutic environments and tracks, in particular, how young people talk about and represent HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS is discussed as a concept metaphor; a domain term that orients a person towards areas of shared exchange and meaning. It is clear that most young people have a well-informed biomedical understanding of HIV/AIDS, yet metaphorically, they see it as a dangerous and destructive force; an uncertain threat in the world. The research poses the question as to why young people continue to put themselves at risk of contracting HIV by exploring the social environments which many young people are subject to – environments that are often characterised by extreme social structural violence. The argument examines the nature of social structural violence as it plays itself out in the everyday lives of the participants and identifies the kinds of challenges that many of them face on a day-to-day basis. Due to fragmented avenues of support and conditions of domestic fluidity, many young people from structurally violent communities are left with feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. Alongside experiences of social and structural insecurity, young people also harbour a sense of spiritual insecurity that stems from the dissolution of the ancestral cult as a result of the historical, yet persisting, fragmentation and reorganisation of the African family unit. The research discusses a form of spirit possession known as Amakhosi that young people engage in in order to (re)gain a sense of security and protection from forces beyond their control.

Includes bibliographical references (leaves 72-79).