Psychoactive plant research has been actively pursued over the last century around the world, particularly in the Americas. Yet, southern Africa has often been regarded to have relatively few psychoactive plant species of cultural importance with little research conducted on the region’s potential psychoactive flora. However, in the last decade, renewed interest has occurred in the study of psychoactive plants from southern Africa. Recent anthropological studies have demonstrated the significance of psychoactive plant medicines in the initiation process of southern African traditional healers and in treating mental illness, while numerous ethnopharmacological studies have screened southern African plants for psychotropic activity, with promising new findings and research directions resulting.
Yet, despite this great progress, the indigenous cultural (ritual) uses of psychoactive plants by the indigenous people of southern Africa remains a neglected area of ethnobotanical research. Aspects identified as requiring further study include: the indigenous cultural understandings of mental illness and psychoactive plants, the role of psychoactive plants in the spiritual practices of southern African traditional healers, the influence of various psychoactive plant species used in traditional formulas and the folklore and mythology relating to indigenous psychoactive plants.
Thus, much is still to be learnt and documented from the southern African traditional healers regarding their worldview and their botanical, diagnostic, methodologicaland healing knowledge that can provide insights into the treatment of mental illness and the actions of psychoactive plants.
This paper investigates some popular examples of spiritual plant use in traditional South African medicine using phytopharmacological studies together with anthropological fieldwork methods, demonstrating the empirical basis for use of some plants in divination (by producing clarity of thought or dreams etc).
The examples also reveal the phytochemical and biomedical foundations of the South Bantu speaking traditional healers’ explanations of why and how various spiritually used plants have medicinal value. The challenge for scientists (botanists etc) is to effectively translate and interpret cultural and language based descriptions of spiritual medicinal plant use made by indigenous peoples while recognizing and discarding cultural prejudices that prevent a more comprehensive and integrated understanding of the science that intersects and forms the basis of many (though not all) cultural healing practices.
I describe Ayahuasca as a spiritual medicine; one that promotes enhanced awareness and deeper connection to one’s core self, to others and the greater universe, while facilitating the manifestation of one’s intentions and beliefs. This encounter with ayahuasca provided me a first-hand experience of learning and healing from the medicine.
The use of psychoactive plants by traditional healers in southern Africa appears to be a neglected area of ethnobotanical research. This article explores the healing dynamics involved in the use of popular psychoactive plant preparations known as ubulawu in the initiation rituals of Southern Bantu diviners. Research methods include a review of the literature, fieldwork interviews with Southern Bantu diviners, and an analysis of experiential accounts from diverse informants on their use of ubulawu. Findings reveal that there is widespread reliance on ubulawu as psychoactive spiritual medicines by the indigenous people of southern Africa to communicate with their ancestral spirits—so as to bring luck, and to treat mental disturbances.
Numerous indigenous healing traditions around the world employ plants with psychoactive effects to facilitate divination and other spiritual healing rituals. Southern Africa has often been considered to have relatively few psychoactive plant species of cultural importance, and little has been published on the subject. This paper reports on 85 species of plants that are used for divination by southern Bantu-speaking people. Of these, 39 species (45 %) have other reported psychoactive uses, and a number have established hallucinogenic activity. These findings indicate that psychoactive plants have an important role in traditional healing practices in southern Africa.