In our haste to translate a word from one language to another, we make translation blunders that usually stay with us for a rather long time until they are disputed or challenged. Today I consider how we have over time translated the word “ngaka” into English and how we have translated the English word “doctor” into Setswana as “ngaka”. It is important to observe that words gain meaning from specific cultural contexts. Outside such contexts such words lose their meanings and become empty shells. There is nothing like “meaning without context”. Meaning is always contextual – contexts are either assumed or clearly stated. Meaning is therefore a cultural construct. Let’s consider the two words that are a subject of our discussion. The word “doctor” in English has fairly two main meanings: First: someone whose job is to treat people who are ill or injured and second, someone who has the highest degree given by a university. It is the first meaning of “doctor” that will concern us in this column though the second meaning has been poorly translated into Setswana as “ngaka” as well. We must however admit that the term doctor is a general term that is used to identify different types of medical practitioners. There is a specific type of doctor for almost every major system located in the human body. For instance we can use the term doctor for any of the following: audiologist, allergist, anesthesiologist, cardiologist, dentist, dermatologist, oncologist, gynecologist, immunologist, neurologist, obstetrician, pediatrician and many others. The listed doctors specialize in medicine that deals with the different parts of the body. The key matter here is that “doctors” deal with “the human body”. Let’s pause here and look at what the word “ngaka” in Setswana means.
For us to understand what a “ngaka” is, we need to understand the Tswana belief in witchcraft. In Tswana traditional culture, illness, death and misfortune generally have a grim source. They are believed to be a consequence of witchcraft. Witches (for indeed the evildoers were believed to be old women and not male) were said to be behind all evil acts that befell individuals and families. The old witch was said to walk bent by day looking sickly, and to surprisingly gain extraordinary agility by night. She walked the night covered in ashes and the blood of the dead. Her mode of transport was an open basket or a wild animal such as a hyena. The Tswana believed that witchcraft was a consequence of malice, jealousy, envy and a heart full of debauchery. The witch could attack any part of human life. The “ngaka” was therefore needed to neutralize the evil works of witchcraft.
The Batswana have for a long time depended on the services of a “ngaka” in the various elements of their lives. A “ngaka” is central to the following: the coronation of a “kgosi”, a wedding celebration, funeral and burial, confinement, farms, livestock, the establishment of a new homestead and in the treatment of physical and spiritual illness. Traditionally “dingaka” are specialists. There were “dingaka” that treated sexual infections, children’s diseases, established a homestead and those who strengthened a new marriage.
There are two types of “dingaka: dingaka tse di dinaka” and “dingaka tse di tšhotšwa”. “Dingaka tse di dinaka” are those that use divination bones to determine the source of a problem. These “dingaka” include the “dingaka” of the royal house, the “dingaka” of the whole “morafe” as well as “baroka”, who are rainmakers. “Dingaka tse di tšhotšwa” don’t use divination bones. They are de facto traditional pharmacists. They have a deep knowledge of medicines and diseases. Usually they are not as famous as “dingaka tse di dinaka”. They can treat a disease successfully without using divination bones. Usually, they are trained by “dingaka tse di dinaka” and would have been under their instruction for some time.
One of the major roles of a “ngaka” like a “doctor” is to treat an individual’s body. A “ngaka” usually gives a patient medicine made from roots, bark of a tree or animal fat or snake. These were smeared on the body or someone had to bath in a concoction of traditional medicine: “a tlhapisiwe! A itewe ka seditse – seditse ke lofeelo”. To a poisoned individual, a “ngaka” gave medication that caused one to vomit ingested poison. The “ngaka” also ensured that an individual was protected at the most critical stages of life: at birth, “bogwera/bojale” and wedding. The “ngaka” that doctors a wedding is called “setimamolelo” (one who quenches fire). The “ngaka” protects the wedding and strengthens the marriage so that it doesn’t encounter misfortune. “Setimamolelo” is usually brought by the groom and not by the bride’s family. He would doctor the marrying couple, the kitchen, the pots and the beast that killed for the festivities. “O duelwa ka letsogo la kgomo!”
In general, the “ngaka” used strong medicine to protect individuals. He did this by cutting a patient’s joints such as at the knees and elbows and smearing charms on the cuts to put medicine directly into the bloodstream, which protected one against the works of witchcraft. Charms were also used on men before they departed for battle. These charms made them strong in battle and protected them against death. Women were also occasionally given charms to help them with fertility.
The second major role of a “ngaka” was to protect the livestock. The livestock was doctored so that it increased in number, was safe from theft and from being mauled by wild animals. When the kraal was doctored, all male sons were supposed to be doctored together with the livestock. If this wasn’t done, it was believed that they would lose their minds.
Traditionally a new homestead could not be established without the aid of a “ngaka”. All the corners and the centre of a homestead were doctored. This was done at night. A “ngaka” was paid by a cow after securing the homestead.
The “ngaka” was also used in the protection of farmlands from jealous individuals who would bewitch the farm so that it bore no crops. The “ngaka” also doctored the farm against excessive pests.
Batswana also had “baroka” or rainmakers who were responsible for making rain for the morafe. The “baroka” however have always been rare amongst the Tswana.
I have tried to demonstrate that the word “ngaka” in traditional Tswana society has a wide application than doctor. It is not as restricted as the word “doctor”. Only a very narrow sense of the word “ngaka” is synonymous with that of the English word “doctor”. “Ngaka” doesn’t just heal the body as a “doctor” does, he uses his charms to protect men going into battle, he protects a newly wedded couple, he multiplies one’s livestock and protects it from wild animals. With his charms he sets a king on the throne and protects his kingdom from challenge. Certainly a “ngaka” is more than just a “doctor”; he is much more than that. I am therefore left with only one conclusion to make: there is no English word which is a direct translation of the Setswana word “ngaka”.