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A very interesting point of discussion was raised at the recent and first ever health and research conference that was held by Gender DynamiX in Cape Town, November 2010. How do transgender issues fit into traditional health practices? How is this issue perceived by traditional health practitioners and can it be facilitated on this platform?

hese burning questions inspired another workshop that was facilitated by GDX on the 28th and 29th of March 2011. This workshop sought to bring together the western and traditional approaches of transgender and looking to frame it in the cultural context. The meeting was well attended by some traditional health practitioners and was facilitated by He-Jin Kim and co-facilitated by Tebogo Nkoana who is both a sangoma, as well as the outreach officer for Gender DynamiX.

Day 1 of the meeting explored some concepts of both the western world as well as traditional health practice. Some concepts explored included the words sangoma, ikehle, ithwasa, izinyanya. Sangoma Tebogo Nkoana related his story about being born in a female body, yet his male ancestor was calling on him to thwasa, and ultimately become a sangoma. “I got a calling from a male ancestor and my family could acknowledge my male character because of what was happening in the spiritual realm”, says Tebogo.

Sikara Mafisa is a traditional healer and he did a presentation on integrating western medicine and traditional healing. He presents workshops at schools, companies and other public departments with the aim to educate about traditional healing. This insightful presentation was followed by a session presented by uGogo Annelie de Wet. This sangoma spoke on how Gender identity and sexual orientation manifests itself in nature. She gave a very interesting presentation about same sex relations in animals and how this is an ever evolving concept.

Day 2 of the workshop was taken up by small group discussions. Facilitator He-Jin Kim gave an overview of the Standards of Care (SOC), a set of internationally accepted guidelines by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). Three groups were each given an opportunity to comment and make recommendations on different sections of this document. This process is aimed at making recommendations to WPATH to influence and include the traditional school of thought alongside the western approach.

“Apart from what is taking place on a spiritual level, for many people from the rural areas, the sangoma is the first contact point for medical and psychological advice, given the fact that there are not many social workers and/or psychologists in rural areas”, said one of the participants of the workshop.  We also have to recognise that not all cultures will turn to a social worker or psychologist as first option. The assessment of transgender children and adolescents comprised one small group discussion and the dominant feeling of the discussion was that age should not be a determining factor in irreversible intervention for children and teenagers experiencing Gender Dysphoria.

The group dealing with transgenderism in traditional practice called for the accreditation of work performed my traditional healers. ”One of the biggest challenges of this work, is that it is seen as practicing witchcraft, which it is not”, said Nkunzi, a traditional healer from Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape.  The last discussion group focused on the role of the health professional and how traditional perspectives can be included in this spectrum.

Some very interesting ideas came from this workshop and the hope is that there will be more meetings of this kind taking place to the build-up of the national transgender health and research conference which takes place in November this year.

Leigh Ann van der Merwe

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Gender DynamiX South Africa: The first African organisation solely for the transgender communtity. Committed to provide resources, information and support to transgender people, their partners, family, employers and the public.