6. Annelie De Wet

Family Constellations’ roots in the dark continent

by Annelie De Wet

In traditional African therapy the *sangoma or *nyanga’s first priority is to re-align the patient with ancestors, family, nature and land spirits. African culture views other people as brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. In this culture – family, social and ancestral relationships – can be seen as primary conduits of health in/stability – and as resources. Nyangas and patients use an array of muthi’s and rituals as social cleansers, protectors and connectors. (For example, you get a particular muthi named Velabahleke. It means to elicit a smile from someone, and is used to get people to like you.)

The Family Constellations System – designed by Bert Hellinger after living for 18 years in the Zulu nation – is influenced by African culture in that it focuses on agency in the individual’s larger system : the family, ancestors, culture and nation.

Muthi, ritual, ceremony & guidance in Family Constellations & African culture
Similar to nyangas prescribing muthi and particular rituals to their patients under the guidance of ancestors – the FC facilitator is trained to follow an inner voice (intuition, feeling) when applying phrases, sentences and changing positions in a constellation.

The nyanga undergoes training to hear, understand and interpret the promptings of the ancestors; the Family Constellator trains in “reading” (intuition) the patient & system – and to make intuitive shifts to balance the system.

Many African muthis have psycho-dramatic properties or at least names. For example, Phakama means stand up, and is used to become strong, to stand up for oneself.

Family Constellations uses its own brand of “psycho-dramatic muthi” in the form of particular phrases and sentences; in changing the patient’s relationship positions during a constellation in order to connect, protect and cleanse the patient of past “ghosts” and psychological baggage.

In African tradition very specific rituals are performed to send spiritual baggage/energy/responsibility back to its owner. Family Constellations have a central ritual of giving back to someone what does not belong to the patient.

Ancestors & embodiment
FC follows African culture in recognizing that distant family members’ deeds or omissions affect patients generations later.

In an African bone throwing consultation you start by naming certain family members and deceased family members, or your ancestors.

During ceremonies a nyanga or trainee will use specific voice techniques to recite the names of a long list of influential ancestors. It is called “vusela amadlozi” – greeting the ancestors.

Family Constellations formalized these techniques in the genogram. A genogram sits statically on paper. In African culture a genogram is audibly and visibly verbalised and ritualised – it is embodied. While FC uses forms of embodiment in its therapy, African therapies work even more pertinently with embodied practices (singing, clapping, dancing, trancing & much stronger body movements).

Basic information leading to revelation
Before an African bone reading sessions starts, very little information is required from the patient – because the bones will reveal the information. FC works similarly in that it requires only basic information from the patient, because the constellation will speak and reveal.

A bone reading concerns itself with positions and facing directions of bones. Family constellations follows this in that the positions of representatives contain crucial information.

In African therapy the reading of the bones can be used to pinpoint pathology, but it is more important to point out the pathological relationships and resources of the system. The bones will reveal rituals and muthi to settle family and ancestral relationships. Similarly a family constellation will reveal discomfort and resources in the constellation – rather than pathology of the patient. It also reveals remedies – like bowing or saying a sentence, which is almost ritualised – to settle relationships.

Sometimes a small ceremony is proposed – like laying down a bunch of flowers to victims or perpetrators with a wish to release the past.

Speaking to ancestors and getting messages from the dead is a vital ingredient of African therapy. Family Constellations follows this tradition with representatives representing and speaking for deceased people.

Possession; trance
In Africa, ancestral possession (a trance technique), is part of healing, understanding and negotiating life. Family Constellations allows representatives to some extent to experience a mini trance or meta possession of the deceased spirit that is represented. To bring in the dead is vital in both traditions.

Consultation styles; knowing fields; resources
I want to highlight two particular African consultation styles to illustrate the systems theory that “many parts make up the whole and the whole is more than the sum”. In these examples the “knowing field” referred to in FC, is also highlighted.

The first therapy style is called Femba. This consultation style involves a number of people, at least 4, but preferably more.

The patient sits on the floor. As in Family Constellations, the patient says very little about their condition. The drums are beaten by drummers. The nyanga enters trance. She cleans the patient with a minute oxtail and muthi from a water bowl. She dialogues with the patient in various communication forms: she can growl like an animal, speak as particular ancestors, and even try to attack the patient as a harming spirit or person. She takes on some of the patient’s spirits, attributes, ancestors and emotions and verbalizes and enacts them. She sometimes has to be restrained by the helper. The patient can ask questions or comment.

In this style, the knowing field (referred to in Family Constellations), is held in the nyanga’s trance. The knowing field is charged and activated by the drumming, the brushing oxtail over the patient, the application of muthi – and the shaking off of the spirit energies into a bowl of water.

The knowing field is mediated by sounds made by the nyanga – whether it be primal or imitating known sounds – as well as verbalized messages from ancestral spirits.

Femba as an African consultation style can only be performed in an organic system with its inherent resources (people who are part of the system). A white sangoma in a typical white individualized neighborhood is likely to lack this organic system and will not be able to perform femba (unless the relevant participators are brought in temporarily).

Systems theory
Femba illustrates that “many parts make up the whole and the whole is more than the sum of its parts” because the patient gains insight which exceeds the utterances of the nyanga, the drumming and the muthi.

The second example of how systems work (systems theory) is the African ceremony.

African ceremonies: participation; inclusion; feedback
During a ceremony different sangomas take turns to dance and address the ancestors throughout the night. The attending people are obliged to participate by singing and clapping from a repertoire of 1000’s of traditional songs. Participation is compulsory and no sleeping is allowed during the night. A sangoma will pull you back into activity if you exclude yourself by sleeping, not clapping or singing. During a ceremony a sangoma can sense problems and will call a person into the open public circle – and give him or her the choice to sort the problem out in front of the community, or outside in private, from where he can return after a while. These actions keep the community system intact and prevent exclusion.

“Crazy” people are never excluded from communal gatherings or asked to leave. I remember an all-night ceremony visited by a very deranged man with an oversized bloated body who got up at least every half an hour to perform a kind of noisy, dilapidated and intrusive dance. He was given his own tin of umqumbhoti and was never asked to sit down. Similarly, in the communal hut in Transkei deranged people would arrive from time to time with dramatic performances and speeches. People would go on with their activities and sometimes interact. Eventually the person would leave again.

The orders of love in Family Constellations is based on this inclusiveness of African culture. Family Constellations states that every member of a family belongs equally to a family and their belonging needs to be acknowledged, even if they are mentally ill.

Participation & feedback
During a ceremony the nyanga dances and calls the songs out to be sung by the people. The people sing and clap in an ongoing interaction. The sangoma urges the people to sing louder in order to go deeper into trance. Talking to ancestors and relaying messages happen continuously. The nyanga can perform only as good as the people’s energy.

Family Constellations, as an interactive therapy, is based on similar dynamics in that a system can only operate with continuous communication and feedback.

Knowing field
On a ceremony the knowing field is held intact for hours by the dances of the nyangas. It is mediated in trance by nyangas. It is activated by burning mpepho and inhaling it. The clapping and singing of people co-constitute the knowing field. The slaughtering of a sacrificial animal opens the knowing field into deeper, subconscious dimensions which are hard to describe (perhaps in a later article).

Orders of love
When it comes to orders of love, I want to highlight only one for the moment.

The training sangoma, or thwasa, remains on his or her knees throughout training – and averts the eyes when talking to people. In spite of the seeming power imbalance of the position, it is a rich and charged space for exploring boundaries of communication and intimacy.

It is like getting (internal) driving lessons in the spirit world. As the thwasa’s guiding ancestor/s get street-wise in the intangible realm of soul (consciousness), the thwasa transforms the order with new levels of intimacy (feeling) & power sharing.

Oral culture; immediacy; embodiment; rhythm
Finally — how African oral culture shapes the “rhythm” of Family Constellations.

An oral culture is a culture that does not form its consciousness through literacy training or books. Yes…? Can you imagine that?

An oral culture is a culture that does not form its consciousness by literacy training or books.

It lives in a different dimension. It lives in a different house.

An oral culture, as we largely have in SA, lives in immediacy, in the now.

While white folks read Eckhardt Tolle’s books in order to get into the now, life in an African village or township really happens in the now. A weekend in Khayelitsha or Mtambalala can also put you more in the now. There is almost a total absence of books in these areas – even when people can read.

Knowledge (information) in an oral culture does not overnight on pages in books on a book shelf. Oral knowledge (information) is not preserved. It bubbles and transforms in conversations between people. It lives in the body: Talking is reading. Brain matter itself is the book. Life is TV.

Knowledge, truth and reality, appears dynamically for a brief moment in talking — and will change from person to person — from day to day. Oral culture is totally fluid. Annoyingly so for the Western mind used to boundaried statements referenced on tangible pages somewhere.

Family Constellations reflects something of this fluidity and immediacy in that there is no linear, ongoing analysis of an issue from constellation to constellation. A family constellation demands that representatives are present in the moment and deal with unpredictability and fluidity. The patient’s problem is also not analysed.

The immediacy of oral culture requires very basic information – almost on a need to know basis – since lengthy information cannot be preserved in writing for later pondering. Oral culture is not a preservation culture, it is a use what is available culture.

Similarly, Family Constellations asks the patient for basic information in order to facilitate fluidity and immediacy – before the session turns into “history” — and loses body-spirit energy.

This is what people mean when they refer to “the energy of Africa”.

I had a very strange experience one night in the hut in Pond land where I lived for 8 months. The illiterate household, mama, tata and children, went for a “how to write your name lesson” at the local school. That night they were all laying on their stomachs on the dung floor practicing writing with pencils on paper. It was the only quiet night in the entire period where no one talked. Suddenly the co-hesive, dense grid of energetic African interaction was gone. It was almost shocking, and it made me think…

In summary, African therapy style is more embodied than Family Constellations style – by virtue of the singing, drumming, handclapping, drinking of umqumbhoti, use of muthi and no books.

In contrast body activity in Family Constellations happens low key in verbalizations with comparatively slight body movements and minor physical changes of positions. And the genogram is not ritualised in audible or visible embodiment, either. Here transformation is activated in the place behind the eyes – in the imagination – and almost confined to that space.

In African healing the use of imagination is almost always channeled into some form of strong embodiment. Even the prescription of many muthis rely on this “psychodramatic” aspect of embodiment, eg. the muthi Phakama: stand up, be strong.

Family Constellations as a system is an outcome of the way the Germanic soul has integrated aspects of African culture.

If more integration is desired, Family Constellations can consider experimenting with African muthi steam baths or water washes, mpepho smoking, gosha inhaling (it is like African Poppers) and the use of shakers and drums and some ancestral vocalisation, or other ritualisations and ceremonies.


*The Xhosa people use the word sangoma for a healer, while the Zulu people mostly use the word nyanga.

Annelie de Wet, writer and sangoma/nyanga: Professionally I come from a long media and commercial writing background. Emotionally I come from farmer parents. The combination makes for magic realism. The only process that could contain this heritage was to undergo the gruelling training as an African sangoma/nyanga.  A not so unexpected calling (age 47)  to the mysticism of the bush finally relieved me of my life as a corporate princess in 2005. In a rudimentary Pondo village I danced, carried water and chopped wood into my first real experience of embodiment of the body – in contrast with trying to re-structure the mind-consciousness. Somehow this satisfied only half of my personality… and I had to enter the final veil by also training in the different Swazi/Zulu tradition to come home in articulated ancestral possession – accepting the human journey of fearless imagination as a reality and my way of life.  

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