There’s a river which runs through Zuurbraak, a little village just outside Swellendam in the Western Cape. The river has its source in the high ground of Tradouw Pass, sacred ground to the Khoi people. On these rocks, after nearly a lifetime of trying to recover from abuse and illness, as well as searching for a place to belong, Michelene Dianne Benson placed her bare feet in a traditional Khoi ceremony and understood for the first time in her life the meaning of the word “home”.
It was a touchstone moment for Benson. She recalls, “For so many years the word “home” splintered my soul and I became afraid of it; the consequence of cultural genocide. Here I have found sacred circles of communion.”
This new-found intimacy with her cultural heritage has influenced Benson in multiple ways. As a sufferer of the often debilitating autoimmune disease Fibromyalgia, she always believed in alternative paths to healing. But it was here on what is known as “The Path of the Women” where everything about her journey towards a true sense of wellness became a tangible possibility.
Moreover, after years of childhood abuse and many failed attempts to locate spaces in which her life as a Coloured woman mattered, two key areas of her life blossomed to life. “It was the beginning of a physical journey, but in many ways it was also a discovery of a sacred treasure I ached for.”
Benson’s unearthing and embrace of her Khoikhoi heritage has led her to discoveries of food sources that have enhanced her own personal healing. Her daily intake of traditional Khoi medicinal plants, kankerbossie (a shrub with bitter, aromatic leaves said to treat among other things fever, rheumatism, stomach and liver problems), cannabis and kanna (a succulent plant traditionally used to fight depression and relieve pain), has seen her health improve exponentially.
According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute, South Africa is the third most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil and Indonesia. Inhabitants have for centuries employed the help of indigenous medicinal plants. These days indigenous local plants and herbs such as buchu, rooibos and devil’s claw have been commercialised, although the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries says that the vast majority of species are informally harvested from wild stocks to meet market demands.
Possibly the best measure of the extent to which these sources have helped Benson is demonstrated by her reference to a time where she was virtually bed-ridden by her illness, barely able to walk or feed herself. She is now fully functional and able to enjoy a life where fibromyalgic flares, which include widespread muscle spasm, abdominal pain, fatigue, anxiety and severe depression, have become less frequent and recovery time from those have been reduced from two weeks to two days.
Benson is a healer rooted in the shamanic traditions of indigenous groups worldwide, giving up her free time to fellow human beings seeking peace and healing, as what she calls a “soul journey guide”.
Her recent connection to her Khoikhoi heritage and belonging has provided firmer grounding and direction.
Her workshops encompass multiple methodologies of healing, which include, among other practices, water colour painting, mandala work and storytelling. However, what stands out most prominently in the work she does is how her discovery of her Khoikhoi roots has complimented her practice.
Her first-hand knowledge of the healing powers of Khoi herbs has broadened what she is able to provide for those who seek her assistance. She keeps a supply of kanna and kankerbossie for attendees of her workshops and private sessions where a medicinal intervention has been identified.
There is a kind of lyricism about Benson, which never dims in conversation with her. “Magical” might be the best word to describe one’s experience of her. Yet, while there is an unmistakable whimsy about her bearing, of pretence and affectation in her gifted way with words, there is utterly nothing.
Perhaps it’s the decades of suffering through abuse, illness and the endless ache for belonging that has seen her journey along the Khoi path and the medicinal wonders its fields yield with a view of the world that accommodates so openly all she meets.
Certainly she embodies the desire for the Khoi concept of Xnau, which means, as she describes it in her enchanting yet wholly grounded way, “the total embrace of humanity and all of life”.