Systems Dialogues with Tatenda Nzingha Mazowe

This conversation is part of our Stepping into Systems series, an introduction to fundamental systems change topics and concepts. Here, Anna Birney is joined by Tatenda Nzingha Mazowe, a specialised therapist, yogini, author, artist and hypnotist.

Getting started

Tatenda Nzingha Mazowe is a media and wellness entrepreneur who has over 10 years' experience in the social justice sector. Within her community, Tatenda is known as a Mhondoro (a practitioner of the sacred healing arts and initiate into the Southern African mystery schools). She is a published author and founded Oshun Rises as an institute that contributes to the development of research and knowledge(s) on Africa, ancient wisdom, and wellness as well as non-Western healing arts.

In this dialogue we discuss how Tatenda, as a South African healer and wellness practitioner, navigates healing justice and the themes of transpersonality, transpersonal phenomena, human beings and communities.

Tatenda Nzingha Mazowe and Anna Birney

What is a system? What metaphors do you use to help describe systems?


Thanks for being with us Tatenda. From your perspective, what is a system?


A system is a coherent structure. There are multiple systems, there are superstructures and there are micro structures. For me, the individual is the smallest system. I don’t mean our physical biology, I mean our thinking, our impact, and the roles that we play in society.


And are there any other metaphors apart from the individual? What other metaphors are there that you regularly refer to when you talk about systems?


Have you watched Dr. Strange, the Marvel film? You know that time device he finds and how it moves in spheres, but it also has a sacred geometry that comes out of it. That's how I see a system, like a dynamic Yantra. It's like a puzzle. So there are different spheres operating at different points in time and they create their own results. And overall that creates a cohesive movement or a cohesive change or a cohesive stability in the system.


That’s fascinating because it also relates to time. I love that. That's a great one.

Dr Strange and his time device (image reference)

What object or prop would you use to help describe a system?


So if you were to bring an object, did you bring an object or a prop that might describe what a system is? What would it be, apart from if you could get your hand on a time device? 


I’ve brought a conch shell. This is the closest I could get to my visualisation of a system. There's a spiral and a repeating pattern. The repeating pattern generates this natural order, which can be a metaphor for a stable system. It's functional, it holds itself, it repeats itself, and it's stable. But even in that there is some complexity to create this conch shell.


Cool. Brilliant. So that's great to have this stable conch shell, but how do you understand how systems change?


It depends on the system. So my work is largely around healing justice, transpersonality, transpersonal psychology, transpersonal phenomena, human beings and communities. 

What I've learned is that these systems on the outside look as though they do not change at all. And that is why we have the words ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, across all cultures. It really doesn't matter who you are or where you are from, it appears that they do not change. And if there is a change, it is slow, it is gradual and it is resisted.

What I have found though is that even with the individual - the smallest unit of a relational system - there is the opportunity for further individuation, and even in individuating, one finds themselves in another system or in another group or in another structure of people who have individuated, and that creates another system. Systems multiply, nothing really changes and nothing is fixed. And while that sounds like a paradox, it is true of systems change.

So if I put it ideally, if I think of an ideal system, there's chaos. Imagine there's a disturbing or disrupting event. An improbable and unlikely event. That event causes chaos in the system because it changes how things, and I say this in parenthesis, have always been done and causes, not necessarily a forward motion, a re-energisation of another possibility. 

When this possibility is re-energised, it is either met with support or it is met with resistance, in most cases it is met with a mixture of support and resistance and how that energised event or how that energised agent then operates in that system shows what is possible in terms of changing that structural system.

But it gets even more complicated, which is what I find so interesting, as over time, especially with transpersonal systems, scenes of chaos or destabilising events are actually a pattern of events that have happened before at different times. And depending on the ecosystem and the conditions around it, that then becomes a pattern of change that happens when X, Y, and Z factors are present.

But then we pull back the structure - time, context, resources, laws, liberties and what's available in the superstructure then influences how that system can change.


Easy peasy then. Joking - there's a lot going on there. Thank you.

Do you have a definition for systems change?


Do you have a definition you use for systems change?


One of the funniest statements that I ever heard was at dinner. I am from Zimbabwe. I was talking to someone close to my family and telling him about social justice and healing justice and he laughed and said, ‘Oh god, oh you activists, if only you knew that we allow you to be there.’

I believe we have people holding the centre, theorising and writing on systems change, until the margin pushes the centre and displaces it. Ultimately, authority always seeks to be established, in one way or another. And so for me the best result from systems change is allowing multiple systems of meaning, multiple states and systems of being, to exist with cohesion rather than being disruptive of what already exists.


Love it, love that. That is so wonderful.

What are your lineages into systems practice?


And you've already just spoken a little bit about this, but it'd be quite good to hear it again in the context of what you’ve just said. What are your lineages into this practice?


In my culture, I would be known as a Mhondoro, like a shaman, but I specialise really in deprogramming, in deprogramming people from cults, in community building, in using creativity and doing really deep trauma work with individuals. 

That has led me to looking at communities and what is helpful when you work with an individual - that they have to either reintegrate or leave a system, and that is what I call healing justice. 

As a black woman, it's interesting then to see why certain communities always favour being a part of communities, why healing justice comes up, why there's alternative dispute resolution in certain communities. So that is where I came into systems change and that's really impacted me because systems thinking and transpersonal thinking are so closely aligned and it really helps me deepen my work with others and it helps me deepen, strangely enough, my creative work because I get to see things from a higher perspective. 

So let's say transpersonality is a higher perspective, then systems change is like being a mole and you get to see the underground network of why things are the way they are. So it's really, really helped me with my practice.


And what do you see as some of the different, divergent histories and lineages of systemic practices?


I don’t know if I can speak to that because, compared to the conventional school, my work is of a transpersonal nature and concerns itself with people, communities and human social systems and their patterns.

That's one of the things that comes up a lot in my work and with other practitioners - what are the dynamics of systems change? Who is a systems change practitioner? What is the formal requirement to be a systems change practitioner?

A lot of my analysis comes from the study of ancient wisdom systems like the Bhagavad-gita, the sciences of African "mystery traditions", South American mystery traditions, Kabalah, cosmology, theosophy, ontology, and other non-traditional sources for the understanding and analysis of self and society. As well as some of Jung's work.

For a period in my life, in my early career I worked in change management, a form of systems change. So what I'm saying is I know that formal systems change with policy and law is change management, but systems change is also innovation. 

So it depends which area you are in, but it's anything that takes what is possible and makes it visible. It's anything that takes what is happening and questions it. So it's a dynamic process of deconstruction and reconstruction to name it in scholarly terms. I cannot really go there because that's really not where my thinking came from.


And I think that's what we're trying to do here: to show that these are all lineages of it, rather than there is one person who determines what we say is a systemic practice or not. So thank you for that.


Yeah, so then I will definitely say that what really deserves lip service and what really deserves to be heard are healing justice, transpersonal justice, African practices around alternative dispute resolution.

Because there is this subculture in African diaspora - which I love and belong to and I draw from a lot - the idea of ancient future. So how were we able to live as Africans in a world? The world doesn't really change without being colonised and oppressed.

People say it's mythology and the history has been whitewashed. I'm not interested in that conversation because there's such coherence, as with modern research. How can we learn from what happened to lead us to a position where we can apply knowledge and innovate going forward, knowing what we know? And for me that is the marriage between healing justice, community development and innovation.


Are there any other practices or any other lineages that you want to name? You are naming the African diaspora, ancient futures. Is there anything else from your perspective and the work that you do in South Africa?


Black reclamation is part of systems change and to release the narrative around struggle and reparations, I won't get into that because I'm not part of that conversation as yet. I'm open to change but I'm not part of that conversation.

But black reclamation, intellectual reclamation, spiritual reclamation, even reclaiming our position in history is part of systems change. It's done through art, it is done through people releasing dystopian ideals that have been projected about the future.

Embracing protopia, embracing an idea of an identity that isn't devoid of culture or identities that aren't devoid of culture but that are culture-full and really raising the importance of that.

What are your best examples of systemic transformation?


That's wonderful. Thank you. And therefore, I've always found this a tricky question, what do you think are some of the best examples or stories of systemic transformation?


I love South Africa. I have a complicated relationship with South Africa but I love South Africa, because before 1994, traditional healers were not recognized. Traditional leaders were not recognized. Before 1994, the entire medical system only recognized western and Chinese medical practice. African doctors, African psychologists, African healers were seen as witch doctors. 

Lately the phrase ‘witch’ might be seen as complimentary or subversive in the west, but it was a slanderous statement here. Now people practise, people are registered, people are adding to the canon of what healing is, what African traditional healing practice is. The understanding of what it is has changed. 

People are doing research into Sesh Medu Neter hieroglyphics and really finding out what was written in the medical scrolls, what is the pattern between what is said there and what is said in the Niger Delta, what is midwifery, what is the wisdom behind the symbolism that we use? And it's possible to do that here in South Africa because of the rights of freedom of religion and because the government backs traditional healers and traditional leadership. Yes, it's patriarchal and I have a problem with that, but not for this conversation but it's possible to take the conversation further now.


Are there any factors that you want to highlight in that process of transformation? 


It takes courage, it's slow, and it took a lot of people being willing to look like fools, right? 

Traditional healers were not taken seriously. There was this guy, Vusamazulu iSanusi Baba Credo Mutwa, he was one of the highest level of healers in Zulu tradition, but in the seventies and eighties he looked like a fool and he wasn't taken seriously and he had to appeal outside of his country. And it's only now that he's taken seriously, it's only now that people are listening to what he had to say, reading his books. The irony being that his books aren’t easily available in South African book stores, it is easier to order them internationally.

What's written down does not always equate to change. And even when that change happens, it can be superficial and it takes people individuating even further. So I really ask myself, is it splintering off or do we see that as gaining traction? And at this point in time, I'm not sure yet but I do know that whatever it is, it’s leading to growth.

So what I wanted to crystallise was that there has been a really huge change because the early, non-aligned movement, for example the creation of the Organisation for African Unity, was really looking at African solutions for African problems. And South Africa is an example of how African medicine, African medical practice, African dispute resolution mechanisms have been taken seriously and have come as solutions. 

And it's funny because that's that ‘ancient future position’, where as opposed to being part of the medical industrial complex, the whole world is waking up to alternative healing and here is an African country that's actually saying “yeah, that's right!”. So it took some years but it did happen and it happens in meaningful ways in this country.

Vusamazulu iSanusi Baba Credo Mutwa

How are you seeking transformation at the moment?


Brilliant. And where, how are you creating and seeking transformation at the moment?


That's really interesting. So I'm an artist as well as a healer and for me there are multiple places organising, really organising, women healers. 

So through Oshun Rises I'm working with another one of my colleagues in Namibia. It's about building and resourcing an initiative for healing justice. Healing justice is not what has come to be now. I mean something that is sustainable, something that really transforms people's lives because I believe that if you heal individuals and communities, you have pockets where there is less trauma. And where you have pockets where there is less trauma, there are better learning outcomes for children, there is less violence in domestic violence in homes. There are also better outcomes in terms of health. 

So that's been a project that I've been working on since 2018 with the same person. We both take knocks and we get back up. We’re really looking at how to move beyond a trend and actualise this vision.

So that is where I see it. As a creative I ask, what stories are we not allowed to tell? I create transgress of art, I write and I act and I perform. But my art is not just feeling good vibes. My art is not just trauma and gender-based violence, it really looks at the underbelly and the psychosis, madness, perversion, paraphilia and also romance. 

So what is transcendent? What is eternal, what is meaningful, what is light? And really making sure that as a creator that is seen, one, and it's taken seriously. I'm not here to be pleasant as a creator. I'm not here to be comfortable. I'm not here to tell the stories that are comfortable for women to tell.


Yeah. And how is your practice systemic? I know it might seem obvious to you and I. But I guess we're trying to help people to recognise that these practices are part of this bigger suite of approaches.

How is your practice systemic?


 So how is your practice systemic?


My practice is systemic because it's transpersonal, right? In order for a practice to be transpersonal, you need to understand that the individual is not just an individual, they're a part of a group system. Their thinking does not affect just them. It then creates values and ideologies and superstructures that influence what is accessible and what is available.

People have really high ideals - we really want to change the world. That phrase gets me, people really want to change the world, but that is a projection of the real question. The question is, how do I access other possibilities for me? How do I access what I know is possible in my community? How does this community actualize?

And that's why I would say my work is systemic. I also constantly change, constantly reorganise, because what worked two months ago is not necessarily going to work today. Every single point of entry has its own limit. Once a structure is formed, it can reach a natural limit. And then that's that.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?


Brilliant, thank you. And is there any question that I should have asked you? Anything else that you want to say?


Who's this work for? Maybe that's a mutual question. What underpins the psychology of those wanting to practise systems change? What resolution are people seeking? What is the goal? What are we trying to allay in the human experience?


Mm. Fascinating. I've done a lot of my own inquiry, and I can only speak from my own positionality here, working with the Omidyar Group and at the School of System Change. 

I've done a lot of work in terms of who we are and why we are here. I think there's this field of change, of people going we want to create change, we want to do change. It's very highly professionalised - people think it has to be to attract funders. 

So for Omidyar Group, funders need to institutionalise change, they need to see it as something that we can monitor, evaluate, and create impact around. I'm trying to nudge the consciousness that this work isn't just about the professionalised systems technical approach, but that we need to shift and value and reevaluate and to see this work as a broader thing - it is multiple, it's transdisciplinary, every part is inclusive in this. 

So there's something for me about Joanna Macy’s words, she's a Buddhist ecologist, about the work that reconnects. She said, as soon as this term becomes too popular, I might drop it. And I feel a bit like that about systems change, that I'm using it as a way to connect people back to the reality of what this living system is about, and who we are as people. And it's, and it's got a zeitgeist at the moment in change circles. And there's a part of me trying to use that as a way to show that there are more ways to do things in the world as well.

I wrote something over the summer called Working in the Marshlands. Our work is not about bridging. Bridging separates, but it's something messy, muddy where all of this work is the work, the work of the world. 

But I love those questions as questions - I don’t want to sew them up because that might be a question back to you. Who would you want this work to be for as well? 


I like the terminology. For the first time I'm hearing change terminology that really reflects my cultural worldview, that is so resonant. So I believe it's like a bridge, it's like a linguistic and thinking bridge between African and global south cultural practices, thinking practices, even values where we believe that we are part of a greater system, where we believe that we are part of a greater whole. That there is an ecosystem. 

That is a powerful tool because it reminds each and every single one of us that we are all interlinked. It is a distillation of the thinking behind the phrase ujamaa ubuntu chivanhu. So those are African values. Ujamaa is Swahili meaning familyhood, ubuntu is Zulu for humanity to others, chivanhu is Shona for religion, but that's right across Southeast Africa. Those are values that are held and that's important that that's coming to the foreground.

Enjoyed this Systems Dialogue? Meet the rest of our contributors or dig deeper with our Stepping into Systems film series.

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