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Rhodes > Anthropology > People > Dr Penelope (Penny) Bernard

Dr Penelope (Penny) Bernard

Senior Lecturer

B Soc Sc (Nursing) - University of Natal (KwaZulu-Natal)

B Soc Sc (Hons) Anthropology – Rhodes University

PhD Anthropology - Rhodes University

Contact Details:

Tel:  +27 (0)46 6037413

Email: p.bernard@ru.ac.za

Research Interests:  Medical anthropology; environmental anthropology; religion and spirituality; anthropology of extraordinary experience, dreams, and healing; landscapes and sacred natural sites; indigenous peoples and indigenous knowledge.


Penny completed her undergraduate degree in nursing and anthropology at the University of Natal, and then went on to obtain her honours and PhD in anthropology at Rhodes. Her PhD research was a comparative study of the beliefs in the water divinities across southern Africa, their role in the training of diviner-healers, and their connection to issues of fertility and morality, African indigenous churches (e.g. Zulu Zionism), as well as San rock art. Her primary interests are in the fields of African religion, healing and the environment (especially relating to sacred natural sites), dreaming and the interconnection between these.


  • Traditional healing in southern Africa
  • The anthropology of extraordinary experience, especially relating to dreams.
  • Dreams and agency in Nguni healing
  • The cultural significance of water and snake/mermaid divinities for traditional healers in southern Africa
  • The influence of modernity and change on traditional healers in southern Africa
  • Changing kinship patterns and implications for healer training.
  • Cultural landscapes, indigenous knowledge and sacred natural sites in southern Africa: problems of access, appropriation and/or damage by development agendas
  • Professionalization of traditional healers and issues related to collaboration and  integration with biomedicine
  • Indigenous knowledge, bioprospecting/biopiracy and  intellectual property


Undergraduate Teaching

Environmental anthropology; Medical anthropology; Religion and spirituality; Kinship and marriage

Post-graduate supervision
Masters students supervised:

Ida Erstad (Masters – Anthropology, Rhodes University). Thesis Title: The politics of health care and factors influencing health seeking behaviour among tuberculosis (TB) patients in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape. Completed with distinction 2007.

Gareth McAlister (Masters – Anthropology, Rhodes University). Thesis title: “You don’t love your mother just because she feeds you”: amaXhosa and woodlands in the Peddie district, Eastern Cape. Completed 2013.

Masters students co-supervised:

Helen Fox (Masters – Environmental Science, Rhodes University). Thesis title: The Role of anthropogenic disturbance in the creation of a socio-ecological landscape. Completed with distinction 2006.

Emil Von Maltitz (Masters – Anthropology, Rhodes University) Thesis title: Occult forces: Lived identities – witchcraft, spirit possession and identity amongst the Mayeyi of Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. Completed with distinction 2007.

Post-graduate students currently under supervision

Liz Greyling (Masters – Anthropology, Rhodes University). Healing through hybridity: A case study of healers in the Eastern Cape.

Mathias Chirombo (Masters – Anthropology, Rhodes University). Exploring spirit mediated landscape and material expression among a selection of Shona and Venda artists.

Nolukhanyo Donyeli (Masters – Anthropology, Rhodes University). Gender, kinship and ritual in a changing society.

Post-graduate students currently under co-supervision

Jamie Alexander (PhD – Anthropology and ISER, Rhodes University). Mapping sacred lands: Cultural landscape mapping and perceptions - implications for improved community landscape management, SANPAD funded Untold Stories project (ISER). Main supervisor – Dr Michelle Cocks.


Chapters in books:

Bernard, P.S. (forthcoming). ‘Suspending disbelief and experiencing the extraordinary: how radical participation may facilitate an understanding of cryptic aquatic snake/fish-tailed beings in southern Africa.’ In Anthropology and Cryptozoology: Researching Encounters with Mysterious Creatures, edited by Samantha Hurn (University of Exeter, UK). To be published by Ashgate.

Bernard, P.S. 2008. ‘The Fertility Goddess of the Zulu: Reflections on a Calling to Inkosazana’s Pool’, In Shaw, S. & Francis, A., Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature, Religion and Water. London: Equinox Publishing. ISBN-10 1845532554.

Bernard, P. 2005. ‘Ancestors in Zulu thought and the significance of ritual exchange.’ In Kaplan, J. & Taylor,B. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature. London: The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd. pp1815-1818.

Bernard, P. 2005. ‘Zulu culture, plants and the spirit world (South Africa).’ In Kaplan, J. & Taylor,B. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature. London: The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd. pp1818-1822.

Bernard, P. 2005. ‘Water Spirits and indigenous ecological management (South Africa).’ In Kaplan, J. & Taylor,B. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature. London: The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd.pp 1716-1718.

Bernard, P. & Kumalo, S., 2004. ‘Community –based natural resource management, traditional governance and spiritual ecology in southern Africa: the case of chiefs, diviners and spirit mediums.’ In Fabricius, C., Koch, E., Magome, H., & Turner, S. (eds). Rights, resources and rural development: community-based natural resource management in Southern Africa. London: Earthscan. ISBN 1-84407-068-9.

Bernard, P. & Khumalo, Z., 2004. ‘Indigenous knowledge and the cultural importance of woodland and forest species in southern Africa: the case of ubulawu.’ In Lawes, M., Eeley, H., Shackleton, C., & Geach, B.S. (eds). Indigenous forest and woodlands  in South Africa: policy, people and practice. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. ISBN  1-86914-050 -8.pp 498-504.

Bernard, P.S. 2000. ‘Guérisseurs traditionnels du Natal: une authenticité négociée.’ In Faure, V. (ed) Dynamiques religieuses en Afrique australe. Paris: Karthala. ISBN 2-84586-032-3.

Journal publications

Bernard, P.S. 2013.‘‘Living Water’ in Nguni Healing Traditions, South Africa.’ Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology, 17: 138-149.  DOI 10.1163/15685357-01702005.

Bernard, P.S. 2007. ‘Re-uniting with the kosmos’, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. 1 (1): 109-128.

Conference proceedings

Bernard, P.S. 2003. ‘The ecological implications of the water spirit beliefs in southern Africa.’ Published in the proceedings: Watson, Alan; Sproull, Janet, comps. 2001. Seventh World Wilderness Congress symposium: science and stewardship to protect and sustain wilderness values; 2001 November 2-8; Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Proceedings RMRS-P-000. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Last Modified: Wed, 10 May 2017 13:07:28 SAST