Photo Audio Text Multimedia

Traditional Healers

Photos by Nikki Rixon/Twenty Ten and audio by Andrew Kabuura/Twenty Ten

Location: Mpumalanga, South Africa

A sangoma initiation ceremony.

Associated Features: Muti or Technique?(Text Feature) African magicians (Text feature), Gris-gris en Afrique du Sud (French text feature), Ways and Means (Photo feature), Did Juju help? (Text feature) and African magic and football

Sangomas are an essential thread in the rich cultural fabric of South African life. Traditional healing has a long history in the continent, with an estimated 200,000 at work in South Africa alone. Often tribal people will use them as their first port of call before seeking medical attention.

In Peernars, Mpumalanga, three women were initiated as sangomas. They had six months of intense training, during which they learnt about traditional herbal medicine, divination, counselling and performing humbling service in the community. The trainee sangomas where taught by a sangoma who has been practicing for more than 20 years.

During the initiation, the initiates drink and smoke “muti” (medicine with spiritual significance) to purify themselves and cause them to enter into a trance. This enables them to connect with their ancestors so that they can seek advice and guidance from them. Sangomas are able to access the ancestors in three ways: possession by an ancestor, throwing bones and interpreting dreams. In a possessed state the sangoma works herself into a trance through drumming, dancing and chanting, so that the ancestor can possess her body and communicate directly with the patient. The muti that the girls smoke often causes severe vomiting which is seen as a way to purify the mind and body.

As part of the initiation ceremony, a ritual sacrifice of a goat was performed. The spilling of the animal’s blood is meant to seal the bond between the ancestors and the sangoma.

In order to become a sangoma, one has to be called to the profession by a dream or vision. Sangomas are consulted to alleviate physical and mental problems, to attend various ceremonies and to act in a counselling role. When divining, the sangoma relies traditionally upon spirit possession.

Their philosophy is based on a belief in ancestral spirits. Both men and women can be called by the ancestors. They believe that a consequence of refusing the calling is the presence of an ongoing physical or mental illness. These mystical healers exert huge influence over the people of South Africa.

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