21st Century Sangomaby Lindokuhle Nkosi / Illustration by Chip / 05.09.2011
Dineo’s small arms are heavy with a multitude of red and white beads wound tightly around her wrists. Above them, ispandla made of goat’s hide. She pulls a Jenni Button jacket over her petite frame and heads to the Golf Gti parked in the basement of the Upper East Side Hotel. Onlookers, passer-bys and acquaintances who share the odd polite conversation would never know that she is a Sangoma. There’s a reddish-brown bible on her bookshelf. It props up a year’s worth of Glamour and Elle magazines; and in the corner of her studio apartment, next to the sliding door that looks out onto the mountain, a sacred shrine on an ox-blood red mat with candles, imphepho (incense), and a spear. There is a perceived clash here. Her apartment holds all the accepted hallmarks of an upwardly mobile modern woman. The greys, the matt blacks and the shiny silvers of post-modernism juxtapose jarringly with the bright crimson spirituality.
She speaks of being a sangoma nonchalantly, absent of the usual over-gesturing and pantomiming that usually accompanies conversations of this nature. She’s more comfortable with her calling now; shedding the long sleeves, high necks and head scarves she wore to hide the chains, beads and shells that signified her reluctant mission. A calling conveyed to her through a series of recurring dreams. In one dream, Dineo would see herself speaking to a woman in an indeterminable language. The woman would respond in her mother-tongue, telling her she has to thwasa. Breezing through my barrage of ignorant questions, she pauses often to explain to me the duality of being a 21st century sangoma. To her, there is no clash, and becoming a sangoma required little adjustment. She attributes this to having a very tolerant dlozi (ancestor).
“Some people’s ancestors are very harsh and strict. They aren’t allowed to wear shoes, they have to look and dress a certain way. Some aren’t allowed to work or go to school. They have to devote themselves fully to healing others. For some, the dlozi must evidence itself physically. If your ancestor walked with a limp, you will begin to walk with a limp. Your voice will change. Your tastes and preferences are altered. One girl who was at training with me, would be left in excrutiating pain when her ancestors entered or left her body. So painful that she would faint. My life however, hasn’t changed much. Every morning and evening, I burn imphepho to cleanse my spirit and my surroundings. I’m not allowed to eat pork and certain parts of an animal, and I have to introduce my partner to my dlozi to bless the union. On the face of it though, I am still very much the same person.”
A beaded white chain hangs off her neck, where a rosary used to be.
Somewhere in the bible, someone warns against the worshipping of false-idols, a prophet warns against false messiahs; but somewhere else in the sacred, ancient texts a holy spirit is sent to live amongst man. A burning bush conveys a command. An angel visits a virgin and tells her she is carrying the child of God. Refiloe Lerumo, a 23 year old business woman and sangoma, claims her ancestors are angels. To her they are medium used by god to convey messages and healing. She is another link in the chain, bringing the ancestral and godly gifts to the masses.
It is difficult to not be cynical of something that superficially, seems so ethereal. Religion and spirituality are often viewed by today’s thinkers as child-like, unrefined solaces for people who lack the ability to deal with the everyday oddities of life. Science is the new God. Science makes sense.
Weekly, The Daily Sun “investigates” laughable tales of withcraft. “Man buys lightning bolt to kill ex-wife”. Monthly, chilling stories about muti murders and suspected witches being burnt or bludgeoned to death make their way to News24. Daily, A8 sized flyers are forced into my hand. Generally Powerpoint productions that fade from blue to a deep purple as they outline, in fractured English, a myriad of ills and spiritual ailments that Gogo so-and-so claims to be able to cure. “Do you have low sex man power? Do you need amagundwane (mice) for riches? Do want to run away court case? Do you want to reduce vagina?” Unfortunately, there is no quality control in the spirit world. No checks and balances exist to distinguish charlatans from bonafide Sangomas, and get-rich-quick scammers who prey on desperation and, sometimes, ignorance. How then do you verify cause and claim in a space where a headache is most likely going to be seen as curse or a spiritual ailment, rather than a physical one?
According to South Africalogue, over 200 000 Sangoma’s practice in South Africa, and over 80% of the population use their services. With consultations ranging anywhere from R50 to R5000, being a Sangoma is serious business. No real barriers to entry + no regulations + no ceiling on fees or medicine prices = opportunistic swindler’s wet dream.
Then there’s the more baleful side. Muti-murders and witchcraft. Potions that rob people of free-will. Suspected witches being bludgeoned and burnt to death. The genitalia of young girls are used to concoct fertility medicine. Wise men are decapitated, and their brains brewed to make potions for increased intelligence. Human blood is consumed to strengthen health, and extend life spans. This is the side that no-one wants to talk about. Veiled in secrecy, the community of traditional healers is happy to leave the sinister aspects to speculation. Refiloe confirms that the use of powers and trade of human body parts is real. “Some people use their gifts to cause to cause harm, but it always catches up with them eventually. The ancestors cannot be abused.” Still, the practise continues, and with no open dialogue, very little can be done to eradicate it.
The Traditional Healers Organisation aims to provide some legitimacy. They train and certify traditional healers, but their attempts to lend them any credibility is undermined by their own administrational failures. None of the sangomas I spoke to were registered with them, and all emails and phonecalls directed to the organisation went unanswered. Suffice to say then, their fancy website aside, they will not be the new age bridge between traditional healers and western civilisation.
Refiloe is what I’ve termed a Cyber Sangoma. On her website, she offers online readings and consultations. Another opportunity to be sceptical. She says reason behind the website is to provide clients with convenient access to her, but however noble its intentions are, one can’t help but sartorially picture her dumping her bag of bones and die onto the keypad of a Mac computer. Without physical contact, how is Refiloe able to connect to some else’s ancestors? Are the ancestors at peace with their gifts being used in this somewhat impersonal manner? Is my inability to grasp this just another indication of my ignorance, and complete lack understanding?
Where white is the colour of peace and tolerance, harsh shades of red are the colours of being a Sangoma. Forceful and unrepentant, it burns brazen with the colour of passion and heat, defiant of whether or not it is legitimised in an increasingly critical world. But there is a lot of grey scattered amongst the red. Questions that cannot be answered. Conversations that will not be held. The murkiness of the unknown, the unquantifiable. And while there is no method to prove the unproveable, the industry continues to grow, raking in millions of Rands a year. This faith-based contract is built on cultural legacy and funded by today’s money; but despite its popularity and profitability, it is still largely unrecognised by both the lawmakers and practitioners of modern medicine.
We’re reluctant to openly embrace it, and yet we’ve included alternative eastern practise as part of modern life. Yoga in the morning, acupuncture for healing; what is it about sangomas that discomforts us so? Is it because it represents a part of us that was meant to have died a long time ago? A backward notion held by the natives who refuse to be integrated into a globalised South Africa? Or is our reluctance to recognise it actually a fear? A phobia brought about our uneasy relationship with the great “unknown”. Do we need Madonna to do for it what she did for Kabbalah? Maybe get Mandoza to jump up and down on Noeleen’s couch before we pay it any heed? Perhaps what we need to be doing, is accepting Traditional Healers as a relevant part of South Africa, and not a relic of the dark days. Because one thing is certain, our denialiasm will not deter its prevalence.