TRADITIONAL AFRICAN HEALERS

Thokozani Bogogo ! Greetings!

Today I want to share with you another interesting article I came across on this site: http://www.capechameleon.co.za/printed-issue/issue-24/cover-story/  It talks about the Calling to become a healer and also mentions white Sangomas.

WORDS Silvia Zanardi

One can find them all over South Africa. They work behind closed doors, in dark rooms surrounded by shelves filled with medicine bottles, ground herbs, animal bones and goat’s and cow’s hair. They are known as ‘sangomas’ – traditional African healers who specialise in treating people’s spiritual and physical diseases by looking into their past and future, and connecting them with the ancestors.

In a post-apartheid South Africa, not only are some sangomas white, but they have also evolved into traditional healers of the 21st century. You can find them in townships, in the forests of the Eastern Cape and even in the most modern apartments of Cape Town or Johannesburg. They own mobile phones and they communicate through Facebook profiles and websites. Not everyone can become a sangoma, only those who are called by the ‘ancestors’ can start training. According to John Lockley, a senior sangoma from the Xhosa lineage, sangomas are traditional shamans. ‘In Europe, shamanism has become big business with thousands of people taking an interest in earth-based spirituality. Southern Africa is a treasure trove of shamanic wisdom with some of the oldest living shamanic cultures in the world today,’ he says.

Meet Noxolo & Dabulamanzi

Noxolo and Dabulamanzi are traditional sangomas from the Xhosa lineage practising in Overcome Heights, a township in Cape Town. Clients seek their help to remedy relationships or financial problems, to bring back lost lovers or to heal from painful illnesses. My colleague, Mélodie and I decided to visit Noxolo and Dabulamanzi for a traditional reading and we were surprised to find Noxolo and Dabulamanzi wearing casual clothes. We had expected them to be in their traditional clothing. ‘We are not supposed to walk through the township with our traditional clothes on,’ explains Noxolo. ‘We only wear them during work,’ she adds.

 

By throwing a mix of animal bones, shells, coins, dice and dominoes, sangomas can read into the past and the future of their clients.
Photo: Silvia Zanardi

On arrival at Dabulamanzi’s house, they immediately dress for the session and adorn themselves with red and white beaded necklaces, bracelets and colourful skirts. We take off our shoes and enter the room barefoot. For the reading, Mélodie kneels down next to them and Noxolo starts shaking a little bag full of shells, bones, coloured stones, dice and dominoes. ‘I am calling the spirits of the ancestors and asking them to allow me to read into the soul and the life of this woman,’ the sangoma says. As she throws the bones onto an animal-skin rug on the floor, Dabulamanzi starts telling Mélodie about her life, her family and job opportunities. She explains the mysterious significance of the dice and bones: ‘Depending on the face shown by the dice, I know what my client is struggling with, which can be love, money, family, jobs or bad luck. The dominoes tell us more about love relationships and the animal bones show us what has happened in the past of the client and what we can suggest she does.’

Most of the animal bones they use in rituals belong to cattle that have been sacrificed by their teachers during initiation ceremonies. Usually, the initiation process consists of three different steps. During the first step, a chicken is sacrificed and its blood is collected for use in a mixture with traditional herbs that must be ingested by the student. Feathers are then used as a decorative headdress. For the second step, a goat is sacrificed by cutting its throat and allowing the blood to empty onto the sangoma. During this process, guests beat drums, sing, dance and go into a trance-like state to feel closer to the ancestors. Finally, for the third step, a cow is sacrificed but only when the sangoma is going to leave his/her teacher’s town and practice on his/her own.

The calling

Not anyone can become a sangoma. ‘You do not choose to be one, you have to be chosen,’ says Dabulamanzi. ‘The calling of the ancestors reveals itself through prophetic dreams or illnesses that can be healed only by training as a sangoma. And if you don’t answer the call, bad luck and pain can destroy your life,’ she continues. Noxolo has just started to practice as a sangoma: ‘I have waited almost 20 years before starting to train with my teacher, and up until that point, my life had been hard. My husband used to beat me. I knew that the ancestors were calling me since the age of 13 because I could foresee the future in my dreams. In the beginning, I didn’t want to listen to the voices, but one day, my grandmother came to me in a dream and asked me to start training as a sangoma. In that very moment, I decided to follow the calling and become one.’

Sangomas, Noxolo and Dabulamanzi work together in the township of Overcome Heights. They help people fix relationship and financial problems and heal painful illnesses.
Photo: Silvia Zanardi

Noxolo and Dabulamanzi ascribe people’s physical pains to spiritual diseases. Not all kinds of illnesses like HIV/AIDS and cancer can be healed through herbs though. ‘Sometimes clients get to us when it is too late and we can’t do anything for them. In those cases, we suggest they go to the hospital or even call an ambulance,’ says Noxolo. Western medicine and traditional African healing, as Noxolo and Dabulamanzi state, can coexist. On the one hand, the treatment by a sangoma is precautionary and encourages a connection with the spirits of the ancestors, which is therapeutic for health, while modern medicine fixes emergencies.

White sangomas

John Lockley
John Lockley is one of the first white men, in recent history, to become a fully initiated sangoma of the Xhosa lineage, the tribe that gave us Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. ‘According to my traditional elders in the Grahamstown area, I am one of the first in recent history (since apartheid) to finish the training and become a fully initiated Ligqirha inkulu (senior sangoma),’ he says. He spends half the year in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape and the other half travelling around the world to heal people’s spiritual diseases by focusing on dream interpretation, ancestral connection and meditation. People interested in traditional African healing invite John to run workshops that help people connect with their dreams and ancestors. ‘Becoming a sangoma in the Xhosa tribe involves many different stages of initiation. They range from three, five or even seven different ceremonies. Once someone has completed all the different stages they are known as “Ligquirha inkulu” – senior sangomas – who can then train and  apprentice others. I have attained this position,’ says John.

Photo: Adam Weiss

While in Amsterdam on a work trip, I interviewed John Lockely via Skype: ‘African history, culture, traditions and spirituality are sacred, since Africa is the country where we all come from. This is why a lot of people are interested in African culture and instinctively want to get in touch with it,’ he says. On the other hand, sangomas and traditional African healers are often associated in the west with black magic, killing and voodoo. John gives an explanation for this in his blog: ‘Sangomas are professional priests and healers, but just as certain individuals in the Christian priesthood and western medicine may occasionally bring their professions into disrepute, so do individuals in the sangoma fraternity. Traditionally, sangomas are healers and bonafide sangomas would never perform negative acts, they work with honesty and integrity.’ John’s viewpoint is supported by organisations like Traditional Healers Organisation (THO), which trains and certifies traditional health practitioners therefore helping to enforce credibility. National Coordinator of the THO, Phephisile Maseko, explains: ‘We also assure the values, quality of treatment, efficacy, safety and ethical standards of member practitioners – empowering healers of Africa to heal the continent.’

‘When people are more connected with their own spirits, there is less of a desire to destroy or put down one another. I don’t intend to bring Xhosa or South African shamanic culture to the West as such, but rather to use its essence to help people connect with their own ancestors and spiritual traditions.’ – John Lockley

John started training in Grahamstown after having suffered from a serious illness for seven years. ‘I fell sick during the apartheid era, so I could not ask for help from a traditional sangoma. Only at the beginning of Mandela’s government, did I meet my teacher, during a tour into the township,’ he says. John was studying clinical psychology at Rhodes University at the time, but from that day on, his life changed forever. ‘When people are more connected with their own spirits, there is less of a desire to destroy or put down one another. I don’t intend to bring Xhosa or South African shamanic culture to the West as such, but rather to use its essence to help people connect with their own ancestors and spiritual traditions. I help people physically and spiritually connect with their own blood and bones, for we all belong to the same big family of human beings.’

Chris Ntombemhlophe Reid
Chris Ntombemhlophe Reid is a white traditional sangoma. He received the ‘calling’ in 1991 and graduated as a sangoma in 1993. Since his graduation, he hasn’t worn shoes. No matter where he goes and no matter the season, Chris walks barefoot, wears traditional Xhosa clothing and about twenty animal hair arm bracelets. ‘Each one of these bracelets is made of the skin and the hair of the animals I have sacrificed to the spirits,’ he explains as he sits on the terrace of his flat in Cape Town. ‘We sacrifice animals like chickens, goats and cows to celebrate the birthdays of fellow sangomas, special dreams or to initiate aspiring sangomas into their new spiritual path,’ says Chris.

Chris Ntombemhlophe Reid and Tyatyambo are two white sangomas. They work between Cape Town and Eastern Cape and focus on healing people’s spiritual diseases.
Photo: Silvia Zanardi

Chris realised that he was going to become a sangoma in the former Transkei, when he first met his mentor in Pondoland. ‘It was 1991 and I was hiking in Pondoland after having had my right leg plastered for several months because of a bad fall during a party in Johannesburg. Before becoming a sangoma, I lived in Johannesburg for a long time. I worked as a model, I drove beautiful cars and even snorted cocaine. After that almost fatal fall in which I broke my leg, my life totally changed,’ Chris says. While recovering from his leg injury in Pondoland, he came to know the sangomas of the Dlamini clan of the Amapondo and he spent three years with them, living in the forest and forgetting about the modern and privileged life he had before. ‘I was in the right place at the right moment. When I met my mentor, I knew that I was going to find my true self by joining the spirits of my ancestors.’

The family of ‘ancestors’

Who are the ancestors? Are they the same for everyone? Are they white, black or coloured? ‘We all belong to the same big family, made up of blacks, whites and coloured people. That is why anyone can be called by the ancestors. We, as human beings, are the result of thousands and thousands of lives that came before us,’ explains Chris.

Chris says that being called by the ancestors means having bad dreams and waking up at night feeling so bad that you have to change your life. ‘That’s why no one cares if you are white, black, gay or straight,’ he explains. Chris started having his first revealing dream after meeting his mentor in the former Transkei. He dreamed about being in a forest, surrounded by candles and black people who were playing African drums. ‘That deep sound echoed in my mind also when I was awake, so I went to the sangoma I had met and spoke to him about what was going on inside me. He went into a trance-like state and started to talk about my life, my mother, my father, me being gay and the bad luck we had in our family,’ says Chris. ‘It was in that very moment that I understood my life was going to change and that I would become a sangoma,’ he adds. Chris Reid and John Lockely are both proof that sangomas feel comfortable in the modern world. They illustrate how true healers must take their lives down a spiritual path and continue to spread the powers of healing.

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