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The Sangoma is a central figure in South Africa, and 84 percent of the South African population consult a Sangoma more than three times a year. It was estimated that there are 200 000 practising Sangomas. Many sangomas go into training after an “initiation illness” called the ukuthwasa.
There have been various attempts to categorize traditional African healers.There is a primary distinction between the ancestrally designated diviner or mediator isangoma, and the herbalist or doctor inyanga, who works primarily with herbs and other forms of medication and who has not been called by the ancestors. Many Sangomas (izangoma; plural of isangoma) or diviners are also herbalists, while many herbalists (izinyanga) practice divination and communicate with their ancestors.
The purpose of trance states is to communicate with the ancestors, to achieve extrasensory perception, and to develop paranormal abilities. Sangomas (male or female) play many different social and political roles in the community. They are involved in divination, healing, directing rituals, finding lost cattle, protecting “warriors” (Sangomas offered protective medicine [muti] to freedom fighters during South Africa’s political struggles), and “smelling out” witches, as well as narrating the history, cosmology, and myths of his/her tradition.
The main function of the Sangoma is to heal and protect people in the community. The healing that a Sangoma performs is holistic and symbolic in nature, and thus is powerfully determined by cultural factors. The three major causes of illness and misfortune that a sangoma seeks to divine and heal are ancestral illnesses, illnesses caused by witchcraft, and those due to “pollution” (ritual impurity), such as menstruation and miscarriage.
The important symbolic colors for medicines are black (mnyama), red (bomvu), and white (mhlophe); treatment with such coloured medicines is intended to establish a balance between the person and the environment.
During the initiation and transformation processes, there is a symbolic dissolution of opposites: life and death, light and dark, male and female. Black medicine is used to represent darkness, night, danger, and difficulties, while white medicine refers to health, purity, and success; red is the bridging color of transformation. The method of cure begins with detoxification (through the power of the black medicine), followed by a transformation (using the red medicine), and ending with a strengthening of the client (with the white medicine). Most Sangoma novices (thwasas) wear red, symbolizing the transformatory process that the apprentice is undergoing.
The Sangoma is a wanderer of borders and boundaries and confronts within himself/herself the unknown spiritual terrain of the ancestors. The position of the Sangoma at the very limit of the community is both a privileged position and a dangerous one in that the initiation of the Sangoma becomes the death of the old self and the rebirth of a new Sangoma. The individual is “called” by the ancestors through an initiation illness (ukuthwasa), one of the dangers of liminality. The initiation of the novice is a healing process, during which a relationship with his/her ancestors is forged, enabling the formation of a new identity, turning a citizen who conforms to social norms into a wanderer who explores and goes beyond the established limits.
The dress code of a Sangoma highlights the importance of his/her relationship with the ancestors. Although the dress code is determined by the symbols of the colours, in South Africa there is no fixed list of equipment or specific dress code. While there is great variety within the dress code, one characteristic element of the dress code of many Sangomas is the wearing of a goat’s gallbladder that is tied into the hair at the back of the head. This gallbladder comes from the goat that was slaughtered at the time of a Sangoma’s graduation, and it is said to “call the ancestors.” In most cases, a cluster of goat horns and bead containers filled with an assortment of herbs and medicines is worn around the neck, shoulders, and body. A cow-tail whisk and a stick are other typical elements of the regalia. The Sangoma’s whisk, which signifies dignity, is used during dancing and is also used to sprinkle certain medicines. The Sangoma may wear strips of goatskin taken from the initiation goat as straps that crisscross his/her chest.
Sangoma and ancestors
Central to the Sangoma is his/her relationship with the ancestors. Without this special relationship, which is achieved through trance states, the identity of the Sangoma would be compromised. Sangomas operate within a religious context that features a High God whose name varies according to the particular group. The High God has also been called “the Great Ancestor.”
The High God is similar to the notion of the First Cause; the Zulu term Nkunkulu means “the First to Emerge.” God is thus a Creator sustaining, and ruling over, the universe, but at the same time removed from the world he has created. It is the ancestors who are in contact with the people. The sangoma is the essential link between the physical world and the after world of the ancestors.
Death is not viewed as a total annihilation of an individual. Rather, it is understood that the person “has gone, has gone home, has been called by his people, i.e. by ancestors.” There are two types of ancestors, the first being the nameless dead of the overarching clan. The second type of ancestors communicate with their descendants via dreams or illness, and they may bring misfortune. These are usually deceased parents and grandparents, and occasionally great-grandparents.
Trance states of the Sangoma
Although the Sangoma uses herbs, he/she also heals on a psychological and interpersonal level. A more psycho dynamic interpretation, would consider the healing and therapeutic functioning of trance states as resulting in the lowering of tension and the release of “bad objects” through creating a restorative emotional experience that enhances creativity. What most clearly distinguishes a herbalist from a Sangoma is the Sangoma’s use of trance states for healing.
The Sangoma enters trance states in order to heal others and self. The trance states are oracular, imparting information about illnesses and about ways of curing them. The trance states that occur during dancing, lucid dreaming, and divination are all different from one another. During the trance state that the Sangoma enters while dancing, the ancestors, speaking through him/her, disclose future possibilities, reveal hidden agendas, interpret puzzling dreams, and find lost articles. The lucid dreams of a Sangoma may indicate a particular medicinal plant to be used for a patient, who may only visit him the following day. During divination, a gentle trance state is induced, and the ancestors “speak” to the Sangoma in a soft voice.
Shamans across the world employ various inductive techniques to alter their states of consciousness in order to bring about specific trance states. Besides such factors as the diviner’s mind-set, the setting, and the time chosen for the ritual, herbal medicines (muti) such as snuff (tobacco) and imphepho (the dried “English everlasting” plant) can aid in inducing a trance. Different techniques may involve any of various cultural artifacts, including dress, beads, rattles, drums, and shrines.
Environment: Trance induction
The physical environment in which trance induction occurs is often a critical factor. Sangoma have frequently trained themselves to achieve an altered mind-set within a specific setting, which over time, through the very act of inhabiting that space, becomes conducive to attaining that goal. Similarly, specific rituals, ceremonies, articles of clothing, body movements, and even the clapping of hands have the power to affect the shaman’s state of mind and induce a trance.
I have witnessed a Sangoma induce a trance state simply through the act of entering his hut and wrapping a cloth around his body. His breathing became more erratic, and his body began to shake; an indication that the ancestors were approaching and entering his body, to use him as their channel. That is why the novices (thwasas) help the Sangoma dress, fitting the headdress of ostrich feathers and the wig with the gallbladder, wrapping beads around the arms and body, and tying rattles above the ankles.
Within the Sangoma’s dwelling is a space dedicated to the ancestors and used as a shrine (indumba). Some of these are inductive spaces. The shrine occupies a corner of the wall furthest from the door, and should face east. The walls are often covered with patterned cloths. Incense or imphepho is burned in this space, and there is a lit candle or lamp. This is where a Sangoma takes off his/her shoes, kneels down, and calls upon his/her ancestors while clapping hands.
There may also be an outdoor shrine, called the gandelo, which is either a dead tree trunk or a live tree. This is a sacred site outside the shaman’s house. Here, he/she can induce a trance state by calling on the ancestors.
Inducing Trances: Drums and dance
The drum is an essential trance-inducing instrument. When you keep quiet and listen to the drums, sometimes the amadlozi [ancestors] will make you shake and you fall back.
During the dancing and singing, accompanied by drumming, hyperstimulation of the body and the mind occurs. With exhaustion and hyperventilation, everyday consciousness is shifted, and a certain “openness” occurs, thereby allowing the establishment of a shamanistic trance and enabling the ancestors to “enter.” It is interesting that the linguistic root of the words isangoma (“diviner” in Zulu) and mungoma (“diviner” in Venda or Tsonga) refers to the “drum.”
Specific rituals induce the trance state during the oracular practice of divination, which usually takes place in front of the indoor shrine, a sacred space. To initiate the divination ritual, snuff is taken and imphepho is burned. Sangomas use a set of bones, shells and other items (such as coins, dice, seeds, twigs); collectively called the “bones” in their divination practice. The “bones” are thrown on an impala skin. The trance state is one of focused concentration, during which the ancestors provide omens and visions. The scattering of the “bones” and the ritual of interpretation that follows provide the Sangoma with knowledge about the patient’s state of health, social and psychological problems, and his/her future, as well as the necessary medication to heal ailments and socio-psychological and spiritual imbalances.