Sangomas, the African Shamans

A sangoma is a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counselling in traditional Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Swazi) societies of Southern Africa.  In effect they are the African Shaman.  They perform a holistic and symbolic form of healing, embedded in the beliefs of their culture that ancestors in the afterlife guide and protect the living.  Sangomas are called to heal, and through them ancestors from the spirit world can give instruction and advice to heal illness, social disharmony and spiritual difficulties.

The philosophy is based on a belief in ancestral spirits.  Both men and women can be called by the ancestors, though sangomas are usually female.  A trainee sangoma (called a twaza) trains under another sangoma, usually for a few years, performing humbling service in the community. At times in the training, and for the graduation, a ritual sacrifice of an animal, such as a chicken, goat or cow is made.  The spilling of this blood is meant to seal the bond between the ancestors and the sangoma.

Sangomas function as the social workers and psychologists in their community.  They know the local dynamics and can counsel appropriately with this background knowledge.  The formal health sector has shown continued interest in the role of sangomas and the efficacy of their herbal remedies.  Western-style scientists continue to study the ingredients of traditional medicines in use by sangomas.

Sangomas have many different social and political roles in the community such as divination, healing, directing rituals and narrating the history, cosmology, and myths of their tradition.  They are highly revered and respected in their society, where illness is thought to be caused by witchcraft, pollution (contact with impure objects or occurrences) or by the ancestors themselves, either malevolently, or through neglect if they are not respected, or to show an individual her calling to be a Sangoma.  For harmony between the living and the dead, vital for a trouble-free life, the ancestors must be shown respect through ritual and animal sacrifice.

Sangomas are steeped in ritual.  They work in a sacred healing hut or Ndumba, where their ancestors reside.  They have specific coloured cloths to wear to please each ancestor, and often wear the gallbladder of the goat sacrificed at their graduation ceremony in their hair.  They summon the ancestors by burning a plant called Imphepho, dancing, chanting, and most importantly playing the drums.

The Sangoma possesses a collection of small bones and other small objects like seeds, shells etc., each with a specific significance to human life.  For example a hyena bone signifies a thief and will provide information about stolen objects.  The Sangoma or the patient throws the bones but the ancestors control how they lie, and the Sangoma then interprets this metaphor in relation to the patient’s life.  In the same way, Sangomas will interpret the metaphors present in dreams, either their own or patients’.

Sangomas will give their patients Muti, medications of sand, plant and animal origin imbued with spiritual significance, often with powerful symbolism – lion fat is given to promote courage in the younsters.  There are medicines for just about everything from physical and mental illness, social disharmony and spiritual difficulties to potions for love and luck.  Road Travel arrange tours which include visits to the best Sangoma in town, so get in touch with us to find out more.