Mattanu Private Game Reserve: A breed apart
I am a Christian and I don’t support witchcraft, but these spirits are real and I’ve seen my sister go through the sangoma initiation. They make you sick and you have to answer their call. During the ritual, she had to sacrifice a goat and drink its blood. It was scary and painful.”
in the core of Africa’s powerhouse. Soweto is said to be the dwelling place of the most powerful healers in Gauteng. One of them is Gogo Mpilo (born Neo Mangwana), a high-tech sangoma with a profession as Public Relations Practitioner and Change Management Manager. We meet her in a hair salon, while she is dying her dreadlocks.
“I’m dying my hair red,” she explains, “because I miss having ledumani (red coloured soil that is applied on a Sangoma’s hair),”. Gogo Mpilo explains that she got permission from her ancestors to washout ledumani from her hair. She only applies ledumani, when attending a ceremony. “Ledumani colour red brings me closer to my ancestors.” Red is the colour of the African soil and symbolises the human roots in the ground. “Even when you go through the intwaso initiation, you have to apply ledumani on your hair.” In her childhood and youth, Neo was often sick and doctors could not diagnose
the source of her illnesses. This is a common treat to every sangoma and is considered to be a sign of the ancestors claiming the person for themselves. “I knew at a tender age that I had been called to be sangoma,” she explains, “and my family did a ceremony to plead with the ancestors to give me more time as I was too young. As I grew up, I chose to ignore the agreement my family had with the ancestors. I did not want anything to do with the ancestral calling because I thought the calling would limit my personal dreams. The ancestors started losing patience with me and finally I answered my Ancestral Calling.” Now Neo operates under the sangoma name Gogo Mpilo ka Mndeni (‘the one who brings life to the families’). She explains that her gift is to bring restoration, peace and happiness to people.
When we get to her house, Gogo Mpilo describes the ceremony of her initiation and graduation and proudly shows her sangoma clothes, explaining the meaning of various prints on her garments. The shield of the swati tribe defends the healer from evil spirits; her ishoba, a bushy tail of a blue wildebeest that only sangoma graduates can use; a drum made of elephant paws she uses during various ceremonies; bones she uses for consultation (uku bhula); as well as the imphepho (helichrysum petiolare) incense used to communicate with the ancestors. Gogo Mpilo kneels on the floor and claps
her hands to inform the ancestors of the visitors. She starts the process by greeting and saying the totems of her ancestors. We can hear the words “thokozani Bogogo na bo Mkhulu” (‘I’m grateful’) and the rhythmic clapping of hands. Now we have the ancestors’ permission to enter her indomba (a sangoma’s consulting room). It is a neat room equipped with the latest technologies. There is a bath tub, where the patients can get cleansed and in a cupboard there are numerous jars filled with muthi. One is used to gain respect, another is said to solve conflicts, a third one is used for protection.
Gogo Mpilo, as well as many other sangoma healers, is a modern and successful woman with an extreme affinity to her people’s traditions and to nature. “Looking at the moon,” she says, “you can understand a lot about people’s life. When it is upside down, it is holding something, and as it turns throughout its phases it spills what’s inside causing a lot of changes,” Other natural elements she relates to are the veld (the South African prairie), where the evil spirits get lost, and water bodies, where the ancestors dwell and rest. Gogo Mpilo represents female wisdom and sensibility, and in her practice as a sangoma she embodies the centre of township life.
South African spiritual beliefs are a complex patchwork of ancient traditions and new-age trends. The South African population, which is split in tens of ethnic groups, is highly Christianised but also retains deep ties to an old system of values, where ancestral spirits, natural powers and customary laws are sovereign. In a vortex of different habits, rituals, prayers, dances and chants, miracles and prophecies, a genuine sangoma idles at the back of the South African religious carousel and claps her hands for peace and healing.
Above Left: Kids playing at the Mai Mai traditional market. Mai Mai is the equivalent of a traditional clinic. Sangomas operate here and you can find any kind of 'muthi'. Left: Skulls and animal skins displayed at Mai Mai traditional market. All types...
Above Right: A woman guards a lion skin for sale inside Mai Mai.
Far Left: The front of Mama Shabalala’s clinic located next to an automotive spare shop at the Mai Mai market. Left: The pharmacy's shelves. Herbs, dried animal body parts and concotions to heal from any illness are on sale here. If it can be used as...
Above: Mama Shabalala is a wise sangoma. Her clinic is inside the Mai Mai traditional market.