Spe­cial Re­port – What’s with the shame around tra­di­tional heal­ers?

We pack sta­di­ums for all-night prayers and proudly wear church uni­forms, yet we seem un­com­fort­able talk­ing openly about con­sult­ing san­go­mas. We ask why?


Ones­imo Gum, 30, was raised in a home where tra­di­tional spir­i­tu­al­ity was a part of ev­ery­day life. “My par­ents both did Um­bulelo (thanks­giv­ing), Uku­vulwa komzi (tra­di­tional house warming cel­e­bra­tion) and var­i­ous other cer­e­monies to thank our an­ces­tors and ask for their guid­ance. As I grew older, this en­cour­aged me to build my own per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with our an­ces­tors to un­der­stand the mean­ing of cer­tain rit­u­als. We spoke of them as present be­ings – just like we did with God,” she re­calls.

Even so, she didn’t tell any­one when she first con­sulted a san­goma, be­cause she was ner­vous about how some peo­ple would per­ceive it, she ex­plains. And therein lies the prob­lem with our re­la­tion­ship with tra­di­tional spir­i­tu­al­ity

and heal­ing — it’s per­ceived neg­a­tively, turn­ing an as­pect many know to be an es­sen­tial part of our African her­itage into some­thing we whis­per about and ex­pe­ri­ence in se­cret.

Yet for Ones­imo, that first visit to her san­goma proved valu­able. The dif­fer­ence be­tween her and many oth­ers who visit izan­goma is she doesn’t hide it. With age, she’s come to ac­cept that there are big­ger forces that play a role in how our lives play out, and there’s noth­ing wrong with seek­ing guid­ance from your an­ces­tors.


The shame and se­crecy with which we mostly treat African spir­i­tu­al­ity wasn’t al­ways the case. Gogo Re­filoe Moyo, 30, be­came aware of her gift in high school. By sec­ond year of var­sity, signs that she was an an­ces­tral child be­came very ob­vi­ous, lead­ing her to put her stud­ies on hold to un­dergo ini­ti­a­tion. “Other than tra­di­tional heal­ers be­ing an in­te­gral part of com­mu­nity life, each fam­ily had a spir­i­tual heir­loom — some­one who pos­sessed the gift of con­nect­ing to the fam­ily’s an­ces­try line,” says Gogo Re­filoe. Tra­di­tional spir­i­tu­al­ity was once a source of pride.

Twenty-seven-year-old Malehloenya Tsoaeli, also known as Gogo Malepena af­ter her ma­ter­nal great grand­mother, is based in Man­delaview, Bloem­fontein. She un­der­went ini­ti­a­tion in 2015 and be­lieves the preva­lent neg­a­tive per­cep­tions about African spir­i­tu­al­ity are rem­nants of coloni­sa­tion. “Black peo­ple’s be­liefs and spir­i­tu­al­ity were de­monised. Any­one who prac­ticed the ways of their an­ces­tors was con­sid­ered back­ward and suf­fered dire con­se­quences as a re­sult,” Gogo Malepena says.

Makhosi Thabiso Bhengu’s jour­ney is a re­flec­tion of our com­plex re­la­tion­ship with African spir­i­tu­al­ity. By age eight, he could see and talk to spir­its. But, he was raised in a staunch Chris­tian back­ground, mean­ing he con­stantly had to jux­ta­pose his hal­lu­ci­na­tions and glar­ing signs he had the gift of the an­ces­tral call­ing, with the neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions Chris­tian­ity had placed on his gifts.

The 23-year-old says the shame as­so­ci­ated with refusing to em­brace African spir­i­tu­al­ity is multi-lay­ered. “It comes from liv­ing in a white Chris­tian so­ci­ety, where any de­vi­a­tion from that is branded evil, and no one wants to be cru­ci­fied,” he says, point­ing to the cruel trend of killing women whose spir­i­tual gifts are equated with witch­craft. “The sec­ond layer is that some peo­ple gen­er­ally go to tra­di­tional heal­ers with un­kind re­quests, so they won’t openly want to share that they visit tra­di­tional heal­ers. Thirdly, I be­lieve it’s be­cause of the econ­omy and the way the world is so anti-black, emo­tion­ally or spir­i­tu­ally,” says Makhosi Thabiso,who fi­nally an­swered his call­ing in 2014.

Gogo Re­filoe, on the other hand, ar­gues that some­times peo­ple pull away from African spir­i­tu­al­ity prac­tices be­cause of their metic­u­lous and de­mand­ing na­ture. They only con­sider go­ing the tra­di­tional route when western in­ter­ven­tions fail. “African spir­i­tu­al­ity is­sues al­ways re­quire im­me­di­ate ac­tion. You’ll be forced to face your demons — and we’re gen­er­ally afraid of deal­ing with our­selves and our truth. When heal­ing isn’t com­mu­nity-based, it can play into the stereo­type of all things western be­ing safer than con­sult­ing a tra­di­tional healer,” she ex­plains.


There used to be a time when izan­goma played a piv­otal role in pol­i­tics and gov­er­nance — dif­fer­ent heal­ers held dif­fer­ent roles and had dif­fer­ent pow­ers. Na­tions and their rulers, wouldn’t act with­out their guid­ance, be it in matters of wars or land devel­op­ment. This was in pre-colo­nial Africa, when king­doms like those of Da­homey in mod­ern-day Benin and the Zulu king­dom in South­ern Africa suc­cess­fully de­fended them­selves from the ini­tial wave of set­tlers. “There were heal­ers who had vi­sions about events way be­fore they hap­pened, and those whom so­ci­ety went to for reg­u­lar herbal med­i­ca­tion,” says Makhosi Thabiso. “The role of a seer is di­vine — they see and de­fine ill­ness as ei­ther spir­i­tual or phys­i­cal. In ad­di­tion, they’d get vi­sions of a con­quest of ter­ri­to­ries and en­e­mies ap­proach­ing and would ad­vice the king.”

Their in­flu­ence was so far-reach­ing, tra­di­tional heal­ers would ad­vice a king on who his suc­ces­sor would be and were highly trusted as lead­ers with in­tegrity. How­ever, the sepa­ra­tion of Black com­mu­ni­ties, brought about by coloni­sa­tion, saw izan­goma be­ing rel­e­gated to the pe­riph­eries of so­ci­ety, Gogo Malepena says. “Due to this sepa­ra­tion, there was a gap for char­la­tans to take ad­van­tage of peo­ple who needed help, which con­trib­uted to­wards some of the neg­a­tive per­cep­tions now as­so­ci­ated with tra­di­tional heal­ers,” she adds.

Tra­di­tional heal­ers were the glue that kept fam­i­lies to­gether. They were called to ev­ery fam­ily meet­ing and peo­ple turned to de­ter­mine a child’s pa­ter­nity and to re­solve fam­ily dis­putes. Now we’re just an af­ter­thought, Gogo Re­filoe says. Take the great Credu Mutwa, known across the globe for his su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers and prophe­cies that have come to pass, such as the early de­par­tures of Thabo Mbeki and Ja­cob Zuma from the Presidential of­fice. “It’s al­most like he needs to have ex­treme prophe­cies in or­der for so­ci­ety to take him se­ri­ously when, in fact, he’s wor­thy of all the re­spect,” Makhosi Thabiso notes with dis­ap­point­ment.


To many peo­ple so­cialised as Chris­tians, there’s the per­cep­tion that tra­di­tional heal­ing and re­li­gion are mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. In some branches of Chris­tian­ity, any­thing that isn’t done in the name of Je­sus is re­garded as a de­monic takeover. This no­tion that ubun­goma or a spir­i­tual life that honours African cul­ture and tra­di­tions amounts to mix­ing oil and wa­ter is far from the truth for both Gogo Re­filoe and Makhosi Thabiso, who say the two worlds co­ex­ist per­fectly along­side each other.

Mean­while, for Gogo Celux­olo Nh­lengethwa (46) be­ing raised in tra­di­tional African churches be­fore be­com­ing a born-again Chris­tian was part of how she came to recog­nise her

There are big­ger forces that play a role in how our lives play out, and there’s noth­ing wrong with seek­ing guid­ance from your an­ces­tors

spirit longed for tra­di­tional ex­is­tence. She wor­shipped at a pre­dom­i­nantly white Chris­tian church be­fore find­ing an African one just as a charis­matic, but more fa­mil­iar be­cause it was in­fused with an African style of wor­ship. “I never once con­sid­ered African spir­i­tu­al­ity to be de­monic. It’s a deeper level of wor­ship for the Cre­ator. I grew up with the knowl­edge the spirit re­quires a dif­fer­ent com­mit­ment and re­la­tion­ship from each of us. How­ever, there are purely African ill­nesses with African names and African meth­ods of heal­ing. uBun­goma is one of many African spir­i­tu­al­ity heal­ing medi­ums used to heal a spe­cific set of spir­i­tual dis­eases. These medi­ums con­sult their an­ces­tors, who con­nect with the pa­tient’s an­ces­tors, who know specif­i­cally how that an­ces­tral dis­ease may be cured,” Gogo Celux­olo ex­plains.

She’s been a seer (and re­ceiv­ing vi­sions through her dreams) for as long as she can re­mem­ber — church was how she sought to un­der­stand her spir­i­tual gift. “In the Old Tes­ta­ment of the Bi­ble, Ja­cob laid his head on a rock to sleep and heaven didn’t open up. There are spa­ces in which the veil be­tween realms will lift. If done in an African church it’s called holy but white Chris­tians don’t un­der­stand and call it de­monic, which is rel­a­tive,” Gogo Celux­olo says. Her first in­ti­mate en­counter with izan­goma and ubun­goma started when her cousin de­cided to honour her call­ing. “My mother cried and prayed for her de­liv­er­ance,” she re­calls. “At­tend­ing her home­com­ing was an eye-opener for me. My spirit jumped at the sound of drums and this opened my eyes to the spir­i­tu­al­ity that ex­isted out­side the church. I thought I needed to be de­liv­ered from a dis­sat­is­fied spirit. W hat I needed was the cor­rect space for my kind of spir­i­tu­al­ity. Now can I can share a drink with my great grand­fa­ther with­out feel­ing weird. I can burn im­pepho and proudly in­vite my an­ces­tors to my space for a dis­cus­sion on any­thing I saw in my dreams to seek­ing help when peo­ple con­sult me for heal­ing,” she says. Gogo Celux­olo says when it comes to our com­plex re­la­tion­ship with African spir­i­tu­al­ity and if it can co-ex­ist with other re­li­gions, it’s worth not­ing, “any­thing, be it ed­u­ca­tion or re­li­gion, that alien­ates you from a por­tion of your­self is evil.”


Log onto so­cial net­works, and you’ll no­tice the gift of the call­ing’s pop­u­lar­ity with this gen­er­a­tion. Gogo Re­filoe says the only rea­son she and other heal­ers are more vis­i­ble than ever is be­cause there no longer ex­ists a need for them to hide their spir­i­tual call­ing and gifts. “Many years ago, be­ing a san­goma was shunned to a point where they’d kill you if

you were prac­tis­ing openly. A lot of peo­ple who were gifted ended up go­ing to church as this was the eas­i­est way to prac­tise and hide at the same time,” she ex­plains. She men­tions that, be­cause ev­ery fam­ily has al­ways had a healer among them, the gift will al­ways be passed on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.

When we let go of our ways, we be­come strangers to our­selves. We de­fine our ex­is­tence us­ing a western frame­work where, for ex­am­ple, death’s seen as the end of a re­la­tion­ship, and the be­gin­ning of a mourn­ing process that can last for years. In African spir­i­tu­al­ity, death comes with gain­ing an an­ces­tor who’ll con­tinue to be present in fam­ily life — their body may be gone, but their pres­ence, guid­ance and pro­tec­tion re­main stronger than ever.

Gogo Malepena ex­plains: “The con­se­quences of shun­ning our an­ces­tors can be dire for our spir­its and men­tal well-be­ing. You may con­stantly feel disen­gaged and dis­pos­sessed, al­ways won­der­ing about the vast­ness of the uni­verse and if there’s more mean­ing to hu­man life than just the usual. By re­ject­ing the ways of our fore­fa­thers, you’re es­sen­tially re­ject­ing your­self and the po­ten­tial an­chor­ing your an­ces­tors can pro­vide. When our loved ones pass away, we don’t see them in the phys­i­cal any more, but they’re present spir­i­tu­ally. If you’re un­able to recog­nise that po­ten­tial, and how ben­e­fi­cial it could be for your life, it may take you longer than usual to process their pass­ing.” How­ever, all’s not lost, ac­cord­ing to Gogo Malepena who is of the opin­ion that our gen­er­a­tion has no­ticed cross-gen­er­a­tional trauma and dis­en­gage­ment as a re­sult of mov­ing away from sa­cred, cul­tural prac­tices by our fore­fa­thers.

In turn­ing away from our ways, na­tions also miss out of reach­ing their po­ten­tial. We don’t seek knowl­edge be­yond sci­ence as western ed­u­ca­tion de­fines it, and be­cause we de­value their place in pub­lic life, sci­ence and re­search cur­rently don’t in­clude in­dige­nous philoso­phies. “African spir­i­tu­al­ity has the abil­ity to un­der­stand the world, which is very con­sis­tent with sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery; it was a shaman who dis­cov­ered earth isn’t the cen­tre of the uni­verse. We’ve lost our iden­tity and abil­ity to un­der­stand the body and the mind and how they’re con­nected, which are big, philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions that have been asked for years,” Makhosi Thabiso ex­plains. “We’ve lost the abil­ity to co­ex­ist with na­ture in non-harm­ful ways. The steal­ing of land is spir­i­tual dis­place­ment for the African mind; that con­nec­tion with na­ture is al­ready tam­pered with. We’ve also lost the abil­ity of cre­at­ing a so­ci­ety with an African phi­los­o­phy.”

Gogo Malepena says it’s pos­si­ble to start cre­at­ing an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with an­ces­tors even if you’ve never had one be­fore. To start, she rec­om­mends pay­ing at­ten­tion to your dreams and jour­nal­ing them in as much de­tail as pos­si­ble. You might find the themes and com­mu­ni­ca­tion cues unique to your blood­line. The sec­ond op­tion would be to com­mu­ni­cate with your an­ces­tors ei­ther through emo­tional en­ergy, thoughts or ukuphahla. This is a more for­mal way of ad­dress­ing your elders that re­quires small of­fer­ings such as snuff, can­dles, sil­ver coins, sweet treats and a few oth­ers. “To learn more about ukuphahla, search on Google or YouTube or con­sult isan­goma and they’ll teach you how,” says Gogo Malepena.


Con­tem­po­rary san­go­mas have higher ed­u­ca­tion, busi­nesses, YouTube chan­nels, blogs and cor­po­rate jobs. Their call­ing is also mul­ti­di­men­sional. Gogo Re­filoe was a tax an­a­lyst be­fore fo­cus­ing on her prac­tice full-time. She also con­sults on­line and posts Youtube tu­to­ri­als with ti­tles like How to Phala, Deal­ing with De­pres­sion and Are You a Gifted Per­son: What Are the Most Com­mon Signs?

Makhosi Thabiso has a de­gree in pol­i­tics and phi­los­o­phy, while Gogo Celux­olo has runs an Air B&B ser­vice and other busi­ness ven­tures. Gogo Malepena is study­ing for an Honours De­gree in Coun­selling Psy­chol­ogy to en­rich her prac­tice.

Makhosi Thabiso says, “We need a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the dif­fer­ent heal­ing com­mu­ni­ties in so­ci­ety be­cause there are things that heal­ers can do, and some only a med­i­cal doc­tor can do.” African spir­i­tu­al­ity has one thing we can’t find else­where. It af­firms our iden­tity by not ask­ing us to dis­guise our black­ness. It guides and em­pow­ers in­stead of alien­at­ing us.

African spir­i­tu­al­ity has one thing that we can­not find else­where. It af­firms our iden­tity by not ask­ing us to dis­guise our black­ness. It guides and em­pow­ers in­stead of alien­at­ing us.


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