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.
WAY OF LIFE
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.
A TIME GONE BY
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.
A RICHER SPIRITUAL LIFE
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.”
BACK TO OUR ROOTS
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.
THE FUTURE OF AFRICAN SPIRITUALITY
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.
GOGO CELUXOLO NHLENGETHWA (LEFT), GOGO REFILOE MOYO (MIDDLE) AND MAKHOSI THABISO BHENGU (RIGHT)