Sangomas are shaman from South Africa. They have a tradition of communication with their ancestors, using herbalism, and prayer for healing. They can be found among the different tribes and cultures in South Africa and their training is different because of this as what and how they are taught depends on their ancestry. The term Sangoma is a Zulu term for a healer, but it does apply to all healers from all the different tribes in the South African areas.
Sangomas as Healers
Like most healers from Africa, a Sangoma is more than just a healer of the body. They will fill both social and political roles, stand in not just as doctors and midwives, but spiritual healers and emotional therapists. They handle birth and death rituals, provide protective charms, and are cornerstones of their community. They have been specially trained to communicate with the ancestors in order to find out what members of their tribe have done to deserve the punishment of illness. Becoming a Sangoma isn’t something you happen to fall into – they are given a calling for it.
In the modern era, those who are called to be a Sangoma often struggle with their calling. The ukutwasa, or the calling, is initiated by an illness that is accompanied by visions and strange dreams. Many who receive the ukutwasa seek out help from western doctors and medicine, rather than going to a healer and it is only in desperation that the twasa, or apprentice, seeks out the guidance of the Sangoma to find out why it is they are so sick. Once the ukutwasa is identified, the twasa begins their initiation period. Though most Sangoma are women, there are no societal limitations on gender. The ukutwasa is a calling given to one by their ancestors and as such the twasa may be a male or a female.
Initiation for a twasa can last for years – it all depends on how well they go through their training. During their initiation period they learn not only how to cure diseases, but about the herbs that heal and energies that keep our body going. They are expected to confess bad thoughts, and their instructor will disallow foods and sexual activity. Each time they complete a stage of their initiation, a feast will be held and after the feast when the fires have burned out and the ashes are cold, the twasa will hunt through the remains seeking a broken bone. When they have been made a Sangoma they will use their collection of bones for the purposes of divination.
Healers of the Body
Sangomas are doctors of the whole body: the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual; because of this they must learn how to work with all aspects of the person. This is part of why initiation can take so long. They must be able to perform necessary rituals among their people as well as act as a guide and comforter. In their communities a Sangoma is easily identified by the woolen wig decorated with beads showing their humility before god, their headband showing their purity of thought, their leopard skin skirt that shows their honesty and courage, and some even wear a red shirt to show their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their people.