Teaching the ways and calling of the sangoma

2011-12-08 00:00

IT is a Saturday morning at Dovehouse Organic in the Karkloof. The air is chilly and inside a small, empty room, four eager women and I sit as Sarah Wager, a practising sangoma for almost nine years, and Muvo Ngcobo­, her apprentice, explain the significance of ancestors (amadlozi) in African traditions and their reasons behind hosting various workshops on different aspects of African tradition. After every few sentences they pause and say “makhosi”, a sign of respect to the ancestors.

“African traditions are being lost. Sacred sites are disappearing. Sacred plants are disappearing. The traditions need to be moved beyond cultural boundaries in order for it not to be lost and to be valued.”

In Zulu traditions, every home has a space (umsamu) for ancestors and in order to become a sangoma, you have to have a calling. The calling may have a mental, emotional or physical effect of which Wager experienced all three. She had been living in the United­ Kingdom when she became very sick.

“No one could tell me what was wrong,” she said. “Doctors could not label or fix it.”

She came to South Africa to visit her mother and, while here, she met a woman who introduced her to a sangoma­, Mkhulu Baba Radebe, who told her that he can help her to heal if she accepted her calling. Wager decided to do this and Radebe, who was 90 years old, trained her, teaching her the old ways of African traditions which she passed on to Ngcobo.

“Some sangomas just disappear into the serpent’s world and return from the water having learnt the principles of being a sangoma,” said Ngcobo, talking about the calling from the ancestors­.

In her PhD thesis “Messages from the Deep Water Divinities, Dreams and Diviners in Southern Africa”, Penelope Bernard explains these water­ divinities as “snake or mermaid-like divinities [that] are said to work in conjunction with one’s ancestors [and] are believed to be responsible for the calling and training of certain diviner-healers by taking them under water for periods of time”.

These divinities grant healing knowledge and are associated with fertility, water and rain and the origins­ of humankind.

“In the spirit world, there is no limitation, but here we tend to limit what we see,” said Ngcobo.

This is applied to language as well and Wager explains that the ancestors speak in the language that you know.

When it came to Wager training to become a sangoma, her greatest difficulty was slaughtering animals, but she found that in ancient practices, animals are highly sacred and treated with respect.

“Animals are sacred because they are all linked to ancestral consciousness. There is always a reason for offering these animals to the ancestors. When an animal is sacrificed, every single part of that animal is sacred and all of the animal is used.”

According to the spiritual duo, animals can refuse to be killed. In accordance with the great amount of respect for animals that African traditions practise, animals are asked if they could help or partake in the rituals.

“You can see the animal is conscious,” said Ngcobo. “You hear them actually speak in words. If they say no this is respected and the animal isn’t offered. An animal that agrees is then found.”

The workshop moved away from the explanations and definitions for a while and the class was given the opportunity to try to communicate with the ancestors. Ngcobo burns some impepho, a sacred plant that is used to call upon the ancestors, and breathes in the smoke from the burning plant. He gently beats on the drum as Wager describes how to get in touch with our umoya (spirit energy) and access messages that our ancestors may send us. We each say the surnames of our parents, adding our own ancestors to the pool of amadlozi, close our eyes and attempt to connect to the Earth and star ancestors, and visualise the connection flowing through us. As we do this, the sun begins to shine on the corregated iron roof, causing it to expand and creating a noise that I imagine would sound like myriad spirits landing above us.

There are many different ancestral guide groups and they vary in vibration, frequency or field. The different groups include family, land, animal, star and angel ancestors.

“The ancestors are considered to be living with us,” said Wager, “as much as those in body are living with us. They have our welfare and wellbeing at heart. They are not considered as a god but as active spiritual ancestral guides that are conscious and co-creative. They connect us to our roots and our kindred state of being.

“The ancestors help us to discover and remember who we are and what we have to give each other, and this can lead us to realise how deeply our ancestral spiritual process is connected to everything here and in the universe. This is the memory of energy of the ancestors and the memory of our being beyond race, country and time.”

While Wager and Ngcobo try to create a positive image of sangomas and African tradition, the overall image of sangomas has been corrupted by people who have been influenced by Western ideals and are trying to make money from the process, both in selling their services as a healer and in selling the plants and animals needed for rituals.

“The energy from the plants and animals is lost when they are packaged and sold. Also, the plants and animals that are sold are not treated with the respect and connectedness as practised originally. While muthi (medication) made from these purchased goods may work, it won’t be as effective.”

According to Wager and Ngcobo, the sangoma is misunderstood greatly in contemporary society. The role of the sangoma is to obtain information from the ancestors, to heal and to work with the land, animal and community.

Sangomas are not only concerned with medication but heal through the use of the drum and dance in order to help the person become empowered. These sangomas are assisted by the inyanga, who are involved with the making of herbal medicines, even though sangomas can also make these. The inyanga also have a calling and understand the work of sangomas. The healers who practise black magic are known as umthakathi. Medicines obtained from umthakathi are often extremely expensive and are used to cause harm.

While the response to the workshops on African tradition has been slow, Wager feels that they are needed and therefore will run indefinitely.

“Even among sangomas, a lot of the old traditions have been forgotten. We have inherited a gift and the ancestors want us to remind people about the ancients ways.”

• For more information, visit www.africanshamanexperience.com

 

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