New spiritual healers

2013-03-06 15:07

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They’re creative, sassy and career-oriented – and they happen to be sangomas, too.

Sangomas (traditional healers) are often stereotyped as older, uneducated people in rural areas who wear traditional gear.

But these days, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sangomas are plugged into the modern world, with some even speaking about their practices on social networks.

A sangoma diagnoses using bones, while an inyanga is a sangoma who specialises in muti.

Photographs by Adam Mcconnachie and Diaan de Beer

‘I don’t use my gift or my muti to hurt others,’ says Letoya Mangezi (26).

Letoya believes that because of misconceptions and a sense of embarrassment, people would rather consult with a sangoma in secret.

“There are many negative stereotypes around traditional healing, which serves as a source of embarrassment for some people,” she explains.

“Unless you’re carrying a Bible and praising a certain type of God, you’re seen as a devil worshipper.

Yet we forget how pre-civilization, sangomas were regarded as the safekeepers of their villages.

There are some healers who don’t use their gift appropriately, giving a bad name to all of us. I don’t use my gift or my muti to hurt others.

My God, my heart and my ancestors would never allow it.”

As the daughter of musician Blondie Makhene, Letoya started performing, singing and acting at an early age.

But she says she was very sickly when she was young.

“My illnesses were unexplained and medical doctors couldn’t diagnose me. My parents eventually took me to a sangoma, who identified my spiritual gift.”

At 17, Letoya went to initiation school in Kwa-Thema, Springs, but left when she realised she wasn’t ready.

“I got fined for starting with initiation and suddenly stopping. I had to appease the ancestors in a traditional ceremony,” she says.

A month later, the singer was headhunted to present the second season of Idols.

When it finished, she focused her attention on her initiation.

“This time around I knew what to expect and I was emotionally ready to take on the responsibilities of being a sangoma,” she says. Letoya’s initiation lasted eight months.

Letoya has been a sangoma for eight years and is strict about who she gives consultations to.

She works from her home in Joburg and is careful not to expose her three children and husband to too many strangers, especially celebrity seekers.

Most of her clients are of Indian descent.

“I think it’s because our cultures are very similar. This traditional root is part of their culture too. There are a lot of Indian traditional healers,” she says.

‘I specialise in plant medicines,’ says performance artist Julia Raynham (46).

Most of Julia’s family members work in the medical field, so she thought her calling to be a sangoma 10 years ago was the most outrageous thing she’d ever heard.

“During the first challenging year of my illness, which affected my nervous system, an astrologer I’d been consulting referred me to a sangoma.

I went for a consultation and it was revealed to me that I had the gift of the calling.

I only accepted the calling three years after I was told,” says Julia.

At the time, she was working as a musician and composer in a jazz band.

She had never been exposed to African medicine. Accepting the calling would mean changing her perceptions of health and healing.

“I initially shrugged off the claim, but as my illness got worse, I thought it’d be best to give it a try. I didn’t tell my family and partner at the time, because this was obviously a dramatic transition. But now they are very supportive of the path that I’ve chosen.

“My brother – an ear, nose and throat surgeon – sometimes refers his patients to me and I do the same if the problem requires Western medicine.”

Julia runs a practice in Woodstock, Cape Town, where she says she’s lucky that her skin colour has never been an issue for her diverse clientele.

She uses bones to diagnose her clients but also incorporates ancient Chinese and Japanese techniques that don’t only focus on healing our physical bodies, but healing the soul as well.

“People come to me with specific problems, ranging from physical illnesses to problems of the soul. Sometimes they bring their children or whole families,” she says.

Julia’s job is to communicate between the secular and the spirit worlds to find out what the problems are.

“I specialise in plant medicines and the washing of clients, properties and businesses (a cleansing ceremony to ‘wash off’ bad energy and bad luck). The treatment depends on the divination.”

Julia did her initiation at a school in Botswana and says her journey led to spiritual connections with her late grandmother.

She also discovered that her great grandfather had been a herbalist.

In 2004, Julia established Resonance Bazar, a cultural organisation that works with artists from different disciplines to conceptualise and devise new projects.

“Artists help open up new ways for people to see and perceive things,” Julia says, “I believe that traditional healing also opens new doors into a whole new world of spirituality. This is one spiritual path that gets stronger as you grow.”

‘Sangomas need to be rooted in their spirituality’, says beauty therapist Patience Ndlovu (28).

“I grew up in a home where beating drums at 3am and seeing people come for consultations was nothing unusual,” says Ndlovu, whose mother has been a sangoma since 1986.

Patience started getting fainting spells in primary school and remembers having strange visions of snakes on her bed or of family members who had passed on. Every year, her family performed a traditional ceremony to ask the ancestors to give her more time before accepting the calling.

Ndlovu would often collapse or fall asleep in class, or she’d go into a vibrating state, which affected her concentration.

Things got so serious that her guidance teacher suspected she was being mistreated at home.

“I changed high schools four times for fear of being judged,” she says, “as a result, my marks dropped and I interacted badly with my peers.”

She became a sangoma at 16, after attending two initiation schools: one in Soweto and another in Limpopo.

Her speciality is the female reproductive system and in initiating new students into the practice of being a sangoma.

She helps women with fertility problems and conditions like endometriosis.

Even though she didn’t get to fully enjoy her teen years like her peers, she finds it easier to enjoy her life now that she’s grown into her role as a sangoma.

“I go out for the occasional dinner with friends or to the movies, but you won’t find me out every night. Everything has to be done in moderation when you’re a sangoma,” she laughs.

“Sangomas need to be disciplined and rooted in their spirituality.”

Patience is open with her beauty clients about her calling.

“Surprisingly, it’s mostly people from other races who are open to learning and understanding African belief systems,” she says, “as a somatologist, I find my life balances out perfectly.

My day job still requires that I pass healing and positive energy through the body treatments I give.”

‘Enduring life at initiation school was difficult,’ says entertainer Bongani Masondo (29)

As a child, Bongani had his heart set on being a medical doctor but he ended up in acting.

At the end of 2009, he went through a very dark time in his life when he had no job and no money.

“My life had shut down and I preferred living in complete solitude,” he says.

His maternal aunt, who is also a sangoma, had known all along that Bongani had this gift, but waited for him to discover it in his own time, and this was the time.

“Enduring life at initiation school was difficult,” he recalls.

“I had to act like an obedient child, eat with one hand and walk around barefoot. My knees were always sore. Sometimes I felt like crying,” he says.

With hindsight, Bongani realised the journey was meant to teach him to respect all levels of life, because his new reality would mean helping people from various backgrounds.

After initiation, Bongani went back to his career as an actor. Making the move to merge his old and new lives required the appeasement of ancestors and making some changes on set.

“When I went back to shoot the SABC1 drama Tshisa, I had to explain that I’m not allowed to have a gun pointed at me. I also don’t do sex or kissing scenes. I try to limit my physical contact with people, in case I get a vision about them. My ancestors live within me and it’s important that I treat them like they’re living elders.”

Bongani uses muti as well as prayer, water and candles to heal his clients.

He sees his gift as a meeting point between Christianity and ubungoma (the practice of being a sangoma).

Even though he isn’t healing in quite the manner he had in mind in his childhood, Bongani’s dream wasn’t too far off.

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