Skype your sangoma: Spiritual practices for a modern Africa
Discovering that decades-old African practices still have a place in modern society
There are no words to describe the feeling that gripped me.
A sangoma initiate I had never spoken to pointed at me from a large crowd and called me aside to relay a message she said was from the ancestors.
Before this, I had never consulted a sangoma, attended umgidi (traditional celebration) or been really exposed to the world of ancestry.I knelt on the ground and listened attentively as she relayed what she said was my grandparents’ message about my marriage and spiritual path.
As someone who had never paid homage to the ancestors, I was told that whether or not I chose to acknowledge their existence, they lived.“We are all spirit. We come from spirit and spirit never dies. It lives on forever and ever,” traditional healer, Tiisetso Makhubedu said later.
Whether you are black, white, Indian or coloured, you have a lineage. You have ancestors, he explained.
We were invited to this umgidi in Garankuwa, Pretoria, with Makhubedu. For the first time, I witnessed a group of amathwasana or initiates in trance as they connected to the spiritual realm.They emerged from idomba, the healers hut, after they had summoned the ancestors, burping, groaning and moaning as the trance fell over them.
They bolted out of the domba in the direction of beating drums.
For what seemed like hours, they beat their bare feet on the concrete ground as they danced to the sound of the drums, singing and summoning the spirits to speak.
Their feet were fast and at the time they looked oblivious to the pain that they would feel once they emerged from the trance.Their heads and bodies had been smeared with what looked like red ochre which glistened as the sweat dripped from their faces.
A few times they sat on the ground, bopping their heads fast as part of their dance.
When we first met with Makhebudu, the brief was clear – establish whether decades-old African practices still have a place in a society that appears to be leaning towards cultural practices of the west.
The first conversation I had with him intrigued me. It was probably his flamboyant nature or rather the fact that he was nothing I had expected a sangoma to be. I imagined a traditional healer to be a bit older, be so entrenched in culture that they somewhat rejected modern life.Makhubedu, who goes by the traditional name of Gogo Khanyakude, is a modern young man in his 20s who responded to the calling of his ancestors but remains in touch with what the modern world is about and believes the two can merge.
In the front of his lavish duplex home in a Pretoria residential estate is Khanyakude’s domba and it is here, in suburbia, where he answers the call of his ancestors.
After leaving our shoes at the door, we watched as he lit different coloured candles on a silver stand and burnt incense to alert the ancestors to our presence.He offered us a drink as he opened a bottle of wine.
He poured some of it in a glass and spilt some on the ground before taking his first sip, saying he needed to appease his ancestors first.
It is in this very domba, amid his affluent, mostly non-black neighbours, that he sometimes beat his drums in the dead of the night, answering to his ancestors call.
A snake skin hangs on the wall which is draped in different coloured traditional cloths.
He takes his place on a straw mat for the beginning of our interview.
“I am where I need to be,” Khanyakude answered when we asked him why he settled here.
At our second meeting, he sat in the garden of his home behind the high estate walls, a black exfoliating mask plastered on his face, his hair dyed blond while he wore shorts and a trendy traditional African print shirt, sipping on his wine.As we embarked on this assignment, he issued a warning that somewhat drenched me in fear. “Along this journey, you will see and feel a lot of things you have never accounted before. Remaining spiritually and physically pure is essential.”
And what a journey it was.One of the things we established, for instance, is that as technology and the world have evolved, so has traditional healing.
It is no longer taboo to consult a traditional healer via Skype or voice-note or even to have an impromptu consultation over the phone during a phone-in radio programme without the bones being thrown.
Makhubedu himself is a regular guest on a radio station where he consults over the airwaves. It is for this very reason, the evolution, that traditional healing will never die out, said Makhubedu.
Another traditional healer we spoke to was Thabo Mapela from Mabopane. Mapela is not only a traditional healer but a bishop at a Christian church.Speaking to us from his domba in Mabopane where a queue of people sat outside, awaiting their turn for a consultation, Mapela said accepting tradition did not mean rejecting religion.
He stressed however, that African people are turning away from their beliefs because of a lack of knowledge and understanding.
According to Mapela, some traditional practices that are frowned upon by Christians exist in the Bible.
He referred to the scripture of Cain and Abel who brought sacrifices as thanksgiving to God.
“The Jews have got their own way of doing things, the Muslims, the Hindu, Buddhism, Baha’i … all those people. But we end up being blindfolded because we believe what we hear (about ourselves) and not who we are,” he said.