“She feels disrespected and offended.” That is the text message that I received following my attempt to interview a middle-aged sangoma from Pretoria.
Our conversation, jilted by poor network coverage lasted all of one minute but in that sixty-second stretch I managed, unintentionally, to not only offend but disrespect someone that I had never met. No mean feat for someone who struggles to raise their voice above a whisper in an argument. The mistake that I made was linguistic, yet the repercussions spoke to my cultural ignorance amongst other things. My friend had said “we call her Aunty Sarah*” and I had misinterpreted what was an instruction as a suggestion. My logic was this: she was not my aunt, it would be inappropriate and falsely intimate of me to call her such. Without much thought I called her Sarah and repeated her name several times as the phone line faltered.
This omission I later learned was deeply offensive and my cheek burned with embarrassment as I recalled the brief conversation. “Remember, we are all different, with different beliefs.” My friend, who had put me in contact with the sangoma offered as poor consolation as I contemplated the damage. For weeks I had been attempting to find a sangoma to interview. Most sangomas that I contacted were suspicious of my intentions and reluctant to participate. “What exactly is your angle?” replied a young sangoma from Rosebank. I could understand the reservation. Google “sangomas in South Africa” and the search results themselves tell a story. The ubiquity of adverts and the prevalent discussions about the role of traditional healers contradicts the reality that the work of sangomas is still very much veiled in mystery.
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Despite the fact that over 80% of the South African population visits a sangoma more than three times a year, in the media, sangomas are still largely interpreted from a sceptical Western understanding. The “modern sangoma” trope is tirelessly repeated with little interest beyond the seemingly dazzlingly contradiction between modern living and traditional practice. Fetishized and even promoted as such, several tourist websites offer consultations with “the shamans of Africa”. Oscillating between cultural oddity and cultural norm depending on your perspective, the history of sangomas is illustrative of the history of South Africa. Once deemed witches and criminalised under the apartheid government’s Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1975, today the law is still in existence although it is interpreted differently with several attempts being made to repeal the law altogether.
“Would you go to a sangoma?” I ask my oldest friend, Lesego*. She simply laughs at my question. Her scepticism is blatantly obvious. I push her for a full answer and she replied echoing much of the debate surrounding sangomas. For her, belief in traditional healers cannot coexist with Christianity. “My parents never entertained such ideas” she adds when I look frustrated. While many argue to the contrary, insisting that Christianity and traditional beliefs are not mutually exclusive, the debate itself is telling. Since traditional beliefs are prior to the practice of Christianity in South Africa, why is it that some have abandoned these beliefs in favour of Christianity? Viewed as doctors of a different kind, one divorced woman that I spoke to insisted that one must visit a sangoma if your physical symptoms are severe – in other words, to her mind, beyond the scope of modern medicine.
Described it as a calling not a profession, the work of a sangoma is work which divines beyond this lifetime. While high blood pressure and other common ailments are treated by a medical doctor, the woman insisted that more serious conditions necessitate the intervention of a sangoma. “Then the ancestors are not happy” she says with a stern look. For many, acknowledging the role of their ancestors is acknowledging their ties and responsibilities beyond this lifetime. A life forever tethered to the past. Not only answerable to their immediate families, their decisions are judged by their ancestors too. Judgement and responsibility beyond this lifetime.
An individual’s wellbeing or illness are a manifestation of their ancestors’ judgement of them. This kind of intergenerational responsibility is a tough pill to swallow as it contradicts the contemporary millennial message of “living by your own rules” since your own rules are swiftly overridden by those of your ancestors. However, this restrictive and burdensome interpretation of the layered relationship with ancestors facilitated by sangomas is one-sided and overlooks the potential benefit of such belief. Sangomas provide an invaluable service: they remind people that they are truly not alone. Whether pleased or angered, the ancestors interest in the lives of their kin elevates the actions of the individual above their selfish day-to-day concerns.
If the human condition dictates a tireless sense of loneliness then the work of sangomas is the work of every philosopher through the ages: to understand our shared humanity.
*Not their real names.