Sangomas and igqirha, the Karoo is home to all

Phakamisa Mayaba / It’s just like the descriptions provided in cultural magazines. A lion skin is draped on the wall, and various potions in glass jars are kept on shelves. Bottles of liquor line the wall, and various items are placed on a bamboo mat on the linoleum floor. In thick dreadlocks, Lihle Matebese — a ward councillor by occupation, but a sangoma at heart — is the only contradiction. Nothing of the grizzled, surly and gargoyle-like witch portrayed by the likes of H. Rider Haggard as we are ushered into her umsamo.

The Buddhist has his Zendo, the Moslem his mosque. Similarly, Lihle’s sacred umsamo is an elegant ode to the traditional rondavel. This is where she divines with ‘those who are under’, the ancestors; burns impepho (incense); and treats her patients – many with indispositions ranging from tormented or polluted spirits to suspicions of being bewitched, or in the hope of circumventing such sorcery.

Guided by her idlozi – an ancestor who informs her every decision – she will endeavour to treat their afflictions, exorcise the demons and break the spells, because that’s what she signed up for when she went into ukuthwasa, her initiation.

This is not quite as glamorous as the sangoma influencers make it seem on TikTok. Far from it. For Lihle, it meant a journey to the edge of insanity. That’s how her calling visited her — through bouts of intense pain and madness, shrieks of rage and obscenities. The episode had the family unnerved. Doctors couldn’t quite put a finger on what was wrong with her. But a traditional medicine woman gave a concise diagnosis: the ancestors desired that she join the ranks of the ‘spiritual ones’.

Arguably SA’s biggest celebrity sangoma, Zodwa Wabantu. Image: X.

And so, for a few months, Lihle went under the tutelage of an elder, and slipped into the unknown. But the interlocutor soon gets the impression that this is the cultural equivalent to ‘what happens in Vegas …’ Lihle prefers not to delve into the details of that phase of her journey, save to say it was hard work that tested her innermost recesses, and that she eventually emerged out the other side cured and free of all illness. Most important, she became a practising sangoma in her own right.

Upon our visit, expecting to find the ubiquitous throwing of bones, we discovered that there are many more mysteries involved in this practice – rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, a vast array of subdisciplines coexisting within the whole. Lihle confides that she doesn’t even work with bones.

Through social media, sangomas like Gogo Maweni have brought the practice to a whole new audience. Image: Instagram.

In recent years, there’s been a push to formalise the practice – to redeem it from commonly held perceptions that reduce it to African mumbo-jumbo onto a scholarly path complete with literature, ethical codes, and a regulating body. In fact, just days before our interview, a gathering of local sangomas was taking place at the N1 building in Colesberg. The region’s ‘white people’ (as they refer to those who’ve embraced this calling) were assembled under one roof, heads cogitating, pens jotting down notes.

One would think that in a community as small as Colesberg you’d find only a handful of these practitioners. On the contrary, there are about as many practicing healers as there are churches – even spazas – sometimes with several operating in the same area. iintlombe, those all-night bacchanalias of meditation, characterised by intense singing, the stomping of feet, and the relentless thudding of big drums made from cowhide, sometimes for days on end, are part of Kuyasa’s social fabric. Listen to them long enough as you lie awake; the repetitive chants, rattling of beads, and reverberation of bare heels drumming on the earth, and see the women slip into something that the English might call a ‘trance’.

The nomenclature can be downright brutal, even to those of African descent, so it would be advisable to refer curious people to the literature. Lots of gems on the internet, but a book that may be of some appeal is titled Madumo, A Man Bewitched (available from the Mongezi Juda Library).

It is written by Adam Ashforth, an Australian, who visits his long-time friend, Madumo, in Soweto, only to find him fallen on hard times. Madumo is adamant that he’s been bewitched. Ashforth is sceptical, but funds Madumo’s visits to various traditional healers, and these eventually form the basis of this book. It’s an interesting account of how a person who does not come from a world in which witches are said to exist, might see the practice.

Outside of the realm of spirituality, being a sangoma is also a legitimate means to earn an income, and even to put one’s name on the social radar. In the early 1090s, one such celebrity healer visited Colesberg. Tat’ uMhambi – ‘the traveller’, as he was known – had made headlines in black South Africa when he made bold claims that his holy water could cure just about any illness under the sun. At the time, all across the country, HIV/AIDS was wreaking havoc, and antiretroviral therapy was still years away.

Tat’ uMhambi had appeared on the cover of Bona, the fashionable black magazine of the day. There were impassioned video testimonies – and photos – from former patients, so when the man rolled up to Kuyasa in a Toyota Venture (more than a respectable ride in those days), he was met by snaking queues – the writer’s late grandma among them – and lots of money. At a R50 fee, believers would bring water – as many barrels as they desired – over which the man would pray, flailing what looked like a goat’s cured tail in the air. Tat’ uMhambi consequently left with untold sums of money, but whether his elixir actually worked is still unclear.

De Aar’s Nosithembiso Cofa, a practicing sangoma (although she prefers the Xhosa term igqirha). Image: eParkeni.

In nearby De Aar, Nosithembiso Cofa is also an assiduous practitioner, but it is her story as to how she found herself in the maw of this spirituality that beggars belief. Even at school, she says, she used to experience intense headaches, and traditional Western medicine didn’t seem to offer any relief. But after consulting a sangoma, she too was advised to go down the traditional initiation route. Being a church-going person, she balked at the idea.

Then, one Sunday morning at church, what she considers a miracle happened. Her memory of the episode is a blur: one minute she’s singing — the next, she is regaining consciousness on the church floor, and she had seen one of the women who had come to her aid in a dream. This women was also a sangoma, and took Nosithembiso under her wing.

The stories out on the streets abound, and to a lowly writer, they are the stuff of fantasy novels. There’s the guy who swears he owes his acquittal to the sangoma who gave him a herb to burn before he was due to appear in court, and something to put under his tongue when he was in the dock. There are alleged rainmakers and sangomas so powerful that they can summon lightning strikes  Or curses. Even get you stinking rich. But who are we to make any pronouncements, or offer our two-cent’s worth, because to many in our rural communities, the sangoma tradition is just as real and palatable as the wind in the trees, or the veld that stretches as far as the eye can see.

There can also be no doubt that, through social media, sangomas have been exposed to a whole new audience. Take Zodwa Wabantu, who alternates between her practice, adult entertainment, television and social media, and also underwent her initiation a few years ago. Gogo Maweni is also prominent on a seemingly growing list of celebrity sangomas.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, the bottles of liquor I mentioned earlier are gifts of gratitude from Lihle’s patients. While she’s not much of a hard spirits drinker, they serve the purpose of appeasing the ancestors, she says with a naughty grin.

FEATURED IMAGE: The cool interior of Lihle Matebese’s umsamo. Image: eParkeni.

This is an edited version of an article that first apeared on Phakamisa Mayabas website, eParkeni.

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