The word sangoma used to conjure up images of barefoot healers in traditional garb, chanting and waving an ishoba. It was an image that inspired awe and respect – and a healthy measure of trepidation for those uninitiated in their ancient and mysterious ways. Nowadays it’s as easy to find a sangoma on YouTube as it would be to find one in a rural village, far off the beaten track. The modern sangoma is as likely to have an ishoba (a fly whisk made from the tail of a wildebeest or cow) as they are social media accounts or a YouTube channel. With their designer clothes, Brazilian hair and on-point makeup, younger traditional healers are rapidly changing the public’s perception of sangomas – with some being serious slay queens too! DRUM speaks to three young women about being the changing face of traditional healing.
Law student and journalist Rea (31) graduated as a sangoma in January but she has no intention of changing her lifestyle. “I appreciate my calling but I was born as Rea,” she tells us. “Should I walk around barefoot when my ancestors chose me, knowing that I appreciate the finer things in life?” In answer to her question, the Welkomborn gym fanatic says the ancestors chose her knowing she wouldn’t be ditching her beloved stilettos or any of the other favourites she flaunts on Instagram. Rea comes from a long line of healers. Her grandmother, Mamphete Khoabane, was a sangoma and when she stopped practising, the gift passed down to her children, but they didn’t accept it. “And so it passed to the next generation.” Rea and her younger sister, Busisiwe Hadebe (22), gave in when the ancestors came calling. But before Rea accepted her vocation, she went for counselling to prepare herself for the journey.
“My therapist once said there are people who I am chosen to heal but they are dying because I’m denying my calling.” The mother of one was at an initiation school in Virginia in the Free State for three months. “We weren’t allowed to sleep on beds. And we had to sit a certain way and show respect and I did all of that. But once you finish the process, I went back to my life.” Communication from the ancestors in dreams is filled with modern-day imagery, she says.
“I feel like they’re understanding and they have accepted my lifestyle.” When Rea graduated she was given the name Morongwa (“The one we sent”). Her life has changed, but she still enjoys partying with her friends. “I think I’m more content with myself now than before,” adding that she doesn’t stay out too late. “If I feel my ancestors want to communicate with me I leave immediately so I can receive their message.” She wears a certain doek when she goes to sleep to allow her ancestors to communicate with her. “When I was in Spain recently I forgot my doek and I didn’t have any visions so I went to an old chapel to pray.”
The next day she dreamt her mother was going to be in a car crash, so “I called her to change the route she uses to get to work”. She shares an anecdote from her time during training late last year, when she was scolded by her teacher for wearing sunglasses while learning about traditional uses for indigenous plants. It was early in the day but the sun was already blazing down so she put on her shades as she was digging up herbs. “I told my trainer, ‘I’m wearing shades, it’s hot, mama’,” she recalls. “So she told me, ‘You can’t wear shades – how will your ancestors see you?’” “She told me I needed to be pure. But I didn’t understand why wearing shades was not pure. My well-being comes first,” explains Rea, who also has two tattoos on her hand. “The outside doesn’t really matter. It’s what in your heart that matters.
Accepting her calling was a life-or-death decision for 32-year-old Lee-Ann. Doctors put her son, Mason, in an induced coma after he suffered severe seizures and told her that he’d be brain damaged if he woke up. At her wits’ end, Lee-Ann went to see a traditional healer who told her she needed to accept her calling to save her son’s life. So she did. “I did it for my son and I’ve no regrets,” she tells us. Mason (6) recovered fully and is now in Grade 1. For years she battled to conceive a child and after several cyst surgeries a healer, the late Luvo Hlathi, performed rituals that helped her to get pregnant. Lee-Ann, who isn’t shy to admit she loves partying and drinking bubbly with her friends, says it hasn’t been easy letting go of her love of the nightlife. “I’m still Lee-Ann before I am Maweni (her spiritual name). My ancestors drink Champagne because that’s what I drink. Did you not see that I use Hennessey and Cruz to speak to my ancestors?” The mother of three quit her job earlier this year to focus on her calling. “My ancestors don’t want me to work.”
The 27-year-old former party girl tells us her calling saved her life. “I used to party from Thursday until Sunday. If it wasn’t for my calling, I think I’d be dead by now,” the Pretoria-born healer says. She occasionally still goes out. “But I come back early as my ancestors only want me to attend things related to my calling.” This extends to fashion, and Faith listens to her ancestors “who don’t want me to wear pants”. But they don’t mind if she dons her wigs and colourful extra-long nails. “I was trained the old-fashioned way.
I have to wear an ibhayi (kanga) or a skirt as I was born into a family of healers.” Beer is her drink of choice, while her ancestors don’t mind the occasional tot of gin for ukuphahla (communicating with ancestors). Faith, however, doesn’t approve of everything some modern sangomas do. “I do not understand why people wear weaves at umgidi (sangoma cele- brations). There were no weaves back in the day.”