Sangoma Celebration: Who is a Sangoma?

This was a sneak attack picture. She looks exhausted.

This lady is a sangoma. I know I said I would get to the bottom of what this whole celebration was about but I could not get much more than that. I'm sorry, I am not a very effective journalist. My host mother's daughter has been a sangoma for two years now and from what I could tell this celebration was to commemorate that fact. “Sangoma” is a South African term for a traditional healer. There are different kinds of sangoma that have different sorts of specialities; some dabble in divination, some in herbs and some in both. I was under the impression that sangomas were more a part of other South African tribes such as the Zulu and Xhosa but apparently the Tswana use the term as well. I couldn't get any better name for the event other than sangoma celebration. Either everyone was too busy setting up or partying to have a long conversation about it.

The guest of honor arrived around midnight and the ritual of her arrival was the only one I was able to see. She was accompanied by several other older sangomas, one of which trained her, and several assistants who took part in the rituals. I could hear the drums but couldn't see what was happening. I went closer to the crowd that had gathered to watch. The arriving party was next to the gate saying some sort of prayer or incantation and then all of the sudden one of the male assistants launched a chicken in the direction of the crowd, killing the chicken in the process. It was startling, just when I noticed that the man was holding a chicken he chucked it into the air. A few minutes later the same exact thing happened again . A prayer was said and a chicken was swung like a golf club only it was intentionally released sending it about 20 feet. The chickens were collected by another assistant and brought to the kitchen. Meanwhile, drumming began and the rest of the assistants started unrolling mats from the bus. From there the sangomas, fulling shrouded with patterned cloth, started inching forward on hands and knees on the mats towards the room next to mine. This journey from gate to room lasted about 15 minutes and it was powerful. The combination of darkness, the bizarre movements of the sangomas, the loud drums and the great number of credulous people around me contributed to the potency of the moment. In no way did anything supernatural or unexplainable happen but I can see how witnessing something like that ritual would help someone to be convinced by a person claiming to talk to spirits and cure through dreams.

In South African style, there were seemingly incompatible elements working side by side. These are the sorts of things that still baffle me. For example, modern clothing and cell phones coupled with ancestral spirit worship and herbal remedies or Christian hymns right after an animal sacrifice. Things just combine in a unique way here and I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to see even something like a sangoma celebration interwoven with foreign elements.

The best picture of the ritual I could get, I didn't feel comfortable taking several pictures with a flash. You can barely make out the sangomas going into the door on the left.

Beyond the arrival, I and many others were shut out from what went on with the sangomas. I am not too sure much else happened becuase the rest of the night was devoted to having a huge party which I will discuss in a subsequent post. I won't go too much into how I feel about the practice of sangomas but I will say they still have enormous influence over many communities and have great potential to have an impact on the well being of South Africa including dealing with HIV/AIDS by working with medical science. Leaving that discussion aside, I was happy enough to just be a witness to something not many people in the world have seen and something I will probably never see again.


The assortment of herbal remedies that are at the disposal of the household sangoma.
I am sure an ethnopharmacologist would love to get his or her hands on this stuff.
Socks and Underwear: Sangoma Celebration: Who is a Sangoma?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sangoma Celebration: Who is a Sangoma?

This was a sneak attack picture. She looks exhausted.

This lady is a sangoma. I know I said I would get to the bottom of what this whole celebration was about but I could not get much more than that. I'm sorry, I am not a very effective journalist. My host mother's daughter has been a sangoma for two years now and from what I could tell this celebration was to commemorate that fact. “Sangoma” is a South African term for a traditional healer. There are different kinds of sangoma that have different sorts of specialities; some dabble in divination, some in herbs and some in both. I was under the impression that sangomas were more a part of other South African tribes such as the Zulu and Xhosa but apparently the Tswana use the term as well. I couldn't get any better name for the event other than sangoma celebration. Either everyone was too busy setting up or partying to have a long conversation about it.

The guest of honor arrived around midnight and the ritual of her arrival was the only one I was able to see. She was accompanied by several other older sangomas, one of which trained her, and several assistants who took part in the rituals. I could hear the drums but couldn't see what was happening. I went closer to the crowd that had gathered to watch. The arriving party was next to the gate saying some sort of prayer or incantation and then all of the sudden one of the male assistants launched a chicken in the direction of the crowd, killing the chicken in the process. It was startling, just when I noticed that the man was holding a chicken he chucked it into the air. A few minutes later the same exact thing happened again . A prayer was said and a chicken was swung like a golf club only it was intentionally released sending it about 20 feet. The chickens were collected by another assistant and brought to the kitchen. Meanwhile, drumming began and the rest of the assistants started unrolling mats from the bus. From there the sangomas, fulling shrouded with patterned cloth, started inching forward on hands and knees on the mats towards the room next to mine. This journey from gate to room lasted about 15 minutes and it was powerful. The combination of darkness, the bizarre movements of the sangomas, the loud drums and the great number of credulous people around me contributed to the potency of the moment. In no way did anything supernatural or unexplainable happen but I can see how witnessing something like that ritual would help someone to be convinced by a person claiming to talk to spirits and cure through dreams.

In South African style, there were seemingly incompatible elements working side by side. These are the sorts of things that still baffle me. For example, modern clothing and cell phones coupled with ancestral spirit worship and herbal remedies or Christian hymns right after an animal sacrifice. Things just combine in a unique way here and I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to see even something like a sangoma celebration interwoven with foreign elements.

The best picture of the ritual I could get, I didn't feel comfortable taking several pictures with a flash. You can barely make out the sangomas going into the door on the left.

Beyond the arrival, I and many others were shut out from what went on with the sangomas. I am not too sure much else happened becuase the rest of the night was devoted to having a huge party which I will discuss in a subsequent post. I won't go too much into how I feel about the practice of sangomas but I will say they still have enormous influence over many communities and have great potential to have an impact on the well being of South Africa including dealing with HIV/AIDS by working with medical science. Leaving that discussion aside, I was happy enough to just be a witness to something not many people in the world have seen and something I will probably never see again.


The assortment of herbal remedies that are at the disposal of the household sangoma.
I am sure an ethnopharmacologist would love to get his or her hands on this stuff.

2 Comments:

Blogger presco said...

How did the people handle your presence during the festivities? I'm sure you had many questions about the ceremony, did you get any answers?

November 16, 2010 at 1:11 PM  
Blogger Noah Prescott said...

Good questions. To the first, no one said anything to me but I could tell that some people did not like that I was nosing around.

To the second, this is a problem that I frequently experience. For several reasons I just don't get satisfying answers to some of my questions.

November 17, 2010 at 12:39 PM  

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