A 24-Hour Ritual

Last weekend, I got to witness something many Africans have never seen.

Someone I know has been training to become a Sangoma. I’ll let Wikipedia handle the explaining:

Sangomas are the traditional healers in the Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa and Ndebele traditions in southern Africa. They perform a holistic and symbolic form of healing, embedded in the beliefs of their culture that ancestors in the afterlife guide and protect the living. Sangomas are called to heal, and through them ancestors from the spirit world can give instruction and advice to heal illness, social disharmony and spiritual difficulties.

Sangomas have many different social and political roles in the community: divination, healing, directing rituals, finding lost cattle, protecting warriors, counteracting witches, and narrating the history, cosmology, and myths of their tradition. They are highly revered and respected in their society, where illness is thought to be caused by witchcraft, pollution (contact with impure objects or occurrences) or by the ancestors themselves, either malevolently, or through neglect if they are not respected, or to show an individual her calling to be a Sangoma. For harmony between the living and the dead, vital for a trouble-free life, the ancestors must be shown respect through ritual and animal sacrifice.

A Sangoma is called to heal by an initiation illness, often psychosis, headache, intractable stomach pain, shoulder or neck complaints. She will undergo Thwasa, a period of training including learning humility to the ancestors, purification through steaming, washing in the blood of sacrificed animals, and the use of Muti, medicines with spiritual significance. At the end of Thwasa, a goat is sacrificed to call to the ancestors and appease them.

Sangomas are steeped in ritual. They work in a sacred healing hut or Ndumba, where their ancestors reside. They have specific coloured cloths to wear to please each ancestor, and often wear the gallbladder of the goat sacrificed at their graduation ceremony in their hair. They summon the ancestors by burning a plant called Imphepho, dancing, chanting, and most importantly playing drums.

Sangomas are able to access advice and guidance from the ancestors for their patients in three ways: possession by an ancestor, or channelling; throwing bones; and interpreting dreams. In possession states the Sangoma works herself into a trance, through drumming, dancing and chanting, and allows her ego to step aside so an ancestor possesses her body and communicates directly with the patient, providing specific information about his problems. It can be very dramatic, with the Sangoma speaking in tongues, or foreign languages according to the specific ancestor, or dancing fervently beyond her normal ability.

The ceremony lasted close to 24 hours. And while I don’t understand all of the symbolism and reasoning behind the different parts of the rituals, I’ll try my best. I was exhausted most of the time.

I arrived at my friend’s home around 6PM. It was only his family there, and they were preparing for the festivities. I helped make pap, the staple food of South Africa (and a topic worthy of its own blog entry at some point):

Soon, we all piled into cars and taxis (minibuses) to head to the Sangoma school in a nearby village. There was a large group of Sangomas training there, and we all piled back into the cars and taxis to head to our first destination. The Sangomas played their drums as the taxis zipped through the streets.

We started at the home of my friend’s grandmother, who had inspired him to become a Sangoma. There was some ritual preparations before the Sangomas could enter the gate. I wish I understood the significance of all of these objects, but I think the contents of the bowl eventually ended up in a basket and were used for a ritual featuring the new Sangoma much later.

The Sangomas are standing outside the gate. They are waiting for something. Do you see the two chickens in the photo above? The two chickens were slaughtered and then the Sangomas entered. The drumming and dancing began:

After a few minutes at Grandma’s house, we returned to my friend’s house. The ritual with the chickens was repeated, and the all-night dancing marathon began. At least 15 different Sangomas and Sangomas in training danced. We ate pap and cow stomach. We drank beer. People from the neighborhood, especially drunks, showed up. They were drawn to the sound of the drums.

Some photos of Sangomas. The costumes are rad, but, again, I’m not sure of the significance of the different parts:

The dancing continued until it started to get light, around 5AM. I was exhausted, but it was worth it. The dancing is really incredible to watch, and I got to play the drums a bit. The Sangomas were many different types of people. There was even a young girl who danced incredibly.

I have one video I’m able to post. In this video, one of the Sangomas is stopping to have part of his clothing fixed. But you can get an idea of what goes on:

Click Here for Video

When it started to get light, my friend had to do another ritual. Then after that this guy was sacrificed. Here he is alive, the night before:

After a few hours of rest, the dancing began again. The whole thing ended at 3 or 4 PM, I think, the next day. Unfortunately, I had to leave around 1:30 to go to a parents meeting at my school. Right as I was trying to leave my friend pulled me into the dancing area and I danced. It was amazing. Everyone went crazy watching the white guy dance. I don’t know exactly what happened, but my feet kind of just did something I think resembled the dance. It was surreal. Then we all knelt down and one of the Sangomas I was dancing with went into a trance and started speaking in tongues. I’m sure the ancestors were pretty confused about the mulungu (SiSwati for “honkey”).

This event was so awesome. I wish I could better communicate the amazingness of it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.