Training to be a sangoma, a traditional herbalist and healer, is now a big money-making enterprise in Johannesburg, the commercial capital of South Africa. Immigrant youths as young as 12 cross over from Mozambique, hoping to learn skills that will ensure future earnings.
We meet one trainer, Gogo Mahlahle, at her home in Langville, a sprawling township 60km east of Johannesburg. She is a “gobela” – a spiritual trainer.
Whenever the cowhide drums boom at her homestead, neighbours, family and friends throng to witness yet another lavish graduation ceremony, known as “twaso”. In South Africa´s dominant Zulu language, “twaso” means “straightening a student”. This refers to the completion of training at a traditional herbalist school, which can last anything from 6 to 12 months.
At the ceremony, women wear traditional cloth around their waist as a mark of respect for the graduates. Some of those in attendance are from neighbouring Mozambique. Men sip nqombothi, a traditional wheat beer, as they salute the young graduates.
At the ceremony I am attending, the newly trained sangomas are all immigrants from Mozambique. Their ages vary from 12 to 47. They brim with enthusiasm and the belief that their future in South Africa will bloom now that they have completed their training.
Taking on a new name
“I have struggled ever since l came to South Africa as teenager,” says Vastinyo Kujama, 26, a citizen of neighbouring Mozambique. “Now l can be a sangoma and at the same time advance my plumbing business. l have finally nurtured my ancestral gift.”
Kujama has changed his name. At the herbalist school, a new name was given to him. “I will now be called ‘Gogo Mathalenthabeni‘. This is my sangoma spiritual name,” he explains. Vastinyo Kujama, a man, has now assumed a feminine identity. “It is because the ancestral spirit that is in me is that of an old woman,” he says.
Kujama lived at Gogo Mahlahle’s home training school for nine months before he could master all the teachings of being a traditional herbalist. He had been told that he had the gift of healing when he had consulted herbalists in the past, he explains. “I believe that for as long as I resisted the gift, I failed in other pursuits.”
Kujama says his journey to become a sangoma has not been easy. “Becoming a sangoma has alienated me from my family and friends. They say l am now a dangerous witch doctor. People should understand that sangomas do not choose to be this way; the ancestors chose us,” he says.
The youngest student
The youngest student is 12-year-old Bino Mowando. His new, feminine name is Gogo Thambolenyoka, which means “Granny Snake Rope”. “My spiritual calling interrupted my schooling when I was 10. I was born in Mozambique and came with my parents to South Africa to improve our chances in life.”
When he resisted his herbalist calling, his life soured. “Whenever l went to school l would become very sick. I could not understand anything. My parents consulted a traditional spiritualist. It was revealed that I must obey my herbalist calling before I resumed my schooling.”
Bino is keen to return to formal studies. “If my ancestors allow me to, l would like to continue with fourth grade next year at my old school.”
Hefty money for herbalist gifts
Mahlahle says she does not only train immigrants to be sangomas but also has South African students on her books. She charges between R6 000 (US$400) to R15 000 (US$1 100) to reach twaso. Slow students can end up paying up to R25 000 (US$2 000). She does not turn away students who cannot pay for their initiation as a herbalist. “They can settle my bills during and after.”
Gogo Mahlahle’s is her “dhlozi” (ancestor) name in Zulu. Her official name is Esaura Finish. She is also originally from Mozambique and has practiced as a sangoma for over 20 years. At first she practiced as an ordinary sangoma, until she acquired the skill to train others. When one acquires the skill of teaching, you take on the title of “gobela”.
“My students always arrive here sick – the effect of wanting to resist their herbalist calling. Spiritual sickness always befall students with sangoma gifts,” Mahlahle says. “I nurse them back to good health.”
“Healing means we train them to listen to their ancestors, to identify and extract natural herbs for various diseases and to use the seer gift when they throw dry animal bones and interpret the messages they convey.”
When training ends, she directs her graduates to apply for sangoma certificates with the Traditional Healers Association of South Africa and the Ministry of Health. “This is to formalise their education.”
Sangomas a “bridge” to hospitals
Rose Tibane, known as Gogo Mngomezulu in the Sotho language, is also a gobela in the township. She says that although she has been a sangoma since 1983, society still has a misunderstanding of the calling of sangomas.
“We sangomas play a very important role in the community, in our African culture. There are some sicknesses that modern hospitals cannot cure; they require the help of sangomas. That’s how we come about. Sometimes, however, we do refer our patients to hospitals.”
“People should stop calling us names like ‘witchcraft doctors’,” she concludes.