The new generation of sangomas
It was just past noon on a Sunday, and the News Café at Maponya Mall in Soweto was already busy. It was not easy to spot her. I expected to be met by someone in full African traditional wear, but there she was.
Thabiso Siswana (24) stood quietly against the wall, in a funky knee-length blue dress, gold strapped sandals and a high-plaited pony tail. She had red lips, blushed cheeks and perfectly applied eyeliner, like someone you would pass on the streets of Jo'burg without a clue that you were walking past a sangoma.
There were signs, of course. She wore an impande around her neck – a chain of small blue, black and white beads, which represents the colours of the sangoma school that she belongs to in Soweto – and an isiphandla around her left wrist, a piece of goat skin that she received during her initiation.
Siswana had agreed to tell me about her life as a sangoma, which she balances alongside her job as a corporate administrator at one of the country's most influential banks.
"I'm not different. I am just gifted by God," she said, as she told me the story of her life. "Since I was three years old, I have had these dreams in which I'd see things that were going to happen. Sometimes they were scary and I'd wish that they would just go away."
In one particular dream, Siswana dreamt of a snake that approached her in her home. "I was crying in my dream and screaming, 'mama, mama' and the snake said to me, 'not mama, baba'." Baba, Siswana told me, is the word for a person who trains you as a sangoma.
Her mother became a sangoma in 1992 and Siswana grew up witnessing the life and duties of a sangoma. Her mother now runs an initiation school at their home, where Siswana still lives. Some in her family did not believe in the traditional way, while others, like her great aunt, who came to be one of the ancestors who inhabit her, practised traditional healing. Her two sisters are also sangomas, even if her mother did not want that life for her children.
'Still having fun'
"It is very hard and I think my mother knew it would be difficult for me, but if it comes to you, there is not much you can do," she said. "It is the way of our African culture and tradition. Personally, I wish it had come to me at a later stage in my life. I was still having fun."
Becoming a sangoma, she said, was not something you chose. You are chosen. Everything in your life goes wrong when you ignore the calling of your ancestors and in some cases, ignoring them could "lead to your death".
Though Siswana had dreams about becoming a sangoma when she was young, by the time she was a teenager, she had lost interest. Things went quiet, including her vivid dreams, until the beginning of 2012.
"Then really worrying things started to happen. I had a lot of accidents. I had just got a great job, but my money would just go, nothing constructive came of it. Then I had a really scary dream and my mother decided to take me to see a woman about what was going on. She told me what I was expecting to hear, that I had not heeded the calls of my ancestors and they were about to leave me. This was very bad."
Siswana decided to accept the calling, but there were immediate repercussions.
"My ex-boyfriend does not believe in sangomas. When I told him about my dreams and about my decision to accept a life of traditional healing, he broke up with me," she said.
For two months before her initiation, she underwent extensive training at her mother's initiation school. She was taught the traditional dance of the sangoma; ukubhula – how to find something that is hidden; how to embrace the spirit of the ancestor that will inhabit you and the cleaning of the elder's or trainers house, which shows respect.
Her intwaso, the weekend of her initiation ceremony, was held in the backyard of her home, where all the sangoma elders from her school as well as other schools were on hand, as well as those in the community who could watch when they wanted to. She took a week's leave from work in December last year for the event.
The ceremony started in a room called the indumba, where she screamed loudly to the ancestors as though they were far away from her. She then left the room and was given impande to eat, a herb that is burnt until it is fine and is thought of as food for ancestors. The herb also put her in a trance, a state in which she needed to go looking for her goat, which the elders had hidden from her within the surroundings of her house. The goat was then slaughtered as a symbol of her sacrifice to the ancestors. Siswana continued with other rituals, along with more dancing. She then crawled from the indumba to the iganzela, the ancestral tree which is planted in the back yard, where she spoke to her ancestors. After three days, she had reached the point of "growing up".
Siswana now has three ancestors who inhabit her.
"The first is my great aunt. I get my controlling personality from her. The other is my mother's father and also my mother's brother. They all live spiritually inside me. They are spiritual guides, but I call them angels, even though they were once part of this earth. Right now, sitting here, they are dormant. When they do become active, I am still there, I know where I am and I am still aware of my surroundings."
She said that in the moments before the ancestors become active within her she gets an overwhelming feeling of pain and sorrow. These feelings draw the spirits closer to her. "It's like they speak through me. I feel their pain. It's like being a vessel and relaying the message."
Siswana said many black South Africans are sceptical about sangomas and think of them as demonic, not understanding that their work comes from intense training and the healing power of herbs. Like many other sangomas, she is Christian and says traditional healing is a calling that was part of her culture, regardless of religion.
"My mother's work includes nothing else but herbs. There are the inyaga [people who deal with other methods of healing, apart from herbs], who know that kind of muthi. We do not do this," she said.
Her colleagues at the bank have not changed their attitude to her, even though they know she is a sangoma.
Sometimes, people make sly remarks about sangomas without knowing that she is one, "but I am no longer afraid or shy to defend what it truly means to be a sangoma. It is a life of purity, where the ancestors that live inside you are there for you and not for other people."