Twelve-year-old Noluthando Mahlathi-Zikalala is one of them. She introduces herself as Xebisa, ‘my ancestral name”. Although she looks 10, she behaves nothing like a usual child. She spends her time with a woman in her twenties whom she trains as a sangoma. When she’s not treating patients, she spends her time beading bracelets as she has been instructed to do by her ancestors.
Xebisa doesn’t play with toys or other children, nor does she go to school. She says she tried to go to school last year after she had finished her training but her ancestors wouldn’t let her. Angry teachers called her mother after she had made prophecies about them and other children.
‘The first day at school was fine, but then on my second day and the days that followed, teachers summoned my mother to the school. I didn’t know what had happened. Teachers told me that I had started telling them about their lives and what would happen to them in the future,” the young girl says.
Xebisa says that during the prophecies she falls unconscious. ‘The ancestors take over Xebisa. When the ancestor has finished doing his job, Xebisa doesn’t know anything that was discussed between the client and the ancestor.”
Xebisa was trained for a year as a sangoma under Mayeza ‘Mado” Zondi. Like all other aMatwasa (trainees) she awoke at 3am to ukuPhalaza (an enduced vomiting ritual) and wash using a herb called iGobonga. After washing they did their ritual dance until 5am.
The aMatwasa’s hair is dreaded with oxide and oil and chicken feathers at the back of the head. During training, they are forbidden to eat eggs, cheese, peanuts and milk. According to Gobola (master) Mayeza, this helps them to avoid sexual feelings as they should not have sexual intercourse during training.
As part of training, they learn ukuGida (the ritual dance), ukuBhula (prophesying), types of herbs and what they are used for, and their ritual laws.
The home-welcoming ceremony serves as the final examination. The graduate’s family prepares a cow for slaughtering and then hides it. The graduate then has to tell where the hidden cow is; if they fail to, they do not qualify to be a sangoma.
Xebisa’s mother says she is thankful to the ancestors for giving her child ‘a gift”. She says that unlike other children, Xebisa does not have to worry about choosing a career because it has already been chosen for her.
But the Gauteng Traditional Healers’ Association – the umbrella body of 34 traditional healers’ organisations – has condemned the training of a minor as child abuse. According to representative Nomsa Dlamini, ‘The association has rules against training of young children. What does a 12-year-old know about ancestors? That child still does not who she is, so how can she know about ancestors?”
Dlamini says any person who trains young children to become sangomas should be arrested and charged with child abuse. ‘They are denying that child a right to grow up like a child – not to mention the right to education.” She says it is impossible that the ancestors would deny a child the right to go to school. ‘Supposing it is true that she became sick because her ancestors wanted her to go for training, she has now gone for training. Why won’t the ancestor let her go to school now?”
The association will investigate the matter and is considering laying charges against the trainer. ‘The next thing, they’ll say the ancestors wants her to have a husband,” says Dlamini, who describes the actions of the trainer as ‘selfish and irresponsible”.
Dlamini says the country needs educated youth and people who deny children the right to such education belong in jail. ‘We
cannot afford to encourage children to become illiterates. What will become of their future?”