The millennial sangomas merge old and new

Working on your laptop while lying flat on the floor for the seven-month duration of your initiation into African spiritual and traditional medicine best encapsulates the contrasting worlds millennial sangomas have to straddle.

Refiloe Letuma, an IT support technician, and Zanele Maphophe, a conveyancer, are 29-year-old professionals who have embraced their African religion and answered the calling to become sangomas, or spiritual and traditional healers. They completed their initiation in 2020 and 2018 respectively.

Ubungoma is an ancient practice that is intertwined with African religion and belief systems. It is currently regulated by the Traditional Health Practitioners Act and all practitioners, whether they be herbalists, traditional birth attendants or traditional surgeons, have to be certified and accredited with the professional body. 

Letuma and Maphophe, both embedded in their modern upbringing, describe their spiritual journeys with a conspicuous reverence, and have merged the technological advantages presented by modern society into their practices.

For example, Letuma’s practice has begun making hand-crafted soaps from natural herbs that she sells to people who were afraid of being judged for consulting an African traditional healer. 

“People do get judged for having small plastics of umuthi around the house, so I have created the soap in order to accommodate everyone in that perspective,” Letuma said. 

“I have also recently joined Gogo Online, which is a platform to easily find a traditional healer in your area. We live in a digital world, and we as young healers have incorporated that into our work,” she said, adding that she might venture into virtual consultations. 

“But,” she stressed, “I would have to check with the ‘underground gang’ — millennial slang for ancestors — first before doing virtual consultations.”

Letuma said it had been difficult merging her modern upbringing and existence with her spiritual calling, which she said she first had in 2016 when she started having dreams from her ancestors. 

This culminated in her undergoing her seven-month initiation period while still working her full-time job. Letuma joked that she regularly had to be on her laptop working while sleeping flat on the hard floor of her gobela’s (spiritual teacher’s) school, where initiates stay for the duration of their studies. 

Letuma expressed hope that more companies and organisations would consider incorporating African spiritual studies and religion in diversity training sessions, much like has been done with racial, gender and sexual orientation awareness campaigns. 

“As an IT support technician, I find that when I am beaded up with amabhayi [African jewellery] and have to deal with a few clients, a few clients will refuse to be assisted by me because of the way I would be dressed. 

“That, essentially, is discrimination, right?” said Letuma. 

“So, a bit more training or knowledge of African religion will go a long way to improving the work environment for spiritual healers.” 

Maphophe said it was difficult to forgo her middle-class lifestyle in the Johannesburg suburb of Fourways when undergoing initiation. 

“I went through initiation while I worked, unfortunately, and had to travel from Soweto to Sandton daily. It became very difficult because now you need to try and balance your work and your traditional aspects of life. 

“I had to take criticism from both ends because you arrive ePhehlweni [initiation school] and people looked at me differently because of the field I was in, and then I got to the office and people also looked at me in a weird way because of what I was wearing,” Maphophe said. 

“Sometimes I would go to court for an execution of a deed of sale and people would look at me like: ‘Okay, how are you doing [conveyancing] but you have got that [spiritual attire] on?’ 

“So, it was not easy trying to balance the two worlds, but, at the end of the day, you just tell yourself, ‘this will all be fine someday,’” said Maphophe, adding that she has been in conveyancing for six years. 

She said that colleagues who knew her and the type of person she was had warmed to her spirituality, but that she still received “funny looks” when encountering new people or clients. 

“It’s funny because other people will be brave enough to come and ask me about my religion because they are willing to learn, and traditional healing, especially among us as young people, has become more exposed within my industry and on social media, and people don’t have to hide themselves anymore,” Maphophe said. 

“It’s not like before when traditional healers had to hide their beads because you’re afraid that people associate African religion with witchcraft.” 

Balancing act: Zanele Maphophe has two careers — as a conveyancer and as a traditional healer. She initially had difficulty balancing her careers, she says, but it has become easier over time

Like Letuma, Maphophe uses technology to advance her practice. She is active on social media sites, where she goes by the name “Nkosazana yeDlozi” (the princess of the ancestors) to discuss her work and attract clients. 

Her Instagram page, for example, displays the eclecticism of her two worlds as a professional conveyancer and a traditional healer. Maphophe said her confidence was drawn from the support and acceptance that she received from her colleagues and managers. 

For example, Maphophe said that her boss, who is of a different race, is always respectful when asking about her beliefs, and genuinely wants to know about the healer’s life. 

“So, work has become easier because I am able to bring light to someone who doesn’t know about African religion — you are able to show them a different aspect that, you know, when a candle burns in a certain way, this is the message that it is carrying.

“But I always say that you cannot expect everyone to accept you. I accept other people’s beliefs, hence I will never judge other people’s cultures or religions.”

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Khaya Koko
Khaya Koko is a journalist with a penchant for reading through legal documents braving the ravages of cold court benches to expose the crooked. He writes about social justice and human-interest stories. Most importantly, he is a card-carrying member of the Mighty Orlando Pirates.

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