Growing up during the 70s and 80s, in a South Africa torn apart by Apartheid, I’d often find myself barefoot, playing soccer with the local black farm kids. A bunch of us, black and white, would kick a ball around in the dirt. In the game I was merely another participant - not white, not blonde, not English - just another soccer player. For those brief moments I felt a sense of camaraderie with my team mates and it gave me hope. Hope for an undivided country where the colour of one’s skin no longer matters.
Thirty years on, Apartheid has at last been consigned to the history books. Yes, South Africa still faces some tough challenges as a nation, but as hosts of the upcoming FIFA World Cup we have a unique opportunity to allow “the beautiful game” to bridge cultural and social divides. And as a soccer fan and a practicing Sangoma (I am a member of ‘Uthando Bayaphantsi’ traditional healers Association) I can’t wait for kick off. The event will also provide the world with a unique window into traditional South African spirituality and, if people keep an open mind, it could promote positive awareness of our indigenous spiritual culture and heritage.
Sangomas, the traditional spiritual doctors of Southern Africa, will play a significant part in the World Cup. Most of the major soccer clubs in South Africa use Sangomas in much the same way that modern clubs overseas use sport psychologists. Sangomas are psychologist, herbalist and priest rolled into one. They are trained and initiated in an intricate spiritual way much like Tibetan Buddhist Lamas and are seen as instruments or channels of ancestral healing. At a recent milestone conference in South Africa it was announced that African teams may consult with traditional healers and use traditional forms of treatment during the FIFA world cup finals.
This is an exciting time for us, and an opportunity for Sangomas to dispel any negative misconceptions about their work. Sangomas and traditional African healers have often been wrongly associated in the west with witchdoctors, muti killings and voodoo. Sangomas are professional priests and healers, but just as certain individuals in the Christian priesthood and western medicine may occasionally bring their professions into disrepute, so unfortunately do certain individuals in the Sangoma world. Traditionally Sangomas are healers and bonefide Sangomas would never perform negative acts, they work with honesty and integrity.
A Sangoma might bless a football team and the pitch in various ways according to their particular culture. An animal blood sacrifice is one way for us to perform blessings and ceremonies, as in our culture blood is seen as cleansing and purifying, but we are also able to use medicinal plants, prayers, song and dance for the same purpose. We pay respect to our forefathers and call upon our ancestors to support our endeavours, placing our fate in their hands, whether in life or on the soccer pitch. Not so long ago FIFA cracked down heavily on Sangomas performing their rites on the turf at the Somhlolo Stadium in Swaziland, after it was disclosed that a Sangoma from either Black Mambas or Mbabane Swallows had cut open a section of the expensive artificial pitch and buried a sacrificial chicken in the centre. Not an issue the English FA are ever likely to have to contend with!
I will be supporting the South African Bafana Bafana during the tournament. I would have been behind the Republic of Ireland squad too as my mother’s Irish, from Dublin, but controversially they haven't made it to the finals. I'll be in Ireland in May, so if the Irish team would like a blessing ceremony I would be up for it. And don't worry, I'll leave my chickens and goats behind and focus purely on the use of medicinal plants.