Traditional Sangomas/ African Shamans vs more Contemporary Shamans

Sangoma Trainees in our school

In order for us as mankind to walk forwards with integrity we have to know where we come from. Traditional shamans are the keepers of the old knowledge. I have felt very priveliged and honoured to be trained in the Xhosa way, an ancient culture and language that still practices the ancient way. I beleive aspects of Xhosa Sangoma culture can be used to help people to remember the old ways of their ancestors; i.e. the way of dreaming, medicinal plants and trance music to commune with life. Why? Because we are all human with red blood, and we have countless ways of helping one another.

What are traditional Sangomas or Shamans for that matter?

This question came up recently with a friend of mine. I don't know too much about contemporary Shamanism. All I can do is talk about my experience & training as a traditional Xhosa Sangoma. I am a traditional Sangoma because I was trained by my Xhosa teacher, Mum Gwevu & her husband, Tata Sukwini, who is a traditional leader. Neither of them speak English, and they follow the ancient medicine ways of their forefathers. They adopted me as a Sukwini member of their clan, and in an official ceremony recently they acknowledged me as a 'Sukwini'.

It is important to note that people don't decide to become Sangomas they are chosen. They are chosen by their ancestors, and this comes through in dreams. In Southern Africa people can also be called through a difficult illness known as the 'twaza' ( a global shamanic illness). As someone apprentices the illness abates. A person in South Africa would normally go to a Sangoma for a divination. The sangoma would then validate their dream experiences and/or illness and confirm the need to apprentice.

Sangomas are loved by their communities because they live a life dedicated towards healing and service. They are the traditional Monks & Nuns of Southern Africa and can be likened to Tibetan Buddhist or in my experience Korean monks & nuns. I see Sangomas as 'African Dancing Monks & Nuns' because we use rhythm, dance and song to honour life.

As a traditional Xhosa Sangoma/ African Shaman, we listen to our dreams, white dreams, prophetic dreams. Dreams which come from our ancestors and tell us the future or what is happening with somebody i.e. their health or their destiny. We never claim to be Sangomas, that is something our elders bestow on us after witnessing our dreams and our gift.  We are seen as being trained by our ancestors. Sangoma teachers are seen to teach 20% of the medicine and the remaining 80% is seen to come from our ancestors.  The job of the Sangoma teacher is to help align/ connect the student with their ancestors. Once this happens the student dreams and is given the required information from the ancient ones.

When someone starts their Xhosa Sangoma apprenticeship they start to wear white beads and white clothes and they are called Sangoma, but it is recognised that they are a trainee and have many initiation stages to complete. They also wear white clay over their entire faces to indicate that they are in the luminal/spirit world and are being trained by their ancestors. The other name for Sangoma is 'abantu abamhlope' which means 'white people' because of their white attire and dedicated profession focused on healing, praying and honouring life. When a Sangoma (trainee or senior) walks down the road people call out 'camagu!' , a term of deep respect, which means 'we honour and praise you'. Why? Because it is well known in Africa that Sangomas/ African Shamans are the guardians of the old knowledge, the medicine keepers, and they also help to maintain the balance between nature, man and the ancestral world. It is also well known that the job is extremely difficult and dangerous. And when people are seen to have the calling there is always a mixture of happiness and sadness because it is widely understood that Sangomas suffer a great deal, especially knowadays where we are misunderstood and sometimes mistakenly labelled as practitioners of the dark arts.

A Sangoma apprenticeship revolves around three areas namely; divination, medicinal plants & Xentsa (trance dance which includes playing the drum and singing 'ingomas', the sacred Xhosa songs/chants).  Amongst Xhosa Sangomas it is well known that a traditional Sangoma apprenticeship can take many years to complete. The reason being is that we have many ancestors, blood related and also nature spirits that we need to align/connect with. I completed my training after 10 years, and I still have some Xhosa friends who started before me, and who are still in training today. Exactly when you finish is at the discretion of the ancestors, and it comes through with particular mystical/ ancestral dreams which are clear and cannot be confused with ordinary reality.

The other aspect to finishing sangoma training is also financial. We pay our teacher for each initiation. However as the work is so closely connected to the community, when a Sangoma initiation occurs the entire community is invited. As there needs to be sufficient food and drink for everyone, a traditional ceremony could run into thousands of rands. So an enormous amount of energy is used to plan, execute and carry out each initiation. We always say that the financial side to the initiation is just one of the tests the Ancestors set us. Interesting enough my teacher comes from a poor background and she was able to finish all her initiations. The financial strain teaches us to be resourceful. Also if people in the community, family and friends notice how ardent, committed and focused you are as a trainee they donate money to you. This is the tribal way. And this is how I managed to finish my training as well.

In my experience I have found that my Sangoma training was very similar to my time as a Zen student in South Korea. Korean zen monks  follow an ancient tradition. The similarity is found in many ways but particularly in the area of chanting. Zen monks chant sacred korean sutras to clear their minds and reach enlightenment. Sangomas sing/ chant 'Ingomas' (sacred Xhosa songs) to connect to their ancestors. Hence, Sangomas could be likened to African Dancing monks/ nuns with a strong focus on transcendence and interconnectedness with our Ancestors, Great Spirit & Nature.

The Sangoma trainee also does an 'energy exchange'  for their apprenticeship through serving their teacher. They collect and prepare medicinal plants to be used  for clients, they give divination under the supervision of their teacher, and they help out with 'umsebenzes' (traditional ceremonies to honour the Ancestors & Great Spirit).  The trainees form the backbone of the Sangoma culture because they sing the songs, play the drum and build the energy during all traditional ceremonies. The trainees sing and dance calling forth the ancient ones (Ancestors & Great Spirit), and then when the energy in the room is right the senior Sangomas walk in to go into trance and give 'indaba' spirit news to the community. Like their juniors they work as channels or messengers between this world and the next. They also work as empaths so they 'feel' the energy of the community and they speak about this. They also give messages from the other world and they pass this on to the community to lift their spirits. An important aspect of these ceremonies is 'hlonipa' which loosely translated into english means respect. But it is a lot more than that. It is a deep form of humility, and honouring of the Ancestors, Great Spirit and the medicine of life. You see this when the senior sangomas talk, the trainees kneel out of humility. When each of the trainees in turn pray & honour they do it on their knees and all their colleagues join them. The Sangoma culture rests on this ancient code.

Again the job of the Sangoma is to lift the spirit energy of the individual or community, we call this 'umoya phezulu'. We serve the community.

Amongst the Xhosa people  I am known as 'Ucingolwendaba', the messenger between cultures. I am also known as 'Ligquira Inkulu', which means Senior Sangoma because I have completed all the various initiation stages making me Sangoma. I am now given permission by my elders to train & initiate people in the 'Sangoma way'. Normally only someone who has completed all these stages can initiate someone else to become a Sangoma.