My last post about sangomas seems to have caused a stir. So today I’ll answer the question: how does the sangoma talk to the dead? Not surprisingly I suppose, the ancestors must first want to talk the sangoma! Unlike many people who choose allopathic medical professions, a person has to be called by the ancestors before they can train as a traditional healer. The ancestors usually make their chosen one ill, or give them strange dreams, or bad luck that never ends until they accept the calling to serve.
Once initiated, the sangoma will use three distinct methods of communicating with the dead: divination, muti-healing and channeling.
If you were to consult a sangoma for a divination he or she would throw the bones for you – a collection of small animal bones, seeds and other significant objects. Although it’s the sangoma who throws the bones, it’s the ancestors who decide how they fall. The sangoma merely interprets the message from beyond the grave. Each bone has a special significance. For example a hyena bone will point to a thief who will come in the night.
Muti is the Zulu word for medicine. Many sangomas are skilled at finding and mixing the right plants and animals substances to heal illness. So sangomas even claim to have dreams, which lead them to plants with the right healing properties. Sadly, as with everything, there are always charlatans, and every year southern African hospitals report deaths from muti poisoning. Sometimes these ‘remedies’ contain battery acid, or oleander, or other highly toxic substances. With all things, you have to choose your sangoma wisely! And then there are the chilling muti-murders. It’s not uncommon for people – often children – to be murdered for their body parts, which are turned into illegal muti. But that is the subject for an entirely different blog post. Actually, on second thoughts, it’s so gruesome, I’ll spare you that altogether.
THAT LEAVES CHANNNELING
This is probably the most visually impressive ritual performed by sangomas. Here they use drums, chanting, burning herbs, and animal sacrifice to invoke a trance. Once the sangoma has reached a state of altered consciousness, their spirit moves aside for the ancestors. Having possessed the sangoma, the ancestors will use him or her as a mouth-piece to speak to the patient.
So what would Vukani, the sangoma Seth and I met in Botswana, have done for you if you had consulted him? He would have throw the bones, but I promise you, the dead people he talks to would not have been on your side.