African traditional healer. Witch doctor.

Every culture has them. Medicine man. Shaman. Soothsayer.

Traditional healer is the preferred translation for Sangoma, though soothsayer, spirit mediator or diviner are also used. And then witchdoctor is whispered, so they know what you mean.

Some of them do specialise: in purification rituals and exorcisms, in herbal cures, in divination by throwing the bones, or as a medium for the spirits of the ancestors. Their role covers physical, psychological and social problems, and psychic ones such as bad luck or malign influences. For a fee, a sangoma will cleanse your house of evil influences, a process that involves elements such as wafting smoke from burning herbs around, the slaughter of a goat, and parting with cash.

These days the medical part of the Sangoma’s art is seen as complimentary medicine.

Being a sangoma is a calling, which often manifests itself as a sickness that resists treatment, or what would in western terms be considered an episode of madness. A sangoma will diagnose this a manifestation of the need to be a sangoma. This illness is called thwasa, and this word also refers to an apprentice Sangoma.

Sangomas are often conspicuous by their highly beaded and ornamented dress, in black, red and white. Both men and women may be sangomas. The sangoma is usually a respected member of the community.

A Sangoma will perform the tradional initiation ceremonies whereby a boy is circumcised and becomes a man. Nelson Mandela recounts in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom how he was circumcised at age sixteen by "a famous ingcibi, a circumcision expert".

As the Bantu languages use prefixes, a single sangoma is an isangoma, the plural being izangoma

A distinction is often made between a Sangoma, who divines and speaks with the ancestors like a soothsayer or shaman, and a inyanga (plural izinyanga) who is a healing herbalist who deals primarily with medical problems. However there is much overlap between these roles, with one person often doing both. The wisdom of how to treat a condition comes, of course, from the ancestors.

The word sangoma in various languages:
Zulu: isangoma
Xhosa: igqira
North Sotho: nga ka
South Sotho: selaodi
Venda and Tsonga: mungome

The word inyanga in various languages:
Zulu: inyanga
Xhosa: ixhwele
North and South Sotho: ngaka
Venda: nganga
Tsonga: nyanga

84 percent of South Africans consult a Sangoma more than three times a year.

The w-word

When the Europeans arrived in Africa they called the local traditional healers Witchdoctors. That word is not preferred these days for several reasons. Firstly it is seen as derogatory. Secondly a sangoma, though having served a long apprenticeship, is not a medical doctor.

But most importantly, a sangoma is not a witch. In that part of the world, particularly in the Northern province of South Africa, it still happens that people are accused of witchcraft, of colluding with evil spirits, and of cursing their neighbours, of sending Tokoloshi to do harm. Some of them even get lynched or burned. There are real attempts at evil magic amidst the hysteria, and some of this occurs with the aid of Sangomas willing to do harm for money, but the entire profession cannot be labelled with this rare crime. More often the sangoma will be part of the witch-hunt in their efforts to divine the cause of the client’s misfortune.


Sources: The Internet, as filtered by google

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