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The sangoma tradition of Southern Africa --

Wim van Binsbergen

In addition to his scholarly and literary work, Wim van Binsbergen has been, since 1990, a certified spirit medium/ diviner/ priest in the sangoma tradition of Southern Africa.

Sangoma is the term for a diviner-priest in the tradition of the Nguni-speaking peoples (Zulu, Ndebele) of Southern Africa. In the course of the twentieth century of the North Atlantic era this idiom of diagnosis and healing has increasingly spread over the entire Southern African subcontinent. The sangoma's powers are based on the fact that she/he is the incarnation of an ancestral spirit. Usually this spirit makes his presence known by inflicting on the host a serious disease which cannot be cured by cosmopolitan medicine. Diagnosis of such possession is the first step on a path which, for a minority of the patients, leads to a status of apprenticeship and incubation called utwaza. The real proof of election for sangoma-hood is when the spirit speaks through the patient's mouth when in trance, preferably in tongues or dialects unknown to the patient in ordinary life, and when it divulges messages to the living concerning ancestral election, imminent illness and death, and the breach of taboos. The majority of twazas graduate as fully-fledged sangomas by means of a public, festive and expensive celebration, which culminates in the ritual sacrifice of at least one goat (another was already sacrificed at the onset of utwaza) and the ceremonial consumption -- with the aid of make-shift chopsticks -- of the sacrificial animal's intestines. Being symbolically an unborn foetus herself, the twaza is not supposed to eat any 'inside' meat, and is also otherwise an unborn child.
Sangomahood is spread in the typical fashion of cults of affliction, i.e. through a chain reaction: each twaza who has graduated to become a sangoma has the right to diagnose and treat patients and to supervise them through utwaza and graduation. The cult is loosely organised in local lodges, headed by a senior sangoma. Often an extended family forms the core of a lodge, but every lodge comprises non-kin among its members, typically recruited from among a great variety of ethnic groups, nationalities, and language groups. In north-eastern Botswana and the adjacent regions of South Africa and Zimbabwe, sangoma lodges are associated with the Mwali cult, to whose headquarters in the Matopos Hills (Zimbabwe) a portion of their income from divination and healing is forwarded as tribute. Mwali is the name of the High God venerated in a large part of the Southern African subcontinent.
Being relatively scarce (e.g. in Francistown c. 1990, fewer than one in every 1000 inhabitants was a sangoma), sangomas are considered to offer a public service. They may be approached in public places -- where they are conspicuous by their bracelets and necklaces of white, red and black beads -- or in their homes and lodges. Sometimes they honour local and state festivals with their presence and ceremonial dancing. Clients may consult sangomas for physical complaints, psychosomatic and psychic problems, and for problems of a social rather than individual/physical nature, such as bad luck in business and amorous affairs, conflict and competition, bereavement in the family, major travelling etc. In their secluded ritual activities -- which centre on singing, dancing and drumming in gaudy uniforms -- mediumistic trance plays a central role. Yet usually the diagnosis and treatment of lay patients does not involve trance on the part of the sangoma herself. Here the sangomas use of combination of herbalism -- based on a considerable knowledge of the Southern African natural environment -- and divination with four tablets of wood, ivory or bone. These 10 cm long flat tablets (Hakata, Dithlao) are cast onto the ground, and since they are marked to be distinguished from each other and to tell front from back, they can take 2 to the power 4 = 16 different positions. These positions are named, interpreted according to several dimensions (ancestors; sorcery and witchcraft; the body; relations between living kin; wealth; travelling, etc.), using a detailed interpretative catalogue whose antecedents ramify into the Indian Ocean cultures, West Africa, Arabian ilm al-raml, and ultimately the Chinese I Ching.

The strength of sangomahood as an idiom of diagnosis and healing derives from a combination of:


Click on this icon (representing MmaShakayile in ceremonial sangoma uniform, 1989) if you wish to view

As a traditional healer in Botswana, Wim van Binsbergen is locally known as Johannes Sibanda -- Johannes as the incarnation of MmaShakayile's cousin who died in the 1970s, and Sibanda as the name of Wim van Binsbergen's divined adoptive totem. Sibanda is any clawed predator, but especially the porcupine, which features in his logo.

click on this icon if you may be interested to consult Wim van Binsbergen as a sangoma diviner-priest.

click here for a Web article in this site describing in detail the organisation and therapy at Francistown sangoma lodges

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page last modified: 05-06-99; page last automatically updated: 05-06-99