Insight: Heritage

Young healers want to create a world where culture & modernity coexist

Journalist-cum-sangoma Rea Khoabane explores the renewed interest in an ancient calling shown by the modern generation

10 March 2019 - 00:00 By REA KHOABANE
Rea Khoabane was given the spiritual name Morongwa, 'she who is sent', by her ancestors.
Rea Khoabane was given the spiritual name Morongwa, 'she who is sent', by her ancestors.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

I was walking up a mountain near Ladybrand in the Free State with my spiritual mother, learning about traditional uses for indigenous plants. Though it was early in the morning it was getting hot, so I took out my sunglasses. She asked: "Morongwa, what are you doing?" Morongwa, "the one who is sent", is the spiritual name I was given by my ancestors the day I began my journey to becoming a sangoma.

"I'm wearing shades, it's hot, mama," I explained.

"You can't wear shades, how will your ancestors see you?" she replied.

It was then that the difference between becoming a sangoma today and in the past really struck me. Even my dreams were strictly modern; instead of dreaming of traditional steamed bread, I'd dream of tacos.

When I was a child I was told by many prophets and traditional healers that I was going to be one of them when I grew up. I think I started realising this was true when I dreamt about my father at university. He came to me as a lion and sat next to me, terrifying everybody around us. Our clan name is Bataung, meaning lion.

I called my mother and the first thing she said was: "Pray, and tell the ancestors that you accept everything they're asking you to be."


Now, having undertaken that journey, I've encountered others who are trying to balance modern-day living with the old traditions.

Like photographer Zac Modirapula, whose Johannesburg studio is adorned with the trappings of a gobela (teacher). During my visit he burns impepho, an incense that appeases the ancestral spirits.

"I knew since I was in my teens that there was something special about me," says Modirapula. "Growing up, I'd see things and things would happen, but as a child you don't really take much notice. None of my grandmother's children answered so the gift came to me."

He says he was enjoying the good life, with plenty of travel and a nice apartment, but circumstances changed and he had to go back to living with his mother, in Midrand.

"During this time, when I had nothing, I realised my purpose. One day I woke up and walked to my gobela's home. The spirits led me to his place in President Park in Midrand."

The teacher said to him, "You are home now."

Modirapula has been doing his sangoma training in stages because he has to work. "Even though I haven't yet graduated to be a gobela, my luck is back and I help people. I have a connection with babies and pregnant women."

Modirapula is working on a photographic series that will show 20 young sangomas in their work clothes and their traditional gear.

Photographer Zac Modirapula combines the busy life of a creative with training as a sangoma after letting the spirits guide him.
Photographer Zac Modirapula combines the busy life of a creative with training as a sangoma after letting the spirits guide him.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

Traditional healer Zukiswa Mvoko, a member of the African National Healers Association, says it's a good thing that more young people "are getting in touch with their spiritual side and know where they come from".

"The previous generations were entering the corporate world. Being seen wearing beads was affiliated with poverty because of the historical context of our country," she says.

"Young people have seen what has happened to those who denied the gift - like their aunts and uncles - how they suffered, and don't want to experience that."

She says young people are increasingly interested in their roots, "and want to create a world where culture and modernity coexist". "The nice advantage about today is that as much as we're traditional healers in the African context, we also move with the times."

Fashion has played its part - beads, previously only associated with sangomas, have become an acceptable part of modern dress and can be worn by anyone.

"Being spiritual is generic to the human race. We all have spiritual callings, whether it's Indians who are Hindu or Muslims who have the Koran; how you define it is how and where you were born," says Mvoko, who is an engineer by profession.

When she was in grade 3, Busisiwe Radebe started having premonitions in her dreams.

"I started telling my mother my dreams and what would happen. She then took me to a traditional healer and the healer told me I have a calling.

"The dreams never went away, instead they turned into a gift because I even started helping people. I don't know where the knowledge came from but I found myself healing."

Radebe finished high school, then went to a gobela in Kimberley.

"The journey I went through wasn't easy. There were times I was asking my ancestors to take my life, but I'm fine now."

Now 21, Radebe is also known by her traditional healer's name, Nqobi, meaning "winner".

Since starting to practise as a healer she's had to combine her everyday life with her spiritual one.

"I was afraid of wearing shorts and crop tops because of what people will say . [But] ancestors don't judge as long as you do what you have to do for them. Human beings judge, but your life is directed by a force bigger than them."

Tirelo Makgeledisa, whose memoir Voices of Jesus and Ancestors describes how she initially resisted the calling she felt, says that in her home town of Mafikeng, women who were seen with beads or looking like sangomas were called witches.

"I think today's generation has found a way to accommodate both lifestyles. Growing up I had dreams of becoming a superstar, as I was active in community plays and musical concerts, but my mother had the gift of healing."

I knew since I was in my teens that there was something special about me. Growing up, I'd see things and things would happen, but as a child you don't really take much notice
Zac Modirapula

Makgeledisa had her first vision at the age of eight.

"I never told anyone because first my mother was going to take me to a gobela and I despised the life of sangomas. When I thought of it, I saw suffering and poverty and only once in a while you'd see a rich person. These visions didn't stop and when I got to my teens they became worse.

"I would tell my friends that I'm not going out because I have a feeling something bad is going to happen, and it would," she says.

"I started seeing death in people's eyes until one day I held my uncle and felt his life come to me and a voice telling me he's going to die. I didn't tell him or anyone; instead I told the voice to take someone else because he was the uncle who held the family together."

The uncle died soon afterwards.

Makgeledisa fought to get rid of the voice but became increasingly unhappy.

"I joined a new church and I was born again but my life was a mess. I became an alcoholic, slept with boys trying to get rid of the voice, but the voice never went away."


Even though Makgeledisa has never received traditional training, she is regarded as a prophet. Now 44, she says she's seeing younger people embracing the journey.

"My generation hated it because it came with names like 'witch' or 'whore' . [but] it has its beautiful side."

Historian Hlonipha Mokoena, an associate professor at the Wits University Institute for Social and Economic Research, has a different way of looking at the phenomenon.

She says the rediscovery of their beliefs by urban Africans is as much about a romantic search for roots as it is about the rise of ideas such as "Afropolitanism".

"Movies like Black Panther are themselves products of this Afropolitan moment since the Marvel character has been there for several decades and it is only when he was 'rediscovered' for the current generation that he suddenly became a worldwide sensation."

The concept of African ancestors has been around for centuries, Mokoena says; the fact that some people are re-embracing it now does not change its basic nature.

"Unlike the notion of Christ or the Messiah, I would say African ancestors are quite indifferent to our 'attention', they don't really care either way whether you 'listen' to them or not or whether you 'respect' them or not," Mokoena says.

"Again, it is only urban Africans who have suddenly made it an imperative to 'obey' the call of the ancestors. The only people for whom ukuthwasa [initiation] was a taboo were Christianised Africans who had to demonstrate to the missionaries and to their denominations that they have truly left behind their 'tribal' ways.

"For rural amaqaba [non-converts] there has never been a taboo associated with ancestors, spirits and divination," says Mokoena.