How a group of digitally-savvy practitioners are modernizing a traditional African healing modality — despite decades of stigma.
In South Africa, the practice of visiting a sangoma (or traditional healer) stretches back to the origin of the country’s indigenous people. A mix between a shaman and herbalist, the practice is rooted in indigenous African religion. It became stigmatized after colonizers and Christianity arrived in 1652 and criminalized in 1957.
Since then, sangomas and their practice have been viewed as taboo, shameful, and shrouded in unnecessary secrecy. But today, a new generation of digitally-savvy sangomas are actively working to destigmatize their work and advise a younger demographic of clients.
Like their predecessors, modern sangomas are trained in divination, plant medicine, ancestral communication, and basic health care. They can cure common illnesses, assist with spiritual difficulties, communicate with ancestral spirits, and provide professional and life guidance. The difference? They’ve harnessed the internet to make their offerings more easily accessible.
Gogo Mahlodi is a next generation sangoma based in Johannesburg. Originally born to strict Christian parents, she first visited a sangoma in 2018. Shortly after, Mahlodi started having ancestral dreams: a common indication of a potential sangoma calling. After visiting five healers, she underwent the initiation training, known as ukutwasa. Under the supervision of an experienced teacher, she learned about traditional medicine, herbs, and spiritual energies — and was given her Gogo (Zulu for “grandmother”) name.
Today she divines with bones, practices herbalism, and connects people to their ancestors. Much like a pastor, other spiritual leader, or therapist, she views her work as crucial to helping people’s wellbeing; and she’s fiercely critical that government regulation prevents her practice from being as easily accessible as medical aid or mental health services.
Gogo Magosha is a sangoma and a sexual reproductive health and rights activist. “It’s rare to find healers where that’s their primary income,” she explains of the sangoma profession. Many modern sangomas have careers in IT, marketing, or medicine. And while those latter paths are generally respected, once people “find out you’re a Gogo, they look at you like you’re primitive or backward, like you have no education or opportunities and that’s why you went down this path.”
Magosha views this stigma as a relic of colonialism that not only impacts her profession, but her clients’ personal healing journeys. In consultations, they often explain that their families are fearful that sangomas are practicing evil or witchcraft, which is a common association with any indigenous practices. The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 made sangoma practices illegal by essentially prohibiting the practice of indigenous African religions; the Traditional Health Practitioners Act of 2007 legally recognized sangomas alongside herbalists, traditional birth attendants, and traditional surgeons.
One young finance professional, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, regularly visits a sangoma for guidance on how to connect with his ancestors. He keeps his visits private because his Christian mother and grandmother would disapprove. Much like astrology, he appreciates his sangoma’s advice because “I can use my own prerogative to sift through what I feel is not applicable to me.”
A corporate lawyer, who also requested anonymity, often consults a sangoma for advice on her life and career. “It’s not that my family is opposed to visiting sangomas,” she explains of her secrecy. Instead her family’s judgment would come from “taking part in a practice [that] is not relevant to modern city life.”
Traditionally sangoma visits happened in person, but with globalism and COVID-19, the practice has moved online — and not everyone appreciates the migration.
In 2018, Dr. Velaphi Mkhize, founder and president of the Umsamo institute and South African Healers Association (SOAHA), told The Witness, “Consulting on social media is off-limits.” In the same interview, Sazi Mhlongo, the president of the KwaZulu Natal Traditional Healers’ Association, “described online consultations as ‘criminality.’”
These new healers see no issue with their adaptation to the times. They argue that online consults better serve their younger, global clientele who are tech savvy and value convenience. They maintain that the medium doesn’t decrease the quality of their services either.
“The only thing digital consults change is the methodology,” says Gogo Mahlodi. “The grit and realness of what the work is about — healing and caring for our environment — is still intact.”
“Innovation arises out of need and circumstance,” agrees Mongane Wally Serote, South Africa’s Poet Laureate, Indigenous Knowledge Systems expert, and sangoma. He believes the digital evolution is necessary for African healing culture to remain dynamic.
It’s a wise position to take since, ultimately, this new generation of healers will take this ancient practice into the future. Whether done online or in person, in secret or out in the open, these younger sangomas will continue to answer their divine calling, serve their clients and lessen the long-lasting stigma around their healing practice.