Nkosazana* is a dreamer.
Nkosazana* is a dreamer.
Some of her dreams are vivid, and some are crystal clear, but these are not just any dreams: they’re premonitions and messages from the ancestors. The first thing your eye is drawn to when you meet her is a white beaded necklace that hangs around her neck. “I’m training to be a sangoma,” she says and points to her necklace, “this is to show that I am an umkhwetha”.
An umkhwetha is the name given to a trainee, or sangoma in training. Part of South Africa’s culture is infused with a long history of traditional healers, medicine men and diviners. Diviners, in particular, can specialise in either fortune telling, interpretation of dreams or healing. Before one is declared an umkhwetha, however, one needs to receive the calling from one’s ancestors to be a sangoma.
For Nkosazana, like many others, the calling from the ancestors comes in the form of dreams. She had her first calling at 22.
“The ancestors are calling you, they want your attention,” she explains, “because they want to use you as a sangoma”. To answer the calling is to start training under another sangoma. Nkosazana refers to her trainer as her “mama”, and dreamt of her three times before realising that her dreams were a message from the ancestors, revealing her trainer to her. Currently living in Joza with her two children, she manages to balance training and a day job.
But Nkosazana is not the first in her family to have been led on the path of the sangoma. Her mother also received the calling. “She was a dreamer, like me,” she says, “[and]when it used to rain and stop quickly, she used to say that an old person in Grahamstown would die. After that you’d hear that someone old has died.”
Her mother would be able to predict certain events or happenings, but didn’t complete her training. Nkosazana’s maternal grandfather was also a dreamer, and an aunt on her father’s side was training to be an inyanga – a traditional herbalist. “I inherited this from my mother’s side,” she says of her family’s sangoma history, “but my mother and grandfather; they both didn’t finish because of poverty”.
Training to becoming a sangoma is not cheap: there are various items such as necklaces, bracelets which differ in beadworks, and stages of training that cannot be passed without payment to one’s trainer. One of the forms of payment is through brandy. Nkosazana, currently in her second stage, has so far given her mama 15 bottles of brandy since the start of her training at the beginning of the year. The white beaded necklace she currently wears cost her 4 bottles of brandy.
There are seven stages of training, and each stage requires an umkhwetha to dress in a certain manner to indicate the level of training they are in. The first stage requires Nkosazana to wear a white head cloth and blue skirt.
In the second stage, she will progress to wearing a white beaded necklace, white beaded bracelets on her wrists and ankles, and wear white clay on her face.
In the third stage, she will swap the white necklace, bracelets and anklets for blue beaded ones, wear isishweshwe material garments and have white clay only around her eyes. The final stage will see her graduate as a sangoma, and the entire training process can be from a year to 10 years.
But ignoring the calling is believed to cause bad luck, a consequence from the ancestors. “The anger of the ancestors,” she says, “maybe it will not happen to me, but [will]to my kids”.
Both of Nkosazana’s children have already started dreaming, and will one day have to answer the calling. “My son wants to ignore [the calling],” she explains, “but you can’t ignore it”.
While some sangomas decide to practice on a full-time basis, Nkosazana hopes she will continue her day job and also consult as a sangoma. “What I like is the Bible,” she says, adding that she is also an Anglican and hopes to pursue her faith. “I’m going to do the sangoma training, finish, then go take the Bible,” she says. “But I’m not going to choose by myself. The ancestors will show me the way.”
*Name has been changed. Photographs of Nkosazana are not allowed to be taken because of the sanctity of the training process.