African traditional healers or Sangomas

Sangoma or african traditional healers Blog


There are no diplomas to grace the walls of the consulting room, yet the line of people waiting patiently outside is a testament to the powers of the healer.  Consultation is done in conjunction with the ancestral spirits, and a powerful, foot stomping, dust-raising dance around a small fire strengthens communication bonds between the two worlds. The consultation, in a hut lit by the light of a single candle, is a matter of throwing the bones. The “bones” are there to facilitate the communication between the healer and the ancestral spirits and are an assortment of animal bones, trinkets and shells. When the healer delves into the spiritual world, he is bedecked with the talismans of his trade.  Skins, bones and beads help ward off evil spirits and protect the sangoma. The sacred hut where consultation takes place is afforded the same protection and it is here that the secret potions are stored. A multitude of small bottles adorn one side of the hut, inside these are the basic ingredients for everyday use. Anything from dried snake to powdered roots is kept in these unlabelled containers.

Innovative technology and scientific advancement have often been perceived as the only way forward in a developing world, and consequently, positive attributes made by traditional cultures are being overlooked.  One of these attributes is the vast knowledge, both spiritual and medicinal, of the Sangoma or traditional healer.  The Sangoma’s unique powers have evolved over thousands of years and if we are able to shrug off the concept of witchcraft and black magic, we could get a unique insight into the world of the traditional healer and gain some invaluable knowledge on the variety of plant species used in “healing”.

To understand the world of the Sangoma we need to look at the healer, firstly as a herbalist and secondly as a psychiatrist. The sangoma as a herbalist utilizes herbs, bark and roots to concoct potions and poultices, which he dispenses to his patients to cure a number of ailments. These potions can be scientifically tested to isolate the active ingredients and thus verify the authenticity of any claims to the ability of his powers of healing. This scientific endorsement is already underway on a major scale by large international pharmaceutical companies. In fact over 120 pharmaceutical products currently in use are plant derived, and some 75% of these were discovered by examining the use of these plants in traditional medicine. By utilizing the traditional healers knowledge, scientists are reducing their research time by up to ten years. If the idea of plant-derived medicines of the future seems farfetched, tell that to someone with Hodgkin’s disease or childhood leukemia, one of today’s most potent medicines for treating those diseases was derived from the rosy periwinkle, an old standby of traditional doctors in Madagascar. Aspirin, quinine, birth control pills, painkillers, cancer chemotherapy agents are all synthetic equivalents of old folk medicines. With so many potential “miracle cures” based in plants, it is critical that we ensure the conservation of biodiversity so that we do not loose a plant species that could potentially have the answers to the world’s enigmatic diseases.

 Scientifically authenticating the sangoma’s spiritual or psychiatric powers is much more of a challenge. There are scholars who have drawn parallels between this shamanistic healing and psychoanalytic cures and have concluded that in both instances efficacious and therapeutic symbols are created, leading to psychological release and physiological curing. In simpler terms, if ones belief is strong enough, that person can overcome almost anything.

Potions and “muti’s” too, are changing with the times. Concoctions that once protected warriors in battle are now sought out to afford the same protection to taxi owners and drivers in the country’s ongoing violent taxi struggle. The protection of homes, valuables and family are the most sought after potions on the market today. The ingredients for many of these “muti’s” can now be purchased from sidewalk shopping centers, where business entrepreneurs have set up shop to supply the growing urban market.

Urbanization has not only led to rural people flocking to towns, but followed close behind are the practicing healers. In a city, it is common to find businessmen in a suit consulting a sangoma about business ventures, or a wife, long suffering from headaches seeking a cure. This urbanization has led to a subsidiary industry developing which is causing untold environmental damage. Traditionally a healer would take only the plant material that he needed when mixing up potion, leaving the rest of the plant healthy for future sustainable use. Now, commercial gathers collecting for urban healers are descending on indigenous habitats and removing entire plants at an unsustainable rate. A prime example of this is the Woods Cycad (Encephalartos woodii) that is now extinct in the wild. Its demise has been directly linked to over utilization by traditional healers. The belief here is that the more endangered a plant species is, the stronger the healing properties it carries.

Even though we may, or may not believe in these powers, it is important for us to understand what they mean to the local people. Sangoma’s still enjoy high social status and esteem amongst the local population, but the lure of the bright lights beckons along with the hope of a fast car and a television set. As time passes there are fewer and fewer people willing to submit themselves to the rigors of the apprenticeship. The knowledge the sangoma has is much like the species of plant in the rainforest that has just become extinct- once vanished, we will never know what the potential impact it may have had on the human race.


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