Inside the Ancient Rituals of Cape Town’s Sangoma Healers

Words by Addison O’Dea, photos by Sye Williams

Standing amidst the blood and gore of the several ritual animal sacrifices I’m watching occur concurrently in this Cape Town township, it could be easy to pigeonhole a sangoma ceremony as a one-dimensional, brutal manifestation of animist faiths in Africa.

Though, this would be false. Like many ancient rituals, this one is multi-dimensional and even extends beyond the ethereal plane into a mysticism that is the bedrock of pre-Christian faith in Africa, though largely dismissed in the West as hocus-pocus. Chrystie van Zyl, the candidate to become a sangoma, received her calling several months ago. The daughter of a Zulu mother and an Afrikaans father, she has made an active choice to embrace one path over another. Christie’s choice to become a sangoma—something in the nexus of doctor and priestess—is a role that transcends cultural boundaries and exists in a number of tribes including both Zulu and Xhosa.

There is a festive scene here in the Langa township, largely comprised of bustling women, sangomas and fellow trainees, many of whom have not slept in days. Everyone is either in a daze or riding hard on their fourth wind—all in preparation for the ceremonies to come. The previous night, they stayed up all night singing songs and dancing, all while preparing vegetables and cutting, shaping and treating the animal skins they will wear. Interspersed between it all is the ongoing slaughter of chickens that are used in the ceremony.

We leave Langa to head to the beach where Christie is meant to connect with spirits in the sea. Christie has been training for months in a gruelling process centred on developing Christie’s ability to communicate with her ancestors. En route, the sangomas, who are packed into a van, are singing and beating drums in a constant affair. On the beach, they make a circle then slowly file to the water’s edge where Christie disrobes and walks nude into the sea. It seemed as though the water level rose substantially as this took place.

On the edge of the beach, the sangomas are drinking a potion which turns out to be a homemade beer carrying a unique aroma. Turns out that it is infused with bile. Yes, you read that correctly. Much like the Amerindians, the psychology is to use the whole of each animal that is slaughtered out of respect. It is a noble ideology that might seem foreign to most Westerners but is indicative of a symbiosis between man and planet that was discarded long ago by our civilizations.

Christie retires from view when we return to Langa, disappearing into the Consultation Room where she continues to fast and pray in solitude while attending to her regalia, which includes complex beadery. Meanwhile, outside the Consultation Room, the other sangomas prepare for Ukubhula—a process of divination where Christie will call upon their ancestors to show where a number of live animals have been hidden around the township. When Christie emerges, the process of divination takes place with their heads bowed, on their knees holding a symbolic stick known as a xhayi. Since Christie can accurately describe the animals, their genders, and where they are hidden, she is given permission by the elders to fetch them.

Christie is then unleashed as she tears out of the carport and into the neighbourhood to find the animals. Followed closely behind her is the whole sangoma community, each and every one of whom are singing and clapping in a frenzy of excitement. Christie darts around the streets, placing what she has envisioned in her head, as it was informed by her ancestors, to the actual physical place. With the aid of her community, Christie dutifully returns with each animal and places them one by one on the floor sprinkled with incense ashes while the other trainees put their feet over it. Then they bow down again on their knees to call upon our ancestors to thank them and ask them to constantly keep their paths enlightened.

What happens next is an ancient practice that has managed to survive despite efforts by foreign agents to dilute traditional practices: one by one, each animal is stabbed in the chest and Christie drinks the raw blood from the animal—after which the animal is killed and down to the last sinew, used to feed the larger Langa community in an electric celebration in honour of Christie’s graduation.

See more from Sye @syewilliamsthesequel and Addison

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