Medicine, Mending and Mastery: Southern Africa's Traditional Healers

An introduction to the Sangonmas and Inyangas of southern Africa

Spirituality and the art of healingPhansi Museum

Who are Sangomas and Inyangas?

Sangomas are  shamanic practitioners or spirit mediums who work within many southern African cultures. Highly skilled individuals, they are  able to communicate with the ancestors to help cure afflictions and work with indigenous plants to make medicine. 

Spirituality and the art of healingPhansi Museum

Who can become a traditional healer?

Not just anyone is able to become a Sangoma, they need to be called by the ancestors. To be called is a great honor and this calling or ukutwasa can manifest in illness, dreams and altered states. 

The fact that the healer has suffered usually gives her greater empathy and compassion for the feelings and emotions of others.

— David Cumes

Spirituality and the art of healingPhansi Museum

Revering the power of the ancestors

Most sub-Saharan African peoples believe in the importance and power  of their ancestors who are able to guide them from the spirit world. The stregnth of Sangomas and Inyangas comes from the ancestors, who work through them. As doctor and Sangoma David Cumes notes, ''The ancestors find the most efficient way to impart the information so that the healer can do the work. The way in which they transmit the knowledge will be unique to that person's receptivity and talents.''

The goal of an ancestor who channels healing through a living relative is to help and to heal. The ancestors cannot communicate in a normal way because they live in the realm of spirit. Therefore, they choose to talk through trance-channeling (spirit mediumship or possession states) through the divining bones, and through dreams.

— David Cumes

Spirituality and the art of healingPhansi Museum

The difference between Sangomas and Inyangas

Sangomas or inyangas can be either women or men. There is no practical difference between them—both are “possessed” and derive their power from the ancestors. Classically, the sangoma works in a trance state by channeling the ancestors from the spirit world. Inyangas more commonly translate messages from the cosmic realm by reading divination bones and work with plant medicines.

Sansangoma / ScultureOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

Learning the way

To become an Inyanga or Sangoma, a person with the calling must undergo rigorous training and inititation process, often referred to by the isiXhosa word Thwasa. The initiation is about creating a relationship with the student and the spirits who wish to work through him or her.

Medicine Gourds and Healing toolsPhansi Museum

How healing happens

Sangomas and Inyangas treat their clients in different ways, depending on their skill set and how the ancestors work through them as well as the needs of the client. There are a variety of tools and medicines Sangomas use, including bones throwing and sacred staffs or Kotjane which connects the healer to the ancestors.

Traditional HealerPhansi Museum

The backbone of community

Sangomas and Inyangas are wise and powerful healers who, as David Cumes notes, have been the backbone of Bantu communities, especially in the rural areas of southern Africa for eons. Read more about their work through Phansi museum's collection.

“My grandfather told me that a Sangoma must be able to draw knowledge from what he called ‘the Hidden Lake.’ There is, he said, a huge unseen lake somewhere in the spirit world where all the knowledge of the universe — past, present, and future — is to be found.

— Esteemed South African Sangoma, Credo Mutwa

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