Saturday, February 12, 2011

Me and the sangomas

Look, I’m not your average white boy. I can’t jump particularly high, or run or dance – but I’ve seen a thing or two in my time. Like, for instance, the things that sangomas do.

Now, for the uninitiated amongst you, let me tell you how to spot a sangoma. Number one – they wear lots of beads in their hair. Or, at least, they wear a wig over their hair, with lots of beads on it, dangling down. Next, some of them wear strange looking yellow bubble-like things on their heads, which, I discovered, are dried goat bladders. (Listen, don’t criticise what you haven’t tried!). These are attractively arranged, usually, with a spray of chicken feathers.

Next, they wear a sort of cross-your-heart bra like thing, either made out of beads, or skin. Often there is quite a lot to cross, but they never seem to be too bothered. Often they wear strings of bottle-tops around their ankles, which sort of jingle as they walk or stamp, which they do when they dance.

When they are together, the dancing is rhythmic , often circular, and the singing, extremely repetitive. On top of all of this “herbs” are burnt (nothing I have ever smelt before) and vast quantities of snuff is taken. Meetings with sangomas are punctuated by alarmingly loud sighs and even louder yawns. These indicate the presence of the ancestors – or something.
Now, the reason I’m telling you all this is because I thought I was fairly au fait with the sangomas of KwaZulu-Natal. At least, I could recognise them a kilometre away. I knew how to greet them – “Makhosi!” I would say, hands beating together. And again “Makhosi!” and they would respond in kind.

So, with all this intimate cultural knowledge, I found myself travelling along a very rural road in Deepest Limpopo. I was told, helpfully, that we were going to be meeting “a group of women” – nothing more.

Now, I want to emphasise the rural nature of the surroundings. I mean, this was rural with a capital R. After about four hours of hard travel, we reached a settlement of sorts. In it, we asked where the meeting was going to be. We were directed to a spot further along the road, where there was a large shady tree. Under this large shady tree were seated about thirty women. But there was something extremely odd about these women. They were all wearing tinsel on their heads!

Now, I know what KwaZulu- Natal sangomas look like. I know what Cape Town sangomas look like, but I had absolutely no experience of Limpopo sangomas. But … after all if you can wear blown-up goat bladders on your hear, why not tinsel? Why not indeed!

So, I treated them with the utmost respect. I clapped my hands and said “Makhosi!” They looked at me a little strangely, but responded in a good natured sort of way. (I put it down to linguistic and cultural differences.) I then engaged the person who was translating the rather rapid Northern Sotho for me in conversation about the difference between the way Western medicine views disease and the way in which traditional healers view disease. He listened attentively, responded cautiously and politely changed the subject. I returned to the topic, which I found extremely interesting and which I assumed he did too.

After a while, his eyes lit up. “Oh, I see!” he said. “You think these women are sangomas. Well, they are not. They are drum majorettes!”

(First published in the Natal Witness 24.04.1996)

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