A sign on the showcase reads “Dumisane U Jehova Amen.” “We hope in God, Amen.” The showcase is filled with fine bone china tea sets, and porcelain dogs of various descriptions stare out at visitors from their vantage points on top of the cupboards. Lace curtains line the walls, and hide a myriad of doorways from view. A radio blares in the room in the back. A YFM D-Jay is rapping his stuff. In the lounge where we sit, an ancient soapy mumbles on the television, relegated by its datedness to day time viewing.
This is not what I expected. I expected animal skins, dried herbs on the ceilings, a host dressed in beaded dreadlocks and skins. Instead my host is wearing a floral print dress and a turban on her head. When I enter, the family watching the soap scatters in all directions. I am told by my companion, Minah Phoswa, to sit down. I have to eat and drink before anything else happens. I am in Imbali to meet Mantombi Shange, a Sangoma, but she has disappeared with the others behind the lace curtains. A short while later she re-emerges, carrying a tray with two glasses, a large bottle of Fanta Pineapple, and two plates of tennis biscuits. She avoids my eyes and only sits down when I have drunk half a glass of cool drink. Then she begins to speak to Phoswa in Zulu. I ask questions in English and Phoswa translates the Zulu replies. Shange still avoids my eyes but she soon relaxes enough to smile at me when I understand the Zulu words and ask her in more detail about them.
I have done quite a lot of research on Sangomas as a character in one of my screenplays is a Sangoma. One of the most informative books is The Spirits Speak by Nicky Arden, a white Canadian woman who became a South African Sangoma. But I have waited a long time to meet an actual Sangoma. The main reason for this is that I wanted to meet someone who was practicing traditional herbal medicine in a positive way. My reading had also led me to explore the dark underbelly of muti murders and ruthless practitioners. I didn’t think I was up to an encounter with the dark side. So when Phoswa told me how her aunt, Shange, had been asked for muti to kill someone and how she’d refused as she didn’t prescribe muti for evil purposes, I knew that Shange was the person I wanted to meet.
Shange’s dignified grey haired husband wanders in unobtrusively to switch off the television. Someone else turns the radio off in the background. And 63 year old Mantombi Shange begins her story. Shange had been sickly since she was 15 or 16 years old when she’d started having constant dreams of Sangomas. She usually dreamt that she was under the water with her departed grandmother who kept showing her how to use muti. Shange’s mother swore she would rather her daughter was dead than become a Sangoma. They were a very Christian family, and even had a small church on their property at home. “I never wanted to be a Sangoma,” Shange says. “I was a member of the Assemblies of God, you see.”
When she was married she could not have children. “I had seven miscarriages, and grew very thin and weak. Then in 1983, when I was working at Gold Dollar Furnishers in town, I started to get lost. I could never find my way to work,” Shange tells me, warming to her subject. “I thought I was going mad. Eventually my manager came to find me. When I told him I couldn’t find my way to work, he drove me to get my cheque and my money. I decided to stop work then.”
Shange’s very concerned and long suffering husband finally consulted another Sangoma who recognized the signs immediately. She knew that Mantombi Shange should become a Sangoma. Shange decided to see a woman known for her powers of prayer instead. “The woman prayed night and day for me not to become a Sangoma,” she says. “But even she saw Sangomas in her prayers getting muti for me. Eventually she said that even she couldn’t stop me becoming a Sangoma.”
Then Shange dreamt that she must go to Elandskop where she would meet the right person to train her. There she met a Sangoma who said that Shange had to listen to the ancestors or else she would lose her mind altogether. And so it was that, in her forties now, Shange took the path which she says has brought her nothing but peace and happiness.
“It was then that I told the ancestors that I wanted a child,” she tells me later, “and if they wanted me to become a Sangoma they must give me just one child. It was soon after that I discovered I was pregnant.” Shange’s one and only child was born months later and her health and well-being have improved steadily ever since. Her husband also found a stable job and their lives began to prosper. “I am very happy to be a Sangoma now, and it has given me freedom. But I did ask my ancestors to let me continue to pray,” she adds.
As we talk, an adolescent chicken wanders in through the doorway. Seeing me, it takes fright and leaves. Shange fetches her photograph album and shows me pictures of all the initiates that she has trained. She is very impressed that I know they are called Thwasa.
When I ask if she will wear her special clothes for me so that I can take a photograph, she disappears for a while. She returns, dressed in Sangoma regalia – animal print wrap, beaded dreadlocks, a headdress made of rooster and guinea fowl feathers and a goat’s bladder, and carrying her fly whisk. Now she is relaxed and talks more directly to me. I ask her if she will burn imphepho for me to hear what the ancestors have got to tell me. Imphepho is the herb used to summon the ancestors. Shange doesn’t throw bones, but merely talks to the ancestors to find out what is wrong with the person. The ancestors will also tell her if the person needs any specific muti. She agrees to do this for me but I have to go outside to her hut. Phoswa is mildly put out. She has never been invited to the hut before.
Moments later we are walking across the yard. Fat chickens and their scrawny chicks bask in the late afternoon sunlight. I hadn’t noticed it when we arrived but hidden amongst a number of outhouses on the property is a traditional beehive hut. My spirits leap. Here it is. The real thing. The hut has a very low door, and we bend to go in. Shange ignores my protests and insists on my sitting on a stool. I would have been quite happy on the grass mats which cover the earth floor. She sits on the mat in front of an area where beaded hangings and cloths form a central focus. A certificate hangs in a frame above. An enormous snake skin stretches well over two metres across the wall. Shange lights the imphepho in a small clay bowl. She bends away from me and breathes in the smoke. She begins to talk quietly and in a normal voice to the ancestors. I sit on my stool, saying quiet prayers for only good news, delighted to be experiencing all I have read about so thoroughly.
After a few minutes in which peace descends on the little hut, Shange turns to me and begins to talk in English. Not shy any longer, she talks to me directly. She puts her hand onto the back of her neck. “You have the heaviness here,” she says to me. “You feel like something is pressing you here.” She gestures along the shoulder blades too. I say yes. Has she been watching me wear my neck brace more and more often, I wonder? “You also like to talk to people. You like people, but then sometimes you just go ‘Ah no! Enough!’” she says as she makes an unhappy face. “Sometimes you are just tired of being with people and you have to be alone. You’re not cheeky to the people, and it’s not that you don’t like the people, but you just don’t want to talk anymore.” I laugh, as I have seldom heard such an accurate description. Anyone who knows me will recognize the descent of a bad mood when I haven’t had enough time alone. “That is because the ancestors want you to listen to them. They are very close to you all the time. You have to spend time alone to listen to them.” And I’ve always thought it was just that I needed to think. Shange goes on to tell me how the ancestors like to talk to me. She thinks I should wear a shawl more often, like the Sangoma’s cape, and it will relieve the pain in my neck and shoulders. I smile, as I always wear a shawl of some sorts on those all too rare occasions when I meditate. Shange talks more freely now. She says that the money seem to just fly out of our house. She’s right there. It is a hungry ancestor, she says, and I must put some bread and tea on a windowsill for him somewhere in the house. I smile, thinking how like the Christmas ritual of leaving a glass of wine and a mince pie for Father Christmas it is. And it’s probably less silly than having a Feng Shui frog with a coin in its mouth at one’s doorway, I suppose.
We talk a little more, and a sort of timelessness descends on the hut. Shange tells me how the ancestors showed her how to build the hut. “They told me in my dreams how I must build it,” she says. “I showed my husband and we made it ourselves. But then they said I mustn’t use it because I have to wait for a visitor. I didn’t know what they meant,” she says. “But we didn’t use the hut. Until one day, I looked in the door and saw this big snake across the floor. I couldn’t believe it.” I look up on the wall at the snake skin, and she nods. That is the one. The snake is the most powerful symbol of the Sangoma. “I had to get my friend to kill it. I couldn’t do it – I am not allowed to kill any animal that comes into the house. But the snake didn’t fight. It knew it had to be killed. And I could used the hut after that.” All of the parts of the snake, except the skin, were used for muti.
Soon afterwards, Phoswa and I prepare to leave the little house behind us. As we go, Shange tells me I should become her Thwasa. We laugh. I wouldn’t mind so much, I say, but I couldn’t deal with the phalaza, the regular purging, that goes with it. She tells me that she would make a special plan for me. I promise to think about it. But perhaps I’ll just stick to meditation. And have I put bread and tea on my windowsill? You bet my bottom dollar!