South African Traditional Healers

Visitors to South Africa will likely find themselves intrigued with stories of traditional African healers. While some may consider them to be a relic from a bygone era, others feel their role is still very important in modern communities. In fact, more than 80% of the South African population still regularly consult traditional healers when they need help.

In South Africa, traditional healers are commonly known as sangomas or nyangas. These people believed that they are ‘called’ to become healers by their ancestors and failure to respond to this calling will result illness, instability or even insanity. Though it has traditionally been a part of black culture, those in the profession often feel that any person may be chosen by their ancestors to perform this duty, regardless of their skin color. Once they answer their ‘intwasa’ (calling), they will have to endure a rigorous personal journey known as ‘twasa’, wherein they are psychically prepared for their vocations. South African traditional healers are generally considered to act as a medium between spirit worlds and physical worlds and they combine the physical aspects of illness with psychological and spiritual aspects so that the entire organism is healed instead of just one small part of it.

Though it has very strong spiritual overtones, traditional healing is not seen as a religion. During healing ceremonies the sangoma will usually ‘throw the bones’ to make a diagnosis. It is generally believed that it is the ancestors who position the layout of the bones after they are thrown and so they communicate what the problem is in this way. The sangoma or nyanga will also often enter a trance-like state in which they are able to communicate with the spirit world or experience various sensations such as smells, feelings, voices or visions. Some healers may further experience this ancestral ‘contact’ through dreams. They believe that this is the process that must be used to be guided to the correct combination of herbs that can be mixed together in a ‘muthi’ to help the patient heal.

Many people today consider traditional healers to be simply that – healers. While some may associate their practices with that of witchcraft and sorcery, healers generally differentiate themselves by saying that they do good with their craft while witches and sorcerers do harm. However not all traditional healers abide by this ethos and more than one often blur the boundaries between good and bad. Many people consult these healers, not only for help with their health, but for help with their love lives. Visitors who are interested may often sit in on diagnostic sessions or consult a traditional healer for their own purposes but it is advisable to find a trustworthy local guide to help you find a good healer before you attempt this. Traditional ‘muthi’ can often be found at local markets.