Posted on April 1, 2009

South Africa’s Hi-Tech Healer

Lucy Fleming, BBC News, March 30, 2009

Swishing a wildebeest tail and wearing a fez-like hat adorned with goat’s gall bladders, Amanda Gcabashe seems an unlikely figure for a web-savvy African healer.

But from her plush home in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, she is the face of a modern sangoma, as a traditional healer is known in South Africa.

The 34-year-old former South African business executive has set up a website to try to debunk the myths and secrets surrounding healers and their powers.

Her practice in the middle-class suburbs has attracted people from across the racial divides–part of her aim to bring sangomas, who tend to be a hidden part of rural and township life, out into the open and to address their bad image.

“Whenever you read media reports or any kind of publicity around an African healer, it’s always in the negative and for me that was the starting point,” she says.

The recent killing of albino people in Tanzania and Burundi for get-rich quick potions are a case in point.

Interpreting dreams

South Africa too has experienced grisly killings for body parts used in traditional cures–so called “muti murders”–which, Ms Gcabashe says, all sangomas should condemn.

“We need to stand up and have our voices heard: We don’t kill people and we don’t subscribe to killing people. We all get lumped together as healers when there are healers and there are those who use their medicines and abilities for other kinds of things,” she says.

“I’m from a corporate background. I realised the power of the internet to get information out there and to start a conversation and a dialogue about what we do.”

The glossary of terms on the website describes a sangoma as “one who has the inborn ability to decipher the language of amadlozi [ancestors] including the interpreting of dreams”.

“We believe our ancestors give us guidance,” says Ms Gcabashe, who became a traditional healer eight and half years ago.

Frequently asked questions

As a child, her family never used traditional healers and it was in her twenties that she found her calling–prompted in part by visions of herself dressed in the white and red regalia of a sangoma.

Now her online mission is to show that sangomas are relevant in the 21st Century, much like counsellors, and should be taken seriously along with other forms of complementary therapies.

“When someone comes to see a sangoma you basically discuss whatever problem they are having and try and offer solutions–from a spiritual point of view–and give them tools that they can use to make their lives easier or help them health wise,” she says.

“We don’t promise instant riches, a fulfilled life is what we try and achieve for people.”

People are not able to book appointments on her website––but there is a query form.

She answers emails every day–varying from how to deal with a miscarriage traditionally to curious inquires from as far a field as France–so much so that she is now setting up a “Frequently Asked Questions” section.

The website also advises first-timers and people trying to reconnect with their cultural roots about what to expect when consulting a sangoma–and how to behave.

Women should not wear trousers, shoes should be removed and mobile phones turned off.

And while all consultations take place on a grass mat, not all sangomas throw bones to communicate with the ancestral world.

Reference book

Ms Gcabashe says she speaks directly to her ancestors–something she learnt to do during her nine-month initiation.

For my consultation, I sat on the floor as she stood sideways before me, flicking her fly whisk as she addressed her ancestors in Zulu.

After some minutes she said my mother’s mother’s grandmother–an elderly Irish lady, bent over double–had hobbled forward to give advice.

As nothing is known about my Irish grandmother’s family, I was surprised at her appearance on the scene–it even felt like an impudent intrusion.

“She asks that you should light a candle for her later,” Ms Gcabashe said.

I softened and we proceeded–after one or two false starts–to discuss my career, affairs of the heart and ended with some health advice.

In my case, no medication was prescribed–and not all sangomas, who say they can communicate with the spirit world, are able to dispense medicines.

This is done by inyangas–practitioners trained to collect and prepare herbal cures.

Ms Gcabashe is an inyanga too and has ambitions to open an African healing centre.

Frustrated with the lack of reference books on African medicine, she also hopes her website will be a start towards compiling such information.

Fighting Aids

She believes sangomas have an important role to play in fighting HIV/Aids–by far South Africa’s biggest health issue–especially addressing the stigma of HIV and making people understand that it is manageable if treated as a life-long condition.

But she disputes the controversial claim by a former South African health minister that remedies such as eating African potatoes can combat HIV.

She says traditional medicines can be used along with Western medicine in the treatment of HIV/Aids–by increasing appetite and strengthening the immune system.

“If someone’s on ARVs [anti-retrovirals] I never say: ‘Throw them away and take my medicine.'”

The day after our interview I received a call from the taxi driver who had delivered me to the appointment in the upmarket gated estate–agog to hear how much “the sangoma in the suburbs” had charged.

In the townships, he said, a visit to a sangoma costs about 50 rand (£4), cheaper than a visit to the doctor.

Ms Gcabashe’s fee is 200 rand for an hour-and-a-half session.

But with an average of five clients a week and daily queries on her website which do not necessarily translate into physical consultations, it is not a lucrative business.

“It’s my gift and I can’t run away from it,” she says, adding that she is a consultant on traditional customs, such as weddings, to supplement her income.

“We’re all very Westernised but when we come to get married, we want to do the traditional thing.”

Women advised not to wear trousers.

Shoes to be left outside consulting area.

Turn off mobile phones.

Expect to sit a grass mat on the floor.

Not all sangomas use bones to communicate with the ancestors.

Silver coins sometimes required as part of the payment.

Find out if candles or other items are required

If consulting on someone else’s behalf, bring an item of that person’s clothing.