It’s a Thursday evening, and I am early for my meeting with Khensani Mhlongo at a trendy grill house in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg. As I await her arrival, it occurs to me that our meeting could not have occurred before 1994, when we cast our votes in South Africa’s first democratic election. Before our liberation, two Black women could not have been out after hours in Johannesburg without being stopped and asked to present their identity documents. These women would certainly not have been allowed to dine in an upscale restaurant in a white suburb. And neither of them could be dressed in the “demonic” clothing of a sangoma—the clothing that Khensani is wearing when she makes her appearance.
Khensani arrives in long pants and a cream cashmere sweater. Draped over her shoulders is the distinct red and white cloth, decorated with an animal print, that identifies her as a sangoma or igqirha—a traditional healer who has heeded an ancestral calling to serve their community in matters both physical and esoteric. Her dreadlocked hair is adorned with cowrie shell beads, and her wrists are lined with large black metal bracelets. Her ensemble proudly announces who she has become in her community.
Not long ago, a progressive woman such as myself—an “educated” or “clever” Black, as we are cynically called—would not have wanted to be seen in public with a sangoma; we would have dissociated ourselves from anything refl ecting an acknowledgment of African spirituality. And Khensani herself would have likely tried to ignore messages sent by her ancestors that commanded her to heed “the calling.” The price for embracing such a calling—being labeled a demon or a witch—would have been too high for someone in her position.
“Growing up, I was always a sickly child,” Khensani says. “I was very intuitive and would often have powerful, lucid dreams. I would sometimes share memories from my dreams with my grandmother—she was a spiritual healer herself, and she’d casually hint that I probably had “the gift.” But I grew up as the daughter of a professional nurse, so my mother emphasized the pursuit of a good education above all else. She had other plans for me.”
However, Khensani found that she was suffering the consequences of ignoring these messages. “Over the years,” she says, “I got sicker and sicker, which is typically what happens, because your body is essentially at war with your spirit. I would get dreams that were so vivid that they would literally direct me to where I needed to go in order to start ukuthwasa. But I resisted the initiation journey. I loved who I was. I was the girl who’d dye her hair blonde or purple—the live wire at the club! I associated ‘the calling’ with those who didn’t have options in life—underachievers, the uneducated.”
Her stubbornness, though, put her life at risk: it took a near-death turn in her illness to convince her to finally respond to her calling.
Anele Maswela, a clinical psychologist and theologian, echoes Khensani’s experience. Like Khensani, Anele grew up a sickly child whose home was dominated by “amagqirha,” or spiritual healers. He still experiences lucid dreams to this day. “My mother was a healer, my father a prophet and my grandmother an igqirha,” he says. “Our home was one where we worshiped God. We went to church almost every Sunday and still would practice ukuphahla [communicating with ancestral spirits]. For me, there was never a conflict between the two belief systems because they were never viewed as a binary in my home.”
Unlike Khensani, Anele has been more embracing of his gifts. He views his journey as a transcendental one. “I’ve always understood the intersectionality of religion, spiritualism, sexuality and identity,” he says. “For me, there is no conflict, and I have no shame in claiming all that I am because it feels like part of a greater plan. I locate my gift within the construct of African spirituality and feel that it has brought abundance in my life.”
Anele sees a wide range of patients at his psychology practice in Johannesburg. He is loved by local celebrities and has even been featured in a reality show about a popular singer. “My patients,” he says, “are always struck by the aesthetics of my consulting rooms because they resemble an indumba”—a hut where a traditional healer carries out cleansing ceremonies and rituals—“but with modern finishes. When you walk into the practice, you are hit by the scent of impepho [incense]. You take off your shoes like you would when seeing a traditional healer. There are lighted candles and snuff, which are also typical of the ambience of an indumba.”
Khensani and Anele are part of a growing movement among younger, educated Black urbanites who have embraced their calling by documenting their journeys through the ubungoma process on social media. This has helped do away with perceptions of sangomas as practitioners of witchcraft or black magic, demystifying what the calling involves.
One of the most well recognized leaders of this movement is Gogo Dineo, whose website describes her as “a preeminent and pioneering sangoma who has successfully merged the sacredness of African spirituality with modern thinking.” With more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, Gogo Dineo has become something of an institution in the world of African spirituality. She is now part of a campaign to recognize “Ancestors’ Day” as a faith-based holiday on the South African calendar. She also runs an initiation academy that trains hundreds of people who have responded to the calling.
The movement toward African spirituality has become so ubiquitous that social media outlets often feature trending topics on the issue. One of South Africa’s most popular celebrities is the latest winner of the reality show Big Brother. She is also a sangoma. “Mpho Wa Badimo,” or “Mpho of the Ancestors,” has over 200,000 followers on Instagram. She has earned her popularity by sharing honest and sometimes painful reflections on her experiences as a young African spiritualist while inside the Big Brother house.
Generations ago, when colonialists were conquering Africa, one of the powerful tools they used was to send Christian missionaries to outposts to permanently wean them off their spiritual practices, which Europeans deemed “savage” and “barbaric.” African values of industry, sanctity of life and respect for people and community were all undermined in favor of Christianity. Africans already had a deeply rooted belief system based around the honoring of ancestral spirits and the divinity of a higher power, but as they became more Westernized, ancestral acknowledgement was usurped by the power of biblical scripture. The infrastructure of schools and churches set up by the missionaries cemented this white domination.
Despite the triumph of Christianity over African spiritualism, healers continued to receive the calling. Today, people like Khensani, who are fully embedded in the modern, admittedly Eurocentric culture that dominates urban South Africa, are proudly and loudly heeding their spiritual calling, practicing it with both honor and pride. Khensani works at the corporate offices of the national airport company on weekdays and flexes her artistic muscle by performing as a vocalist for house music DJs on weekends. She is also a single mother to a teenage boy. Despite leading a vibrant lifestyle, she also practices as a sangoma, having partaken in the grueling initiation phase that is pivotal to achieving the full status of a healer.
Colonialism and apartheid once stripped Black people of their spiritual identities, but the experiences of these young people demonstrate that the call to honor and embrace their African roots is stronger than ever. A new chapter of Black consciousness in South Africa has begun.
Angela Makholwa is a novelist best known for her debut novel, Red Ink, based on a real-life serial killer, and her novel The Blessed Girl, which was shortlisted for the UK Comedy Women in Print Prize. Her book Critical But Stable will be published in the US in 2022.