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Observations placeholder

Sangomas, Shamans and New Age healing in South Africa - 03 Agnieszka Podolecka - The calling of a sangoma



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

From Sangomas, Shamans and New Age: the Hybridity of some Modern Healing and Esoteric Practices and Beliefs in South Africa - Agnieszka Podolecka

It is very difficult to find a sangoma who chose his or her vocation. None of the scholars reports such occurrences, Berglund even writes that ‘nobody can become a diviner [sangoma] of personal choice’.

One of my informants, N. Sekonyela from Lesotho, is the only sangoma I met (and heard of) who did not suffer during the calling. He told me he had dreamt about this profession all his life, had always wanted to follow his mother and grandmother’s steps; both were sangomas. All my other informants underline the ordeal of the calling: day-dreams and hallucinations, hearing voices, talking to unknown or mythical creatures, physical exhaustion.

None of them expected the calling and most tried to get help from doctors and psychologists to get rid of the horrors of their visions and pain. Wreford calls the calling process and apprenticeship (ukuthwasa) ‘an emotional ordeal’.

Becoming a healer – the experience of ukuthwasa – is a process. It is based on experiencing cumulative incidents and ordeals that are said to familiarise the candidate with communication with non-material realities. Strange, unusual, or unexpected events – public, or intensely personal and private – pepper the training and continue into practice’.

None of my informants considers the calling and the training a pleasant time. Scholars’ informants confirm the scary character of calling dreams and describe them as unclear, not understandable and often making people scream of fear. The spirits contact the chosen ones in many other ways: they can manifest their presence by belching, sneezing, yawning and hiccups, they can also ‘enter’ a person and cause pains in shoulders, sides, upper back and lower neck; this is understood as a preparing for the apprenticeship.

Sangoma’s calling means possession by ancestors and communicating with other kinds of spirits. The initial visitation of spirits and the recognition of a sangomas’ sickness calls for certain actions: a called one must find a fully-fledged sangoma who will heal and educate and then initiate him or her. All my sangoma informants told me they did not believe in accidents in the case of calling and finding the proper tutor: even if they chose a teacher, there was a spirits’ intervention in it. And none of them doubted that they were proper persons for this ‘job’, although none would choose it for himself or herself because of the hardships sangomas must endure all their lives. Sangoma’s sickness can be compared with the shamanic one – in both cases a novice goes through a strange illness and experiences visions from ‘the other realm’.

Shamanic sickness is well researched by academics. Such phenomenon occurs in many cultures; Eliade recalls Siberian, North and Southern American and Australian peoples. No matter if the sickness is a result of a traumatic experience, imagination or whether spirits really exist, a person who goes through the process strongly believes in its reality. Visions explain and justify the calling and validate the shaman’s role as a person who moved from profanum to sacrum.

 Frazer writes: ‘Certain persons are supposed to be possessed from time to time by a spirit or deity; while the possession lasts, their own personality lies in abeyance; the presence of the spirit is revealed by convulsive shivering and shakings of the man’s whole body, by wild gestures and excited looks, all of which are referred, not to the man himself, but to the spirit.

My sangoma informants compare their calling to the calling of shamans from other parts of the world. They are certain that this process is needed to ‘shed an old skin’ like a snake and to start a new life in the servitude to people.

Pita told me that the calling is the process of purification and gaining wisdom, the initiation examination is the final change from old life to the new one. Other informants confirm her explanation and agree that in spite of the hardness of ukutwasa, it is definitely needed to mature and take the responsible role of a sangoma.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items




Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Hearing voices


Joanne Thobeka Wreford, Sharing the Experience of White Sangoma in Contemporary South Africa, “CSSR Working Paper” 2006, No. 150, p. 8.

M. Kohler, The Izangoma Diviners, Department of Native Affairs of the Union of South Africa, Pretoria 1941,;

J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion,