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Sangomas, Shamans and New Age healing in South Africa - 04 Agnieszka Podolecka - The training and the initiation 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

When the first stage of healing is complete and the called one is able to learn properly, he or she is initiated to become a twasa.

Being an apprentice means subjugation to the mentor, utmost obedience and humility. When I was staying with sangomas in Zululand, two apprentices were preparing for their initiation. It involved ritual cleansing in water and steam, chicken offering (during which they had to eat uncooked entrails of the animal) and sacred tuition to which I was not admitted. On the day of the initiation the nearby sangomas came for the celebration and the new twasas prepared food for neighbour villagers.

The training is called ‘ukuthwasa’ and the apprentice is called ‘twasa’; the tutor carefully choses his or her twasas, or rather believes that ancestors chose for him or her. Ukuthwasa is ‘regarded as a spiritual or religious experience, a gift from those amadlozi who protect yet judge their descendants’.

 ‘The idiom ukuthwasa describes a coming out afresh after a temporary absence or disappearance. It is generally applicable to the moon and the seasons of the year. Ukuthwasa is also applied to a diviner novice who, having completed the time of instruction with an experienced diviner, appears again on a public scene, reveals divinatory abilities and is officially acknowledged as a diviner’.

Some scholars use the term ‘ukuthwasa’ to describe the whole process of a sangomas’ sickness, not just the emerging and the initiation. Wreford confirms that visions and dreams she and other sangomas she knows experienced, were so vivid and disturbing that they were driving them to madness; only diagnosis of spiritual possession and accepting the calling saved them from madness.   In sangomas’ practice ‘a strong emphasis [is put] on their counselling role and ukuthwasa in particular was often spoken of in terms familiar to a psychotherapeutic process’. Hirst says the calling ‘is not necessarily dealing with an illness or disease as defined in Western medical science’, it is rather a psychological and social disorder that can be healed in specific conditions.

The exact process of morning cleansing and preparing for tuition differs in regions and schools but it is an important part of twasas’ training. Berglund’s informants associate it with being born: a foetus lives in waters and a baby is born with waters, hence ablution is a part of leaving the old life behind the novice and being born to the new servitude.

Kohler recalls morning river baths and visiting a white river snake which guards earth needed for medicines. My informant who was trained in Pretoria needed seven years because of funds problems. She said that there had been times when she was subjected to the hardship of cold morning baths but there were also times when she was allowed to get up at sunrise and to avoid river baths, especially in winter.

Apprentices I observed in Zululand were not able to bathe every morning because they lived and trained in high mountains. The stream near their settlement was too shallow but during the ritual ceremonies I witnessed, they were laid flat in the stream by sangomas so that the whole body was underwater.

During ukuthwasa the apprentices undergo the celibacy period, strict diet and total obedience to their teachers; they also have to learn patience and humility. It applies to both hetero- and homosexual twasas, also to the married ones – spirits and training come first, a spouse must understand it. It is a part of the humility learning and rejecting the ego process, and is supposed to help sangomas serve their communities well in the future. Arden describes walking on her knees and having her head bowed most times during the training and the initiation.  My informant told me she had to walk on her knees for two kilometres from her aboding to her teacher during her initiation to prove the humility and surrender to spirits’ will.

During ukuthwasa future sangomas learn contacting spirits, healing, divination and travelling to the spiritual realms. My informants told me that if a sangoma couldn’t solve a problem, s(he) should ask spirits, either by calling them or by getting into trance (usually helped by drum beating). Many Asian and North American shamans travel to the spiritual realm (often called ‘underworld’) to gain wisdom and knowledge how to cure and solve problems.

Also Berglund, Shooter and Krige report a belief in the underworld among the Zulus, where ancestral spirits live. The image of the underworld is inconsistent and differs in places but it generally resembles the world Zulus know: with trees, rivers and mountains. Kohler reports incidents of visiting heaven by sangomas. Berglund, after Tyler, states that even among modern sangomas this belief is still existent.  My sangoma informants explained it to me as a place when a sangoma’s soul goes during trans or dream and where it sees and feels what is needed; what it looks like depend on a sangoma’s need.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items




Science Items

Activities and commonsteps


A.-I. Berglund, after Bryant and Colenso, p. 162.

M.M. Hirst, The Healer’s Art: Cape Nguni Diviners in the Townships of Grahamstown, PhD thesis, Rhodes University, East London 1990,

J.A. Griffiths, R.W.S. Cheetham, Priests before healers – an appraisal of the iSangoma or iSanusi in Nguni society, “SA Mediese Tydskrif”, 11 December 1982