Friday, October 8, 2010

White Sangoma

The phenomenon of Europeans who have graduated as sangoma - the ancestrally guided spiritual healing system of South Africa - has become a contemporary cause célèbre, a matter for academic and popular debate. In some circles the idea is dismissed as inconceivable. African sangoma optimistically embrace the introduction of Europeans to their ranks as a natural and positive innovation. Biomedicine meanwhile generally dismisses sangoma healing ideas and practice and thus ignores the potential advantages of co-operation with this parallel healing system on which between 60 and 80% of the majority population still depend.

The integrative approach to medicine familiar in Asia and China has yet to be tried in Southern Africa, where efforts at collaboration between traditional and biomedical practice remain few and far between. Arguably cooperation is more problematic in relation to those traditional healers - such as the sangoma of South Africa - who attribute their healing gift to the spiritually defined agency of ancestral authority. Biomedicine appears relatively sanguine about the ‘re-education’ of traditional birth attendants and surgeons, for example - but is noticeably less quiescent, when it comes to the question of interactions with spiritually inspired healers. In South Africa, with a few notable exceptions, biomedical practitioners persist in refusing to take seriously sangoma practitioners and resort to calling them witchdoctors; a rejection which denies to sangoma the respect they willingly give to biomedicine.

This resistance, amongst Western trained practitioners, largely stems from the healing role of sangoma; which is integrally linked to the honing of communications with the potent agency of ancestral spirit. However, some African commentators query the existence of European ancestors. A question which then arises is how European sangoma experience ancestral others; are they, to take a rather obvious examples, African or European, both or other? And how do they communicate? The common answer is trance or semi trance, which is part of the experience of all sangoma and is familiar, idiosyncratic and spiritually personalised to the individual; irrespective of race. Trance gives temporary access to other, ancestral levels of consciousness and knowing, and as such is used by most sangoma in their diagnosis.

Another interesting question is; how do these European sangoma perceive their practice? Preliminary research suggests that most interpret sangoma as a form of healing rather than a religious expression. Some European sangoma interviewed bring to their training a prior religious faith, which they distinguish from sangoma, but find to be either renewed or strengthened by their experience. Whilst several note similarities between the role of sangoma and priest, they appear to have discovered a comfortable independence between their religious beliefs and sangoma practice. This position is generally reflected in the experience of the African sangoma, most of whom retain a powerful Christian faith whilst practicing as sangoma.

Does becoming a European sangoma constitute a hybrid experience? Preliminary conclusions draw on the essential idiosyncrasy which characterizes the ukuthwasa experience, in which each candidate to sangoma invokes the spirits of deceased family members, clan predecessors and a multitude of other, more numinous spiritual entities. This implies that every new sangoma, African or European, is a hybrid; a unique complex of ancestral strains and influences, a product of ancestrally derived hybridism. Finally, the inevitable traces of ancestral agency in the sangoma experience - its ancestral hybridism - renders every sangoma practitioner a hybrid, in the sense of being new, different and authentic.

In a democratic South Africa however, European sangoma have an opportunity to act as a channel or bridge between peoples and cultures; which were previously segregated. European sangoma can be contemporary healers of colonial wounds, and as mediators and translators between biomedicine and traditional medical practice, a function with particular significance in the context of HIV/AIDS interventions. By acting on behalf of their European ancestors (most of whom deliberately undermined and derogated African healing practice), the European sangoma of post-Apartheid may become a conduit for cultural and political acts of healing. Whilst individuals might not go so far as to practice sangoma as an ‘act of atonement’, few are unaware of the potential of a ‘micro-political’ transformation.

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