A woman comes out of her two-room house and stands on the doorstep. A big, red cross is printed on the back of her white dress, and it almost reaches down to the wool belt tied around her waist. Her head is wrapped with a scarf. She comfortably holds a worn-out Bible close to her chest, its pages folded over in use.? It’s another sunny Sunday morning, and Sara Nkuna of Acornhoek, South Africa, is getting ready for her favourite time of the week. “I was told by my pastors to never stop coming to church,” Sarah says with a dimpled smile as she locks her house. “I love going to church. My spirit tells me to go to church to pray.”?
But before the 38-year-old lady leaves for church, she enters into the dumba, a traditional circular hut with a thatched roof, located opposite her home. Dumba’s are where sangomas (traditional healers) work, and different coloured Sangoma clothes like ndyeti (a white headscarf with maroon flowers), nghala (black headscarf with a lion print in the middle) and palu (blue headscarf with small boxes of flowers), and animal skins hang on a line against the inside wall. Various dried chopped roots and herbs sit across from the door. Some are scattered on a sangu (a grass mat,) and some are stuffed in bottles and buckets. Sarah spreads a sangu on the floor, kneels down and spills snuff on the floor. [Because I am a Sangoma, I have to inform my ancestors every time before I head to church, [to ask] for their blessings,” Sarah explains. “I have to follow both the rules of traditions and Christianity for things to go smoothly.”
Sarah has defined the impossible in many people’s eyes by being a well-known Sangoma in the rural community of Acornhoek, South Africa, who also attends the New Alpha Apolistic Church. “People often come to me and ask how I can be a Sangoma and still be going to church. They are just confused about this because they believe that tradition and Church beliefs can never be mixed as Sangomas worship ancestors’ spirits, not God. I just tell them that I too need God in my life, and that just because I am a Sangoma doesn’t mean I don’t believe in Him.”
Sarah has been a traditional healer since 2000, but she says that she didn’t become one by choice. She was a big Christian who never missed a day of church. She never thought her life would take a different turn along the way, which soon changed her destiny. “I became very ill for two years. Even my church or the hospital couldn’t help me,” explains Sarah in a strong tone. “Coughing blood was the last straw, so my family to took me to a Sangoma because they thought I was going to die!” Sarah’s life changed when the Sangoma sought answers through divining bones. The prognosis was that Sarah needed to be trained, or else she would die; she had no choice but to succumb to the advice. “The first moment the Sangoma saw me, she just knew it that the ancestors were calling on me to train as a traditional healer. I was really scared because I didn’t want to become one; [I only wanted] the help to make me feel better,” she explains. “But she warned me that if I ignored the calling, I would die. I went ahead and trained for two years, and now things are back to normal and I don’t suffer from illness.”
Soon after her training, Sarah was practicing as a Sangoma and healing people with different illnesses. Her choice to continue praying to both God and her ancestors left many people skeptical.? Thoko Mazibukko, a well-known Sangoma in Acornhoek explains that the ancestors don’t allow Shangaan tradition and Christian religion to mix. “If I go to church, I will get sick and my healing powers will vanish,” explains Thoko. She, too, became a Sangoma because she fell ill for a long time and no hospital was able to help her. Thoko has been a traditional healer for fourteen years, and over time has trained many people to become healers themselves. “Sangomas worship their ancestors’ spirits and Christians pray [to God]. Simple as that! The two are like oil and water; they can never mix!” says Thoko in a strong, loud tone.
Thoko is not the only person saying that the two religious beliefs can’t be mixed. “According to the Bible in Ecclesiastics 9, if a person dies, he or she no longer has the power to control the living. Only the living have that power,” says Pastor Richard Mnisi of the Nazarene Revival Church. “People are not supposed to worship dead people. It’s wrong in the eyes of the Lord! People must have faith in the Lord because no matter what challenges they are facing, God will always be there for them.”
Surprisingly, Sarah was welcomed back by her church members after she recovered from her illness and completed her Sangoma training. She added that her pastors prayed for her ability to act as a prophet within the church and for her traditional healing powers at the same time. The prayers for seemingly conflicting beliefs intertwined without problem.
The pastors advised Sarah to refuse to use her powers for evil ways, such as when women want help in killing their husbands, or when someone is looking to bewitch another. She says that she only uses her powers to benefit people who are suffering from different illnesses, such as Diarrhea, headache, TB and STI’s, besides HIV/AIDS. “When a person who is suffering from an illness comes and asks for help, I ask him whether he would prefer me to help him the church [prayer to God vs. prayer to ancestors] way or the traditional healing way, and I use whichever way they choose,” she emphasized.
Sarah smiles as she enters the New Alpha Apolistic Church at 10 a.m and greets her pastor and church members with a handshake. Melodies soon echo inside the church, as Sarah leads a chorus with her fovourite song, Xikwembu xanga u ni siyela yini? (Why have you left me my Lord?), with her eyes closed and hands raised up high towards the corrugated metal roof. She looks like a totally a different woman from when she was sitting in her dumba, throwing tinhlolo (different animal bones, dominos and dice) and pointing at each to explain what the ancestors are saying. In spite of many people believing traditional and Christian beliefs can’t coexist, Sarah has created her own version of spirituality by mixing a cultural blend of tradition and western ways. “The only reason why the two things don’t work out for other Sangomas when they try to use them is because they don’t put the ancestors first. Always put the ancestors first and they will open up ways for you, but if you don’t, things will backfire on you.”