Sangomas: The South African Shamen

In the ancestor worshipping traditions held by the majority (80%) of South Africans (Zulu, Xhosa, Ndabele and Swazi) the Sangoma is the primary and sometimes exclusive healer and counsellor.


There is no governing body to control who is, and who is not, a sangoma, anyone can claim to be one (there are over 200,000!). Traditionally a new sangoma is called by an initiation illness, often psychosis, headache, stomach pain, shoulder or neck complaints. After which they will undergo “Thwasa”, a period of training including learning humility to the ancestors, purification through steaming, washing in the blood of sacrificed animals, and the use of Muti, medicines with spiritual significance. At the end of Thwasa, an animal is sacrificed to appease the ancestors.




Sangomas are said to access the wisdom of the ancestors to cure ills and divine knowledge. They do this through the use of traditional medicines (Muti), dream interpretation, bone throwing, channelling and possession.

Muti is the name given to medicine given my a Sangoma and has become slang amongst white South Africans as a term for any medication. Genuine muti from a sangoma can contain just about anything, and the more outlandish the better. Lion fat for courage etc. It is also legal to present your employer with a doctors note from such a witchdoctor after a day off.

I often get pamphlets handed to me describing the services of a “new sangoma in town” which promise everything from better sexual performance to winning the lottery and finding a job. Some uber sangomas even have fancy websites.


The use of Muti is so widespread a recent documentary was made concerning its use in sports events, namely soccer. Our biggest teams here resorting to sprinkling urine over the goal posts before a match or burying bundles of herbs under the pitch to “ensure” a win. Teams each have their own resident witch doctor, in the hope that theirs is stronger than the oppositions. I wonder what our new Brazilian coach makes of it.

3 thoughts on “Sangomas: The South African Shamen

  • sangoma nene

    I am a sangoma. Sangomas do not worship ancestors. We worship god and believe that illness is carried in us in our genes, by our ancestors that we inherit, so illness is genetic. Please correct this notion as it is one reason why people believe that we are not connected to god but workship dead people.
    our website has some clearer descriptions of what sangoma and traditional health practitioners are.

  • bacon

    With 80% of South Africans visiting a sangoma rather than western medicine, and having one of the lowest life expectancies in the world (40 years), I think the stats point away from traditional medicines expertise with genetic disease…


    IM 19 years old and under the the ritual of kuthwasa, i started last year 2007 while doing my first year at the University of KWA ZULU NATAL. Im still studying this year and i want to be a clinical psychologist or an industrial psychologist. It took me a while to accept that my life had changed at such young age, as time past i have accept the gift i have, and respect what imam as while as my anstors

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