“The Training and Work of Sangoma: South African ‘Witch Doctor’”
by Bernie Rowan
31 March 2011
“Sangoma is a traditional healer in South Africa: priest, counsellor, and soothsayer. To become one requires both a calling and a hard training followed by initiation. Bernie Rowen went through this, and tonight shares her personal journey, as well as giving an academic point of view of this remarkable world. Bernie, who is so-called ‘European’ South African, went into the townships in Cape Town to apprentice, learn and immerse herself, trained to the work, and initiated to the title of Sangoma. Bernie Rowen is by profession an alternative healer, who has presented talks internationally and is author of two books. She has a particular interest in ritual, and is currently reading for her Masters degree in Cosmology.”The speaker outlined her talk by stating that it would be part autobiographical and part on the structure of ritual.
Bernie’s path to becoming a Sangoma began with going for a job interview to vet people at a cancer care clinic to see what treatments would be suitable. She had two dreams whilst visiting a friend in Devon, UK – the first of which was a ‘click’ song that is sung before a girl gets married. The song is very hot and contrasted with the coldness of the English weather.
Bernie played the song, sang along and encouraged everyone to clap along. The second song in the following night’s dream was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.
When Bernie returned from the UK her PA greeted her at the office and drew her attention to a letter regarding a healing seminar by the ANC integrating Western medicine with complementary medicine. During the seminar she came across a Sangoma and wanting to find out more about what a Sangoma does – she contacted a friend to be introduced to one.
When they first met, the Sangoma said: “Where have you been? I’ve been looking three months for you!”
The Sangoma explained that Bernie’s ancestor’s had been calling to her. Not the very conservative grandparents who were Mr. and Mrs. Dutch Reformed Minister, but rather the grandmother on her father’s side who passed away when her father was stil young.
When she returned home, Bernie discussed her upcoming training with her husband. Sangomas had a bad press during Apartheid years and Bernie did not quite know what she’d be letting herself in for. Her training began with drinking an herbal concoction that been whipped with a three pronged stick until it was foamy.
Never having taking even dope before Bernie was unsure of what to expect; but it was her PA who pointed out her employer’s growing powers of precognition. Telling her about appointments that were going to be cancelled and updating the diary accordingly.
Bernie’s training involved making beads put in herbs and ritually blessing them. She also had to do some sowing but it was being told that she had to dance at an initiation that would be the next big challenge. During the dance she was shown how to keep her back straight and move with her hips.
Her teacher told her that the ancestors were drawing near and that Bernie should spend several weeks in meditation. During this time she grew a little anxious, however it was also then that she realized that imagination is something to be used rather than feared.
There followed several tests such as finding her teacher at the Tree in to the township. Somehow she found the particular tree that her teacher and the other women were at. Then she had to find a number of objects hidden away without being told what she was looking for.
Finally for her initiation she was supposed to kill a goat. Being a strict vegetarian (more so then than now) she understood the need to give an exchange and that blood is a life giving force. But she asked her teacher to consult with her ancestors if any other sacrifice would do and the answer was money.
The initiation involved putting a chicken over her body, melding with the thing that was going to give her a new life. There was drumming, dancing and finally a meeting with her ancestors. Messages were exchanged for Bernie to relate to the people as a whole and for specific individuals.
Bernie was also told that she would not stay long in South Africa and she is now living with her partner in Edinburgh, Scotland.