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Monday, March 23, 2015

Africa in the Bones: Witchdoctors, Sangoma, Nyanga and Traditional Healers

In Southern African society, the Sangoma acts as a therapist for issues of health, luck, love, dream interpretation, sexual problems, or business ventures. 


African Witchdoctors, Sangoma, Nyanga and Traditional Healers


Nyanga’s seek the nature of the illness and its cure by meditating or going into a trance in order to get advice from a God or spirit. Sangoma's and Nyanga's are not witch-doctors however the term is unofficially used interchangeably by the general population, the official term is traditional healer used by governments and organizations. Traditional healing is linked to wider belief systems and remains integral to the lives of most Africans. 

Traditional healer in Uganda photograph by Panos Jim Holmes
A traditional healer in Uganda treating a patient’s dizziness.
Photograph by Panos Jim Holmes
Health is defined in The World Health Organization’s Constitution as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. WHO states this definition extends beyond the traditional 

Western biomedical standard which treats body, mind and society as separate entities and reflects a more holistic understanding of health. Some African peoples have a similar understanding of health as well-being and the harmony that exists between individuals, communities and the universe.  

WHO estimates there is around 80 percent of the population in developing countries around the world rely on traditional healing systems as their primary source of care. It is estimated that there are approximately 400 million Traditional Health Practitioners (THPs) around the world, often providing access to health care in remote and rural areas. 

In Zulu societies, the Sangoma is a highly respected traditional healer and Nyanga is the esteemed traditional herbalist. The Sangoma may act as a therapist for issues of health, luck, love, dreams, sexual problems, or business ventures.
Animal bones, sea shells, and nuts used by Sangoma’s for readings
Slaughtered animal bones, sea shells, and nuts
 are usually used by Sangoma’s 
for bone divination readings


Men and women take up the profession after a long training period; a sangoma in training is called an itwasa. Some believe that each person has a fixed number of souls. 

These souls may leave the body and wander around, especially at night when people dream. Nyanga is a traditional herbalist using ancestors or amadlozi as a medium of prayer to God. Nyanga’s seek the nature of the illness and its cure by meditating or going into a trance in order to get advice from a God or spirit. 

Some traditional healers use good magic as a cure because they believe that illnesses including psychological issues have supernatural origins. Nyanga’s are mislabeled evil witchdoctors. A true healer cannot take part in any action that can harm or negatively influence another person and believes God has the ultimate power, it is a spiritual calling. 

Protest march in 2012 against witch killings photo by AP
Protest march in 2012 against witch killings
in Northwest Tanzania
While it is true a healer cannot take part in any action that can harm or negatively influence another, in 2015 Tanzania banned all witchdoctors or traditional healers to stop attacks on people with albinism and women thought to be witches. More than 70 people with albinism have been killed since 2000. Tanzania has one of the largest populations of people with Albinism in the world with an estimated 170,000. In the heart of Lake Victoria, Ukerewe Island is home to a large community of people with albinism.

People with albinism are killed and dismembered due to a belief that charms made from their body parts bring good fortune and prosperity. There is a great black market demand for the body parts of people with albinism selling for around US$600. Thousands of women in Tanzania have also been burned to death or hung because they were thought to be witches with red eyes. Having red eyes is a supposed sign of practicing witchcraft. This witchcraft belief is a small sect but a treacherous one.

Sangoma's are revered and respected
Sangoma's are revered and respected for predicting
the future trough bone divination readings
The Traditional Healers Organization (THO) organizes, trains and certifies traditional health practitioners. Each society has different kinds of traditional healers. In one ad a witch doctor states he “returns back the lost love ones, make a partner faithful, recovers stolen property, offers protection from witches and criminals, helps with troublesome teens, assist with finding jobs and to be favored in the workplace, and bestow blessings and good luck in anything. 

Some believe in the power of the traditional healer and some believe they are burglars who steal money from vulnerable people. Whatever the opinion traditional healers have a major influence on parts of African society and that influence is a deep-seated belief in traditional healing practices. Traditional healing is linked to wider belief systems and remains integral to the lives of most Africans. People consult traditional healers whether or not they can afford medical services.

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The eye never forgets what the heart has seen - African Proverb

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