In this episode, Dr. Maxinne Connolly-Panagopolus asks Dr. Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel how we might better understand and engage with South African Shamanism and Mysticism. Beginning with Sangomas or spiritual mediators, Dr. Kleinhempel introduces some of the types of Shaman which exist in the South African context such as the herbalist, who learns mystical powers from plants; the diviner, who uses oracles such as bones as objects for mediumship; and the seer, who relies on inspiration from dreams, telepathy and intuition. Turning to the complex configuration of race, heritage, and culture present in South Africa, the conversation moves to a discussion of white Sangomas, and how these individuals are perceived by their community. Finally, within the region’s diverse religious landscape, Kleinhempel shares how Sangomas sometimes navigate multiple religious identities. Listen in for a discussion that encourages scholars to reflect on how they will negotiate the demands of critical inquiry alongside their own personal experiences or competing worldviews.
For more on Sangoma, Umbanda, and other specific elements of this conversation, please consider the following resources:
• Hall, J. (2009). Sangoma: my odyssey into the spirit world of Africa. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2017). Covert Syncretism: The Reception of South Africa’s Sangoma Practise and Spirituality by “Double Faith” in the Contexts of Christianity and of Esotericism. Open Theology, 3(1), 642-661.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2017). Spreading an Arcane Religion on the World Wide Web: Paradoxies of Transmission of the Contemporary Mysteries ‘Cult of Umbanda. Mistiko-ezotericheskie dvizhenie v teorii i praktike-mistitsizm i ezoterizm v mire teknologii, VIII mezhdunarodnaia nauchnaia konferentsia. St. Petersburg, 60-71.
• Kleinhempel, U. R. (2018). White Sangomas: the manifestation of Bantu forms of shamanic calling among whites in South Africa. REVER-Revista de Estudos da Religião, 18(1), 143-173.
• Contemporary Mysteries’ Cult of Umbanda – video lecture, 8th ASEM conference https://www.academia.edu/26147179/Contemporary_Mysteries_Cult_of_Umbanda_-_video_lecture_8th_ASEM_conference
• Mbiti, J. S. (1990). African religions & philosophy. Heinemann.
• Mlisa, N. L. R., & Nel, P. (2010). Ukuthwasa the training of Xhosa women as traditional healers: Ukuthwasa initiation of amagqirha and identity construction. Lap Lambert Academic.
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Exploring African Shamanism and White Sangomas in South Africa
Podcast with Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel (2 June 2020).
Interviewed by Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulos.
Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.
Audio and transcript available at:
Maxinne Connolly-Panogopoulos (MC-P): Hello, Ullrich! And a very warm welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Today, we’re recording between Glasgow and the edge of the forest in West Nuremburg. And even though we could do many podcasts on your body of work, from orthodox spirituality and theology, esotericism and syncretism, today I’d really like to focus on your 2018 article on white Sangomas and the Shamanic calling in South Africa. So, for the Listeners who are unfamiliar with this topic, might you start by explaining a little bit about what a Sangoma is?
Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel (URK): Sangoma is basically a Bantu shaman. The word is used quite generically. It’s a Zulu word. Bantu – that’s the name for all the black African people who live in the land from West Africa – the end of Africa, where Cameroon is – in a straight line to East Africa – the Horn of Africa – to Kenya. And, south of that, the people are all related linguistically. The Bantu people emigrated to this realm from Nigeria. About four thousand years ago they began to migrate there. There were farmers and herdsmen and blacksmiths. And before they came there were hunter-gatherers, the Khoi-San, there – also known colloquially as Bushmen. They lived with other archaic peoples like pygmies and others who have vanished. The Khoi-San have a very well developed practice of mediumism and trance. The Khoi-San, the Bushmen, they engage in out-of-body travels of soul, calling of rain, calling of animals, relating to nature spirits, to ancestors souls, and the like. Quite a loose people, but with a well-developed culture in that way. They visit spirits at special sites like rock pools or water falls. They also do trance dance and spiritual healing. Now the Bantu people who came into that area learnt a lot from them. They intermarried and took up their spirits, respected them for what they are, and that distinguishes the Bantu people from other African people as West African. Now my sources are especially from the South African . . . the people of the amaXhosa: the people of Nelson Mandela. There are about as many people as there are Swedish people. And they have observed most from the Khoi-san – even the clicks in the language. You can (clicks) . . . six clicks. Now what is Bantu shamanism? There are basically three types of Bantu shamanism. The distinction and the combination varies from one people to the next. The first is the herbalist. They learn the medical powers of herbs from the tradition and by mediumism. They’re called iZinyanya iXhwele. You may be a bit surprised to find the herbalists enlisted here, but just imagine how many hundreds of medical plants are known to the shamanic people in South America, and in Africa. And these plants have never been found by experimental trials. Most of the patients would have died that way, because many plants are poisonous. And amongst these tens of thousands of plants there are in the wild, the plants that have curative powers have been revealed to the diviners in dreams. They dream of a patient who has a certain illness, like malaria. And then, all of a sudden, they’re shown in the dream where to go, and which plant to take, and how to treat it to make a medicine out of it. And that store of knowledge is vast. And medical companies, even to this day, send their scouts to those indigenous people to learn from their medical knowledge. And the second role is the diviner. The diviner who uses oracles like bones or similar objects in Bantu cultures. They are called the iSangoma. There are oracles in other cultures too, like West African Ifá – the oracle of the Yoruba people – or the European (audio unclear). And these oracles are quite sophisticated. It takes intuition; you must seek endowment; also some psychological knowledge and training to read them properly. Then there are the seers. Those are people who really, completely on their own, inspire dreams, premonitions, telepathy, visions, intuition. They’re called iSitunywa. And the African indigenous churches who integrate the African heritage, they regard them as prophets and have adopted that role completely. To talk meaningfully about these things you really have to set aside the positivistic and materialistic approach, maintain an acute scientific mind-set, be very clear on phenomenology, and basic research, and documentation, and listening to people, and be prepared to change your own concepts of reality. If you’re not prepared to do that but stick to a reductionist view, which says, “Oh, this is all cultural imaginations and constructions,” and so on, it’s like telling people “The moon is just a cultural construction – you can see that from mythology.” (5:00) and, “The moon is just some kind-of delusion to adapt in the course of evolution.” It’s wasting your time, and it’s wasting the time of readers and you won’t end up anywhere. So, just a fruitless exercise in ideology. If you engage in these things, be prepared that the people who have developed this kind of shamanism have been acute, intelligent people like you and me, over the centuries, over hundreds of years. And they have very fine powers of discernment. And maybe we are just, in a way, daft at these things, and just say, “Oh, well these things don’t exist!” Just to give a really brief comparison, just imagine you were a person who can’t hear. You go to study music, and read all these notes, and say, “Oh this is a wonderful cultural construction. But something like sound, you know, that doesn’t exist. Do you hear anything, I don’t.?” Ok. Now we have to accept that these things are real, because otherwise we are just getting nowhere. Now if you are interested in this topic, of course, at some point you will ask yourself, “Well, how can one become a Sangoma?” Well to say, “Ok, I’ll train to become a Sangoma”, that’s about to say, “Ok, I’ll be an opera singer one day.” Now, without perfect hearing, a good voice, a fine sense of music and harmony, you’re not going to get anywhere. You may study, study, study but you’re not going to end up being an opera singer. Now someone may say, “OK, I’ll be a musician and I’ll learn three chords on my guitar and say I’m a musician”, you know? These things, unfortunately, happen with Sangoma too. Because Sangoma is not a protected title at the moment, and the controls for who can call himself a Sangoma –mostly herself, as Sangoma is very much a female profession – that is at present not in the best condition. In traditional societies these things have been very regulated. There are boards of control, of education, of training, of examination – most arduous exams, comparable to an opera singer – before you would be qualified and accepted as a Sangoma. Now unfortunately, at present, this has been weakening. So a lot of quacks with a sense of money put up a shop sign, “I’m a Sangoma” and charge you a lot of money and “You will believe me, and I will do something for you.” And that’s ruining the profession, and it’s harming it very much. Now the first requirement to become a real Sangoma is a real mediumistic endowment. That usually shows up in childhood already. The child will dream of things in advance that will happen later, or may know, intuitively, that things like . . . or see spirits of familiar people who have just passed away. That child knowing, and saying “Mama, I saw our neighbour walking up the stairs!” And mama says “You can’t have, you must be dreaming. That person died two weeks ago.” That’s the kind of mediumistic endowment that turns up in childhood already. Now you need that mediumistic endowment, and then you need a calling. And that calling can turn up even pretty late in life. Strange dreams, recurring dreams with a sense of urgency. Strange accidents and incidents happen. All these kinds of things. And the person may feel they’re going mad, you know, getting insane, fearing for their sanity. This is quite a crisis. And if you decide . . . you may have to make a decision. They will either say, “Well, I have the means, and the time, and the willingness, and I’m prepared to follow that call, regardless of what it’s going to demand of me and cost me – that’s usually severe, this direction in life. Or you say, “No I can’t follow it. I’ll just have to reject it.” And you say then, “The calling will go away.” But usually it goes away at a price. So it leaves some traces in your soul. Some hurt. Now, if you heed the call, then you can experience that the spiritual field takes over, or as the Bantu people say, “The Spirits begin to take over.” They send you things, things are happening, meeting things, rare things and occasions which are just, you know, out of the normal. Then, if you’re in training, that’s a complex structured process. It’s been described quite a lot by two authors who have got long traditional training. The one is an academic psychologist, in South Africa, Dr Lily-Rose Nomfundo Mlisa. And she wrote her dissertation, entitled, Ukuthwasa Initiation of Amagcirha: Identity construction in the training of Xhosa women as Traditional Healers. And the other is the American accomplished writer, many books. He wrote a book about his own calling which sent him to Swaziland for over three years. And his book has the title Sangoma: My Odyssey into the Spirit World of Africa. Just to remember the first author is Lily-Rose Nomfundo Mlisa and the second is James Hall. You can find them both on the internet. The state of being in this process of training is called Inthwasa. This is feared, as Dr Mlisa explains and she writes: “It is inkathaz – madness – indeed, since it involves syndromic illness and a conglomerate of factors that culminate in various afflictions (10:00). . . . Sometimes ukuthwasa involves signs that resemble madness, such as hallucinations and illusions. . . . Entering into the ukuthwasa initiation heals the person.” And she states that the process of training is often feared as time consuming, expensive, disruptive to family life and employment, also involving obligations to heed the inspiration of ancestral spirits perpetually. Yet the afflictions suffered by someone who experiences signs of spiritual calling are so severe that people sometimes feel they can’t avoid that call. They just have to follow it, may it cost what it does. It could be possible but to reject it a high price. Now Mlisa defines seven stages of the training process. The first is the prediction stage, igqirha. The igqirha, this is the manifestations of mediumism at an early stage. Then the second stage is the calling comes, which is called ubizo. At this stage dreams affect them, troubles intensify, and serious action has to be undertaken. Then comes this stage of intense afflictions, when things get really into a crisis. And when this happens, usually the master Sangomas will say, “Ok this is a sign things are getting serious. We can take that person for training. We will accept that person. These things are genuine and are powerful.” And then comes the stage which actually lasts the whole time: confusion, resistance or acceptance. You have regrets, you say, “Oh, I’m maybe not suitable, I don’t have the abilities to do it, maybe it’s all just an illusion, maybe I have psychic problems”, and so on, and so on. And that may go right up to end of exams, or the day before examinations. And all of us who have passed examinations, I think, know these kind of feelings
QRK: Then comes the real stage that is Ukuvuma Ukufa – that’s where intensified training begins. And this training involves a series of rituals like the formal beading and donning of the attire of a trainee. Now you’re visibly a trainee. Then rites of cleansing, acceptance of death – because transformation is also a kind-of death of your previous ego and the person you were – illness, suffering, and you have to be baptised, at that stage, as a trainee. Then comes cleansing rituals of the body, the homestead environment. Also sacrificial rituals. This is a side where not everybody will be happy with, but sacrifices are done because the blood is perceived as a substance bearing the power of life and spiritual quality, too. Then comes the rights of acceptance, with sacrifice and prayers for the initiate. And the initiate has to learn quite a lot. That comprises, for instance – I will quote Mlisa again: “The trainer is entirely convinced that umkhwetha has a calling and she has committed to it. She has to demonstrate skills and abilities in the divining system – assessments, diagnosis and preparing treatments – then exclusion from family life and social life intensifies and new restrictions are introduced. Her food restrictions differ markedly from the previous stage.… She must also help in mentoring her juniors. Most of the time, umkhwetha is expected to work independently, but under the strict guidance of the trainer. She becomes an assistant to her trainer. She can also lead certain procedures and rituals under the guidance. Moreover, she must demonstrate more expertise and knowledge in understanding how various herbs are collected, stored and used.” End of quote. Then comes Ukuphuma – that’s the last stage of intensive training. Again, certain rituals adjoin to it. But that includes: long times of isolating and seclusion; ritual pilgrimages and rites; special sites in nature, sometimes shown in dreams where to go; spiritual retreats; sacrificial rituals; public proofs of mediumistic prowess – like, for instance, the trainee is called into a room. And in the room, somewhere, a coin is hidden – under a bookshelf, or wherever. That person who enters has to find that coin and find it quick. And things like that. These are really demanding tests. And if you pass them sufficiently, then you do a name change to show your new identity. And there comes the rites of public investiture, and public acceptance as a new role as they progressed to Igqirha or Sangoma. Then comes the stage of being accepted into the communities of Igqirhas or Sangomas as a full member. That is a really dignified ordination. And then you’re still expected to go for lifelong learning. As long as you are, there maybe somebody who knows more, maybe in a certain field and you go train with him or you go for seclusion and pilgrimage. All these things. This is a life-long process. And at present, professional boards of Sangomas and traditional Igqirhas are organising, and have organised already, and are getting legally recognised and integrated into the healthcare system, to safeguard the proficient standards and protect from imposters and quacks (15:00).
URK: So this is a way to give you an overview of this.
MC-P: Yes. Thank you for that, thank you. That was a really, really great overview, as you say, about the whole process. And it’s wonderful to hear those clicks again and your pronunciation is fantastic! I’m really quite interested, as well, especially in your paper regarding the white Sangomas, you speak about them having to, of course, have the same process. And I wonder, how are these individuals received in their communities? And maybe what are some of the cultural or religious tensions surrounding white Sangomas?
URK: Well, this is a complex issue that has to be taken quite seriously. Because it touches on the issues of collective and cultural identities, and respect for culture, and all of these things. Now, we have this concept of “cultural appropriation”, which means, basically, you cannot take something from somebody else’s culture. Although by those standards, if you apply them strictly, we as Europeans or Africans would not be allowed to read and write because the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, and then that’s their cultural property. Of course, we read and write! So this has limits. But from a philosophical point of view of African culture and the worldview, there is a quite clear answer to that. And this provides a basis of how to do things legitimately. Also, for people coming from outside like whites. Because in the acceptance and the manifestation of a Sangoma’s divination, you connect with spirits. Now these spirits are, firstly, those who actually guard the whole process and are the masters of the process. Now in this process you connect to you own family’s ancestors, spirits that turn up in dreams – like, you may dream of your great-grandfather who you never saw, but you know it’s him. And you know this person has a message for you. Or maybe he will guide you, and accompany you. So your own family’s ancestral spirits, first of all. And then, secondly, essentially the ancestral spirits of the master Sangoma with whom you do your training. Some of – usually her, it’s mostly a female profession but there are some males – her, or his, own mentor spirits will also become part of your own spiritual realm. And they will begin to exert authority over you. So this is the point where inevitably, African, black African spirits, Bantu spirits will enter into the realm, consciousness and sub-consciousness and the spiritual realm of a white trainee. Then there are the spirits of the land where you do your training, especially where you were born. You are perceived to be connected, spiritually, to the place you were born. That makes a black person born in Europe a European spiritually, in a certain way, and a white person born in Africa an African, in a certain way. Because you’re connected to the spirits of the land. And you may visit that place, and connect there spiritually, and feel you are connected, and things like that. Then also, the spirts of your place, land of origin, where your people come from. And then, also, spirits of other people, objects, or places – like, you stood in front of a painting and the person who was depicted, all of a sudden that person would turn up in your dreams. So close, emotionally close, significant connections can also connect you to spirits maybe of a long, long time ago. And those spirits in these classes that have taken abode in you, and guide you, and are revealed to you by dreams, intuitions, special occurrences, most of all in trance. Also positon trance – and even there’s a type of position trance dance where the spirit enters your body and expresses itself by certain movements before you begin to recognise that spirit. So these spirits come to you, and some of them become important for you. They will stay with you and connect with them. And you get their powers and advice. Also healing powers, divinatory powers. And then you have an assortment of individual spirits: obviously, if you are a white person, your European ancestral spirits, your family spirits, and the African spirits of the land, and the trainer. If you gather these spirits you also take in their fate. They may have experienced much suffering in their life and you may experience bouts of anguish or sorrow that you can’t explain from your own life. But you feel a desperate fear, sorrow, anxiety which is that of a mentor spirit. So you live part of their life again. It sensitises you to certain things, so that means you also have certain price, you live with those spirits intrinsically (20:00). They also guard you. And James Hall observed, him being a Catholic, that these spirits are similar in a way to the saints of Catholic piety. A saint also was a person that lived, and the saint is, in a way, a spirit in the other world who will still guard you. So things can also happen like, if a black Bantu African mentor Sangoma has some white person up in the ancestor line, that Bantu may also have a white spirit in his own family spirits. Because in South Africa, there was intermarriage all through the centuries. Now the acceptance in communities, the institution of Sangomas or Igqirhas is a very respected profession. It’s like the social status of a psycho-analyst. These people are respected. Sangomas are really revered persons. And this institution has made the transition from rural society into modern South Africa. It’s also made the transition from the pagan culture into Christian culture. And today, if you look up on the internet, you will find professionals in many fields such as psychologists, teachers, academics, medical doctors and so on, who also trained and graduated as Sangomas. The majority of South Africans, statistically, have consulted with a Sangoma at some point in life, like myself, and sometimes in addition to a medical doctor or psychotherapist, and that’s a very special experience. The institution of Sangomas has successfully made the transition into Christian realm, first through the African indigenous churches, to integrate the African spiritual heritage and its forms. They created the offices of the prophet, praying for healing, praying for any of these things. The mainline churches are gradually beginning to accept that. There are some Evangelical churches who will say . . . or fundamentalist Catholics who will say, “Oh, this is all of the Devil.” But still they have some form of recognition of it. Whites, especially in rural areas, at all times consult with Sangomas if they knew no other counsel, or had special powers, but that was usually done in secrecy.
MC-P: I just wanted to pick up on that. So you mentioned the movement from pagan to Christian, and then you also, in your outline of what exactly it takes to become a Sangoma, you mentioned some sacrificial aspects. And so if we think about Sangomas more broadly, thinking about this identification as a Christian as well as the darker side of some African Shamanic practice – for example, the use of human body parts in rituals – how is this navigated by the Sangomas, who practice spiritual healings but they also see themselves a Christians?
URK: That’s an important question for both the Christian Sangomas and the African traditional pagan Sangomas, because Sangoma powers are magic powers, apart from the divination. And magic is a neutral thing, it’s like fire: you can heat the fireplace with fire, you can light the candle, but you can also burn the house, or burn the countryside. Powers can be used in both ways. And if you can use them . . . it’s like telepathy: you can send a good wish to a friend or a family member, “Hope you will pass your exams”, or whatever. But you can also send harm. And this is the inherent ambivalence in the magic powers. Now as to the bodily aspects – and we have things like wedding rings, or we have photos of special objects of our parents, and gifts which we won’t drop on the floor, we’ll treat them with reverence, we have the idea in Christian European culture of blessed objects that you treat reverently accordingly. And this is a strong point of African traditional culture and philosophy, that the different realms of mind, and matter, and the intermediate realm, these are interconnected and the one works in the other. So you work with objects. But these objects are blessed or have some inherent power. They also have a spiritual and cultural aspect to it. And if you apply that to a body, we talked about the blood as being a substance of life. The body parts are perceived as having the powers of a person, like a person’s brains, a person’s heart, and kidneys and so on. And unfortunately, those who practice dark magic, who do magic for harm, they will kill people just to obtain the powerful parts of the bodies (25:00). And there is a special department in South African police, specialists. And this is a pest, it’s an African pest. People all over Africa get killed for magical purposes. It’s a real, real violent, evil thing. And it’s been treated with contempt and horror in African traditional culture already. But unfortunately, those people who do this kind of thing, often for a lot of money, they will promise you can get rich, you can kill your foes and things like that. So this is the darker side of it. As to sacrifice and ritual objects, this is something we share in European culture too.
MC-P: It’s interesting, that. So, if we just move away from thinking about just the general practices of the Sangoma, and thinking more about how academics might engage with this: could you, maybe, outline some of the ways in which this has been engaged with from an academic perspective? And you mentioned earlier about sort-of that balance between keeping an open mind, along with your scientific mind-set. So, thinking about academic approaches, do you think there are some who have aided in the understanding of Sangomas?
URK: Sure. Well actually, South Africans have been pioneers in this endeavour. And they remind me of something which Dr Lily Rose Nomfundo Mlisa told me. After her dissertation was published on the internet, a Jungian psychoanalyst associated with the CG Jung Institute in Zurich – that’s the headquarters – visited her. And the Association of Jungian Psychoanalysts of South Africa have invited her regularly, and continue to do so, for lectures. Last year, the international association of Jungian psychoanalysts held their world council in Vienna. And she was invited as a keynote speaker and there were over a thousand participants, 1400 participants and, at the end of her lecture, she received standing ovations from many of the participants who had tears on their faces. And that may illustrate the impact of her work. Now, those not too familiar with psychotherapy, Jungian psychoanalysis is the most expensive and prestigious form of psychoanalysis. It takes a long training. About 150-200, 000 Euros, just for the training. You need a broad basis in culture and knowledge of myth and so on. And that makes it an arduous and demanding and very rich form of psychoanalysis. And she was invited into that world congress there. Some decades ago, that relationship was the other way round when Cape Town Jungian psychoanalyst, Vera Bührmann, had long talks with the Sangoma from the Eastern Cape, and she recognised some similarities that fascinated her. However she tried to reduce the spiritual worldview of the Sangomas to the “collective unconscious“ in Jungian terms. Even a bit more reductive, in Freudian terms. And that, however, by doing so, eclipsed many features and phenomena. She misinterpreted them. However, she was a door-opener. And her booklet about these encounters is still worthwhile reading. Now this form of reductionism, fortunately, is on the wane. And when I studied Psychology in South Africa, there was a part called African Traditional Psychology. So there is a certain acceptance in academia that certain symptoms and experiences are culturally bound, and they have to be taken and accepted for real – whatever that is. Sort-of put into brackets. But the medical profession is also a practical and pragmatic profession. Because to do what heals is acceptable, even if you don’t know why that heals. But if it heals, it is good. And this is a door-opener. And then somebody else that we have to mention is JBF Laubscher. Laubscher was a trained psychoanalyst and psychiatrist in the early- mid twentieth century. And he worked at psychiatry hospital in the Eastern Cape, and befriended the local Sangoma there, and wrote about that friendship and about all the things he learned, and how it resonated with European spiritualistic worldviews at the time. And his book The Pagan Soul is available online. It’s quite good to read. Laubscher is the person’s name. That doctor’s name. The field of studies of esotericism, that field is not defined by a method, but by its subject. And at present, many scholars in the field regard Sangoma practice and its concepts as religious, which it is certainly not (30:00). Sangoma art and its cosmology and anthropology are not religious but divinatory. And that’s important. But cognitivism is the order of the day. And if you try to frame things in a cognitive way, like those constructions and imaginations, and so on, you can be sure that many people will applaud you before you even have said a sentence or two. But this is just reducing. Now there is another tradition of phenomenology. And the phenomenologists they are quite acute about exploring this field, and say, “Ok. What irregularities, what are patterns that recur? What is the logic of the whole thing? What of the phenomenon, the experiences? What is the transformation of that person? And some scholars in anthropology, like Victor and Edith Turner, have gone that way and have revived their initial approaches in epistemics to find epistemics that are suitable to cover the phenomena that they encounter. They’ve written about that. And the Turners are quite influential in anthropology. So there are traditions which one can connect to. Well more could be said but that’s in brief.
MC-P: Thank you. I think that’s really fascinating. And I really agree that when we’re as researchers, when we’re looking onto things such as this, it’s so important to avoid that reductionism, and absolutely, as you said, to keep an open mind as well as our scientific minds sort-of parallel. Well, that’s my approach anyways! But just in closing, I wanted to ask you . . . you sort-of covered it a little bit, but how would you encourage future researchers who were interested in something such as Sangomas or African Shamanism to explore this topic? And in what directions do you think this field might be moving into?
URK: Well, I believe it’s a promising field. It’s a promising field for various reasons. One thing is, in North American and Western European culture, there is a certain stage of post-secularism that we have arrived at. And sociologists of religion are quite unanimous in this diagnosis of a post-secular age that we have entered. Which means that we have the materialistic tradition still very strong and powerful in academia. But we also have a certain awareness that the world is more complex and that we are entering into post-secular stage. This goes along with a certain decline in Christianity, and some people have passed from Christianity into being “nothing at all”, materialists. And then they’ve found that this is not satisfying, they’re looking for something spiritual, and they might be especially fascinated by these various forms of divination and things like that. There are also traditions like that in European culture, and American culture from the mid-nineteenth century. Spiritualism and psychic research – that’s a great field! You will find much resonance between Sangoma culture and those submerged and sometimes lost European traditions that are re-emerging, too. Then it is interesting to research, how does the institution of Sangoma make the transition into urban South Africa? There are professionals who announce that on their websites that they may be a psychotherapist and also trained Sangoma. Those could be people who would be willing to share these things. You could do research on that: how had the training been conducted into the conditions of a modern industrial society? Which transformations are happening? This is a promising field of research: how does it interrelate, and what are the effects with the medical professions, psychotherapy and so on, and so on? How does the one maybe influence the other? Then, if you are a student of medicine, how does psychiatry, and the diagnosis of psychotic conditions, or schizophrenia in African traditional cultures, how does that fit with our present Western knowledge, or European/American knowledge of psychological disorders? And how does the impact of the spiritual aspects, how does that interrelate with that psychological sphere? This is a promising field, too. And there is quite a bit of research going on in South Africa, too. Then you might do research on regional forms of Sangoma practice: which people emphasise this or that aspect? How is the role defined in this culture, that culture, that culture? And if you have knowledge of Romance languages, if you know Portuguese, if you know French, there are vast fields of studies in that way. And, by the way, that said, some of the Sangoma heritage has flourished in Brazil, too. Over the past five centuries that’s very much alive, in a reduced form compared to the African complexity (35:00). But it is quite alive and it has been connected to an Afro-Brazilian religion, in whose fold this is practiced. This is Umbanda and it has certain aspects of Sangoma practice and divination, too. Then, to enter that field, read, read, read! There are works of Placide Tempels on African philosophy and worldviews; John Mbiti – he was a theologian and philosopher, who wrote about African traditional religion, philosophy and worldviews. Then, Axel-Ivar Berglund, Gabril Setiloane and quite a few others could be mentioned, too. I’ve mentioned some about the experience of training as a Sangoma. That gives you a good idea of the cultural frame, and the philosophy and epistemics that go along, in which these Sangoma practices are embedded. Then visit and consult with trained and properly graduated Sangomas that may be willing to share. And also be prepared to accept that many rites are guarded by secrecy. Nomfundo Mlisa more than once told me: “You’re a white man. You’re not supposed to know anything about these things. How do you know them? And I said “Well, the thing just comes to me.” “OK, so I’ll tell you come more.” But this is an ancient tradition, archaic secrecy. You just have to respect that sometimes doors are closed, and sometimes they open at another point. And somebody will be prepared to share with you.
URK: But this is just respect for the things. Some rituals are simply not divulged unless you enter yourself. And then train your own mediumistic perceptions – all of us can to some degree, you become sensitive to that, and you can relate to that field in a different way. If you observe that somethings happen to you that shouldn’t happen, or you have premonitions and that, that sensitises you and you can relate this really intuitively to that field, which is quite important, too. And then let yourself accept that the phenomena can teach you a few things. And this sort-of turns the tables. And be prepared, if you enter that field, that field is going to work on you, sometimes quite suddenly, sometimes over long periods of time, but it does perceptibly work on you. And you are transformed in that way, too. And this is something quite beautiful to experience, if it happens. You cannot control it, but you can rejoice if it does happen to you. And so this is personally fruitful, apart from the vast and quite intellectually challenging field, and quite interesting field from various perspectives: philosophy, psychology, medicine, psychiatry, anthropology ethnology, cultural studies, and so on, and so on. Even music, embodiment studies, ritual studies. So there are quite a few perspectives to engage in this field.
MC-P: Absolutely and the list is quite endless! And you’ve certainly given us a few golden nuggets to take away there. And I’m sure, if there’s any students listening, that you might see a couple of dissertations. And I absolutely have to agree with you. I think any research that we’re doing into religion, or psychology of religion, or anthropology of religion, it has to change us. But I will definitely be sure to link your work – especially you mention Umbanda. I’ll definitely be linking that in the description on our Religious Studies Podcast webpage. But I really just wanted to thank you so, so much for sharing your knowledge, and sharing some of these experiences, and helping me to bring a subject that maybe isn’t known too broadly, to bring that to light as well. So I just end that by saying: thank you so much for your time.
URK: It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you, too.
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