Ubizo and Mental Illness: A Personal Reflection
UbungomaBy ubungoma I am referring to traditional healing practice in general. is undoubtedly becoming popular in South Africa. Almost every week there is something in the media about ubungoma. There is an increase in television programmes about ubungoma, ubongoma festivals, and a number of izangomaSangoma is used as a general term here for traditional health practitioners though not all traditional health practitioners are called sangomas. Izangoma is plural of sangoma. have TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube channels they use for teaching about ubungoma. Through these channels, audiences get a chance to learn more and more about the practice. Scholars are also increasingly embarking on research about ubungoma. One such recurring theme is that of the relationship between ubungoma and mental illness. The question of whether there is a correlation between mental illness and ubizo (ancestral calling) is one that has sparked interest not just in mainstream media, but also in academia. Scholars are currently interrogating this topic, especially in the field of psychology.
While we see the increasing academic interest in ubungoma, much of this field remains a mystery to many, primarily because the people who often conduct academic research on ubungoma are not izangoma themselves. Thus they have no insider knowledge of the processes and complexities of becoming a sangoma. Despite the numerous accounts about the process of becoming a sangoma, including accounts on ubizo and mental illness; the limitation in most of these accounts is that the sangomas are being interviewed by someone outside of this practice. Thus their narratives reach the audience from the perspective of the researcher. In this essay, I offer a personal account as someone who is a practising sangoma. I found out about my calling in August 2019, and subsequently went to ephelweniEphelweni and Iphehlo both mean the initiation school for tradition health practitioners. in 2020 where I spent a year training to become a sangoma. I have been practising as a sangoma since December 2020.
I chose to share my personal experience about mental illness as it remains a point of contention and a mystery for most people as I observe public discourse. I believe the more personal lived experiences are shared about such matters as mental illness, especially in relation to ubizo, the more we can start demystifying not just mental illness, but ubizo as well. In this essay therefore, the aim is to use my personal journey and experience to interrogate whether there is a link between mental illness and ubizo.
In February 2018, I became ill and was diagnosed with iron deficiency anaemia. I was treated for the anaemia, but there was no improvement in my health. I went back to the doctor, who had previously prescribed entry level anti-anxiety medication for me a few years back. This anxiety was discovered in 2004 while I was at university. I was on my way to the theatre to watch a play one night when I collapsed at the door and had to be taken to hospital. It turned out I had an anxiety attack. This was diagnosed by a doctor at the hospital upon my admission. Since then, I had been living with
In my first consultation with the psychologist following the referral from the GP, I was informed I had clinical depression and they recommended hospitalization. It was a busy period at work, and therefore, in response to the news of my diagnosis, I said hospitalization was not an option. Instead, I agreed we explore the option of monitoring the situation as an outpatient for a week and then we could decide the following week if there was no change. I did not get any better. When I went back for my second session, we went through the process of my psychiatric hospitalization. I was hospitalized between February and March 2018 for twenty-one days.
While I was in hospital, I was prescribed antidepressants, I saw a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and an occupational therapist. The medication was adjusted several times, as I was informed it could take a while before we could find the suitable combination of medication for me.
I have always been a diligent patient; hence I followed all my doctors’ orders. From taking my medication at the prescribed times, to eating my meals even when I did not feel like it, to attending the group sessions, as well as attending fitness classes. I did everything by the book, including colouring ducks, unicorns, and making beaded bracelets in the name of calming the mind as recommended by the health care practitioners. Each day we had individual therapy sessions with a psychologist, a psychiatrist, an occupational therapist, and sometimes a GP, and in my case, a check up with a gynaecologist as well. All sorts of blood tests were done and fortunately they all came back negative. I also had brain scans done, which also came back negative, thankfully. We also had group sessions where individuals were encouraged to tell their stories. We were taught about mental illness, some of the reasons we suffer from such mental illnesses, and the current available psychiatric approaches for treating such illnesses. It was explained to us how the medication works in combating the symptoms we experienced. I found these lessons enlightening.
When I was discharged from hospital, I was not cleared for work and as such I did not immediately return to work. At the time, I was living in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, in a commune with my sister. In that period, I was struggling with symptoms such as fatigue, not being able to focus, eating problems, and sleeping problems. I was relying on medication to fall asleep. Getting out of bed was a task. I could go for a whole week without taking a shower because I could not move. My legs we locked, and so I had trouble walking. I started gaining weight. Before I went to the hospital, I weighed 40 kg. When I came out, I slowly gained weight, eventually going all the way to 78 kg. I went from wearing clothes from the kiddies’ section to size 42. My tummy got so big, one day I bumped into a former colleague at the airport, and she asked me how far along I was, assuming I was pregnant. I told her I was six months pregnant and didn’t bother saying I was joking. According to her, wherever she is, I have four-year-old child now. Furthermore, everything I ate made me sick. Eating became a nightmare because after eating, I knew I would be in so much pain. I would experience abdominal cramps, and gastric pain, gas, I would have a hard time relieving myself. My chest sometimes felt like it was on fire. At some point I was convinced I had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) even though it was not diagnosed.
Moreover, I battled with suicidal ideation. I had two suicide attempts. The first time I intentionally drove at an alarming speed, between 180 and 200 kmph on the highway, a zone with a 120 km speed limit, with the intention to crash my car. What made me slow down eventually was the thought of not dying but getting paralysed instead. Also, the thought of killing someone else in the process made me snap back to reality because I never want to kill anyone, not even by accident. So, I eventually slowed down. At that moment, nothing mattered. I was going through a lot personally and I felt I had no one to talk to or no one would understand, which is what happens when one is depressed. I wanted the pain to end and at the time it seemed like there was no other way out for me other than ending it all.
The second time I attempted to take my own life, I drank an entire 750ml bottle of wine. Now that may not sound like a suicide attempt, but at the time I was a teetotaller. I did not touch alcohol until I got ephehlweni when my ancestors demanded it. To this day, I do not drink, my ancestors who happen to be my body roommates do. That night I had a black out and found myself waking up on the floor with an empty bottle of wine next to me. I have no recollection of how I took the bottle, or how fast or slow I drank the wine. For all I know I could have gulped the entire bottle in one go, or I could have done it in small gulps, I don’t remember. I do remember being in extreme emotional pain that evening and crying my eyes out while lying on the floor. Fortunately, I was all alone in the house that night, and nothing happened to me.
I tried to get my life back when I came out of hospital. I continued my consultations with all the doctors, GP, psychologist, psychiatrist, and occupational therapist. Eventually, my medical savings ran out and I had to start paying for everything in cash. The amount I paid that year on medical bills! I am eternally grateful I had a job and to a certain extent I could afford to pay for all the medical treatment I needed. I am even more grateful for the friends that gave a helping hand when I was in need. I also count my blessings that I worked in a wonderful environment where I was given all the support I needed. I was also fortunate that I had my family and friends by my side who supported me. My sister became my rock. She did everything for me when I could not get out of bed. Every morning, she came in my room to check up on me. She made me breakfast before leaving the house. She would return from work only to find me still in bed and would cook and serve me dinner. She did my laundry and would make sure I ate before taking my medication. Sometimes, I went for days without being able to take a shower and she nursed me without a single complaint. Looking back, I am convinced that it was a divine plan by the creator and my ancestors that I was living with her at the time when I could not do anything for myself because I simply could not imagine anyone else taking care of me and frankly, I do not know how I could have survived on my own.
Between March and July 2018, I was still at home recovering. At some point, the psychiatrist changed my medication as I kept experiencing bad side effects from the one I had been taking. I was told that it is normal for the body to reject certain medication and we would keep changing until they found the right combination for me. In July 2018, my doctors cleared me to go back to work but for half days. The agreement was that I would gradually build the hours, starting with four (4) hours, then six (6), and eventually eight (8) hours. By December 2018 I was back at work full time.
Though I was functioning with some level of normalcy, there were still challenges with my health. I still struggled to focus, I occasionally took sleeping pills. By then, I had developed eating allergies, while struggling with a perpetually bloated and gassy tummy. Everything I ate made me sick. I consulted with a specialist who informed me that I had lactose and gluten intolerance. From where?! How?! I asked myself. How is this even possible? My legs and feet continued to lock, and I would not be able to bend my knees, which made climbing stairs a challenge. I would experience this strange tingling under my feet. My feet would feel hard and stiff like a log. When I lifted the foot, it would simply refuse to do what normal feet do and bend. I would be forced to hold on to the balusters and choreograph my way up to the next step. The weight did not help. By the time I reached the top of the stairs, I would be gasping for air like I had just ran a marathon. Breathing in general became problematic at this point, as it became laboured with even the smallest of activities, such as walking. You should have witnessed me trying to get out of a car. It would take me what felt like forever, and I would be huffing and puffing. There would be moaning and groaning, clanking, and cracking, simply because I was trying to get out of a car. Don’t get me started on my back. It became a department that needed to be administered daily. If I had to bend down and pick something up, I would sometimes need to stop halfway and ‘breeeeeathe’ through the pain of feeling like someone just snapped my back before I could slowly and gently work my way to the upright position. What assisted me with the breathing is the fact that I am a classically trained singer, and thus, I know all about breath control.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, in October 2019 I was diagnosed with early-stage diabetes. By this time, I even joined the gym to try and improve my health, which I found to be extremely beneficial. Furthermore, my eyesight became poor, I was diagnosed with short-sightedness by an optometrist and prescribed glasses.
For the entire time I was going through this, to me, all these were just life challenges that most people go through. Therefore, there was no reason to be alarmed. I just needed to do what needed to be done to sustain a healthy life. That was it for me. Moreover, at this point consulting with a sangoma did not even cross my mind. I was brought up in a Christian family and seeing a sangoma was nowhere near my horizon of possibilities.
My ancestors started showing up in my dreams in early August of 2019. The first person to appear in my dreams was my maternal grandmother, who was a staunch Christian. She was a member of an African initiated church. When I was young, I was told that my grandmother joined this church after she learned that she had ubizo. She initially went to ephehlweni, the initiation school for traditional healers, but did not complete her training because some members of the community discouraged her, calling ubizo demonic. She therefore absconded from ephehlweni and was advised to go to this church where she was told that her ancestral spirits could be ‘tamed’ or ‘controlled’. Her ancestral spirits were never ‘tamed’. They bothered her, her entire life. My grandmother passed away on 17 September 2018. I went to see her at the hospital the day before she passed away. She could no longer talk by then; we knew it was her time. When I got to the hospital, I held her by the hand and I said these words in my mind, ‘grandma, it’s okay, you can go, I will take over where you left off’. I did not know why I said those words, I just felt I should say them. Moreover, I had been saying to a friend for almost a month that my grandmother was not going to pass away until I had seen her and that I was worried that I was not finding time to go see her. Indeed, the day after I saw her and said those words, my grandma passed away.
In the first dream I had of my grandmother, she was sitting on a bed, and she showed me a red, black, and white lion ancestral cloth. She then took me to a market where she showed me red and white beads. The moment I had that dream, my life finally made sense.
I had been dreaming all my life, and there was one dream that bothered me for almost four years. After having the dream with my grandma in it, I knew that that dream I had been having all along was telling me that I have a calling, but I did not know what it meant at the time, since I had no one to ask. In this dream which kept recurring for almost four years, I kept dreaming of myself carrying a baby on my back. I later learned that a baby may represent a gift, in this specific context, a spiritual gift to be exact. That is why I kept walking in those sacred places, because I was being called to walk a spiritual path. Though I did not know much about ubungoma when I had the dream about my grandma, I knew what this dream meant. There was no mistaking the lion cloth and the red and white beads. That one dream explained my entire life. Things fell into place in my mind.
The words I uttered at my granny’s death began to make sense to me. I understood that she waited for me to inherit the gift, an
d I believe it is the reason she was the first ancestor to show up to reveal my gift to me. The gift is something that is passed on from one generation to the next. Yes, I was born with mine, but in some way, I am also covering hers as well.
People find it strange when I say I was relieved when I found out about my calling because very few people want an ancestral calling because of the challenges it brings along. People get terrified when they learn that they have the calling. On the contrary, I was overjoyed. I often explain to people the reason I was overjoyed is because first, I did not have the Jesus Syndrome. One of the many reasons people have difficulty accepting their calling is because they are Christians, and they think that they will go to hell for accepting their calling. There are people who still believe that ubungoma and Christianity cannot co-exist. But that is a debate for another day.
I was brought up in a Christian family, but I stopped going to church in 2012. I informed my parents that I wanted to discover who I was without the influence of something that was imposed on me as a child without my consent. From the moment I was born I was taken to church; my entire life had been about church. At some point in my life, I questioned who I would have become if my parents had not chosen to take me to church because, ultimately, I felt it was their choice, the church that is. I felt that though the church had taught me a lot of great lessons, there were many things I disagreed with in our church practices and beliefs. I therefore stopped going to church to embark on a journey of self-discovery. This process allowed me to keep an open mind. I became open to the idea of multiple paths to the divine. I simply refused to believe that there is only one way of connecting with the divine when the world community is so diverse.
I would often make a joke about how if Jesus had gone to an African wedding, he would have turned water into umqombothi, traditional beer, since wine is only symbolic of one culture, but the meaning is universal.
I therefore found the Christian doctrine slightly stifling, as preached in a fundamentalist way. There were many things I was taught I could not do or associate with as a child of God, which I really had trouble accepting. I was also tired of perpetually begging for forgiveness for my sins. I needed freedom from the burden of living like I had to keep track of my every thought and every action because I was taught about sins of commission and sins of omission. There never was a time when one went a day without sinning, according to the teachings I had learned. Surely this was not a way to live one’s life, I thought. I figured there had to be a better way of living than this eternal anxiety I felt because of wanting to please God by trying not to sin daily. I believe African Spirituality and Christianity can co-exist and they do. That doesn’t make me a Christian though.
Back to the topic at hand, dreams such as the one I had of my grandma are not a singular occurrence. They continue to this day. There is a saying that goes, ‘uthwasa uze uyofa’, meaning you initiate until you die. The learning never stops in this calling. When my obvious and blatant ancestral dreams began in 2019, I shared them with my family. I did not want to hide anything but to allow them time to come to terms with the news, as I knew this would be a challenge since I come from a conservative Christian family. I say obvious and blatant ancestral dreams because, in all honesty, I had been having these dreams for the longest time, I just did not know what my dreams meant at the time. December 2019, I went home to Emalahleni to officially notify my parents about my ubizo.
Like with most dlozifiedDlozified has become one of the colloquial terms used to describe spiritual gifted individuals. people, I received a cold response from my family with the usual ‘we don’t do these things in this family’, ‘these things are demonic’, ‘these things come with snakes’, etc. To ‘console’ me in some way, I was told that they would do ‘research’ and then come back to me. I came back to Johannesburg the second week of December 2019. I patiently waited for the response from my family, but the response never came. I had already received instruction from my ancestors about a ritual that needed to be carried out for me prior to going ephehlweni, but this was not done because no one was interested in my calling. My life was falling apart in every aspect of the word. During that time, the depression continued, and I had diabetes. As mentioned, I was also told that I was gluten and lactose intolerant. Eating problems persisted. At work things were not going very well. I had no relationship to speak of, having broken up with my boyfriend back in 2016.
Realizing that my family was not acting, I decided to speak to my ancestors and ask for a way forward. I literally had to Google how to make umqombothi so I could phahlaUkuphahla is when we officially speak and address our ancestors, like prayer, but directing the conversation to ancestors rather than the creator. and speak to them to find a workable solution. I made umqombothi and I conducted my ukuphahla ceremony in my rented room in the commune. What I said to my ancestors was this, ‘can you please show me my gobela (spiritual teacher/mentor) for me to go ephehlweni because I am tired of suffering because of my family’s sluggishness. They are refusing the calling, not me. I have accepted my calling wholeheartedly. I know it is not going to be easy, but you have shown me your presence and I have no doubt that you will make a way for things to work out’.
A few days passed and I dreamt of my gobela. I did not know this man and I had never met him. In December 2019 while I was talking to a friend who is a neighbour, she told me about a WhatsApp group with people who taught each other about African Spirituality. I asked the friend to ask the group administrator to add me to the group. She did and I was added to the group. When people made comments, I kept saving their names so I could recognise them. One such person who kept commenting was the person who would become my gobela. I saved his name without knowing that would be the case later on.
When I first dreamt of him, in the dream he introduced himself by his full name, so I knew exactly who he was. I approached him in the WhatsApp group and asked him, ‘what are you doing in my dreams?’ He then took the conversation outside the group and asked what I saw in the dream. I told him about the dream, and he interpreted the dream for me. It made sense.
I still laugh about the fact that I met Baba via WhatsApp. It just goes to show that amadlozi are moving with the times! They are adapting.
After that conversation, I went back and spoke to my ancestors, saying to them, “if this man is my gobela, I want a confirmation dream. I want to see him again in 3D or HD”, seriously, that’s how I put it. The first time I dreamt of Baba was on a Tuesday, he came back in my dreams, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. On Saturday I was at his house.
When I arrived at Baba’s house, I had everything I needed to get into ephehlweni. Amadlozi had instructed me on what to purchase, that everything I needed was there in my suitcase. Baba was in shock because he thought I was just there to consult. I said to him, “listen, I am here to thwasa and I am not leaving this house until I have completed my training. If you want to go to Dubai, go ahead, but upon your return, you will find me here waiting for you.” He almost collapsed because I was his first child, dlozically speaking.
It is not a norm to enter ephehlweni alone. I entered ephehlweni like an orphan, out of desperation because I was suffering alone. I did not blame or resent my family for their antipathy. I understood why my family could not accept my calling. Just like I understood why my grandmother left iphehlo before completing her training because she was told that these things are demonic. I did not hate them. I knew one thing, amadlozi would never let me down.
I arrived at Baba’s house on 8 February 2020 and my training began. My parents came on the 22nd of February 2020 for my ukugajekela ceremony. This can be described as a ritual in which music is used to evoke amadlozi (ancestral spirits), out of ithwasa (the initiate), for them to receive their ancestral names. The name I got that day was Mahlabandlovu Dlamini, who is my Nguni ancestor. Mngomezulu Zulu showed up at a later stage, he is older than Ndlovu (as I am often called). My parents came to this ceremony out of parental obligation more than anything; so I felt. After this, they left, and nothing happened. I continued with my training.
A few weeks after my training started, one of amadlozi came outWhen I speak of ‘idlozi coming out’, it means the spirit of an ancestor took over the body of someone to speak. What some would call spirit possession, a word I avoid using as it often connotes evil spirit possession. An alternative term I use is going into a ‘trance state’. In isiZulu we say, usedlozini, meaning you are in ‘dlozi or spirit mode’ and I was instructed to come off my medication, the antidepressants I was still taking at the time. Baba did not take me off any medication upon my arrival ephehlweni. I had reported to him about all the medical issues I had, and he had instructed me to continue with all my medication and treatment as prescribed by the doctors. When I asked this particular ancestor what to do as he instructed me to get off the medication, I said, “Mkhulu, manje kumele ngenze njani uma nithi ngiyekele amaphalisi?”, (Mkhulu what then must I do when you say I must stop taking my medication?). By this time, I was on three different types of Schedule 5 medication. Mkhulu replied, “lezo zinto ozithathayo zenza ukuthi abantu bakho ungabezwa kahle. Bayakhuluma nawe kodwa awubezwa kahle“, (those things you are taking are blocking your communication with your people. They are talking to you, but you are not hearing them clearly). Mkhulu then added, “ungahlupheki, ukungena kwakho la ekhaya yikhona ukulapheka kwakho, yonke into oyidingayo ila ekhaya”, (don’t worry, you entering this home is all the healing you need, everything you need is in this home).
Let me talk about the importance of dreams. Dreams are extremely important, to such an extent that I worry when someone says they do not dream. How do you navigate life if you are not dreaming? Dreams are messages from your spirit, messages that provide guidance for your life. Dreams can be literal, metaphoric, or symbolic. One of the services we provide as spiritual healers is dream interpretations. It took me a while to realise I had a calling because I was having symbolic and metaphoric dreams whose meaning I did not know. I wasn’t even aware that I was supposed to seek an explanation. I often make the point that sometimes the majority of us spiritually gifted people end up ‘suffering’ because amadlozi keep speaking to us, but we do not even know that we are being spoken to, and by the time we realise they are speaking, they are already fed up with us. People often complain about the ‘suffering’ we go through. I do not see it as such. My view of it is that it is an awakening process to our calling. Once awoken, and we go through iphehlo, whereby we go through the process of ‘dying’ and being ‘reborn’, our lives start aligning and things start to fall into place. I covered the topic of ‘dying’ in my previous article.
Dreams also reveal to us things held in our subconscious mind, things that may require attention to receive our healing. They reveal more of who we really are than what we try to be in our waking lives. Important to note is that when addressing dreams, one needs to consider cultural context. I often discourage people from Googling their dreams but to rather seek a spiritual healer to interpret their dreams because spiritual healers work as mediators between the living and the departed. Thus, you are more likely to get an accurate reading from a spiritual healer than Google where you will find Freudian interpretations of dreams. The danger with such interpretations, and I know I am simplifying a complex theory here, is that when you dream of things like snakes, you will be told a snake is a phallic symbol representing a male figure or hidden sexual desire, whereas in the African context, a snake symbolises something completely different. A spiritual healer can reach the spiritual realm, therefore they will be able to access your spirit guides for the correct meaning of your dreams regardless of your race or ethnicity.
I stopped the medication immediately after Mkhulu instructed me to stop, to Baba’s chagrin of course. He has pharmaceutical training and therefore he understands about withdrawal symptoms. He shouted and screamed, and told me it was not happening, there was no way I was just going to come off my meds just like that, notwithstanding what the amadlozi said. I understood his frustration very well. He would not have been doing his job if he did not worry. My response to him was simple, “they brought me to you, and so I take it that they know what they are doing. I trust my amadlozi with my life”. That was the end of the discussion. I have not taken a single antidepressant pill since that day, which was sometime in March 2020. To this day, I have not had a single withdrawal symptom. The weight started coming off naturally. My appetite came back. I started eating normal food. A few weeks later, when I tested to check the diabetes, it was gone. To this day, I don’t have diabetes. My eyesight came back, I no longer need to wear glasses. It is also important to note that I was not given special medication after I was instructed to stop the antidepressants. I only took the prescribed traditional medicine meant for amadlozi, igobongo, which is considered food for amadlozi.
I had a hard time explaining to my doctors how one day I had depression and diabetes, anaemia, anxiety, food allergies, and then the next day these were all just gone with no explanation. I call all these things ancestral illnesses. They were all concerned, rightfully so, otherwise they would not have been doing their jobs. And just so we are clear, I was and remain a diligent patient. I went to my medical practitioners to report what my amadlozi had instructed and we kept track of my health. I continued with my therapy sessions until amadlozi instructed me to stop. Interestingly, the psychiatrist explained to me that in her field of study, there are two schools of thought; one in which scholars believe there is correlation between ubizo and ancestral illness, and the other, which believes it is mental illness and nothing to do with ubizo.
The question I intended to answer with this essay was whether there is a link between mental health and ubizo. Based on the personal experience I shared above, one may argue that there is a link between the two. My understanding of the depression, anxiety and all the other medical issues I went through is that we experience them because, as we say, ‘idlozi alihlalisekanga’, or ‘idlozi lifuna impande yalo’. This means amadlozi are ‘not settling well’ and ‘they want their medicine’, what we call impande. There are sacred medicines that are given to amadlozi as soon as one gets to ephehlweni, with certain rituals conducted for them. These medicines and rituals ‘heal’ and ‘settle’ amadlozi for them to be able to work efficiently and effectively. Once amadlozi are healed, the person is also healed. That is why there is a saying that goes, ‘akuthwasi wena kuthwasa amadlozi’, meaning you are not the one that gets initiated but amadlozi are the ones that are initiated’. When amadlozi are healed, or initiated, the person they are in gets healed by default because they are realigned to their spirit self.
Mkhulu (the ancestor) had said to me that my people (ancestors) were speaking to me, but I was not hearing them properly because of the medication. My pedestrian understanding of this statement was that anti-psychotics affect the mind and amadlozi communicate with us through the mind in the form of dreams and visions. There are other ways in which amadlozi communicate but dreams are the most common medium. I had been dreaming before, that is how I ended up ephehlweni, through guidance I received in my dreams. After I stopped the medication, my dreams became much clearer. I could remember them more, whereas I had trouble remembering what I had dreamt before. Baba ended up nicknaming me Josephine, feminine form of the biblical Joseph because I started dreaming daily and not just short dreams, it felt like I was watching movies in my sleep. When you are initiating ephehlweni, you are required to report to your gobela because the dreams give instruction on what needs to happen to you. To this day, I continue to receive instructions through dreams.
The illnesses I went through are in no way unique to me. Many sangomas go through what I went through and sometimes even more, and many of us do get our healing as soon as we accept our calling. Sometimes these illnesses go away for good, sometimes some remnants may remain. These types of illnesses are also reported in early accounts of missionaries, doctors, and anthropologists who came across traditional healers in South Africa as far back as the 1800s. These reports often include tales of how sangomas would usually describe receiving their calling by first getting very sick. The great Credo Mutwa also describes his ancestral illness before he went to thwasa in his book The Zulu Shaman: Dreams Prophecies, and Mysteries (2003). Mutwa says in this training as a sangoma he was ‘taught how to recognize an illness such as the one [he] was suffering from, which at first glance looks like madness or nervous breakdown but is much more than a mere illness or mere nervous breakdown rather, it is an invitation to be initiated as a sangoma’ (2023:22). To this day many sangomas describe going through some type of major illness prior to accepting their calling. I am yet to come across a sangoma who has been initiated and had a ‘smooth ride’ for lack of a better expression, with their calling. What is important to note is that the mental illness did not come alone, there were other illnesses accompanying it, which is the norm for someone with an ancestral calling. Based on my experience in my practice, people with an ancestral calling often suffer from what psychologists would diagnose as anxiety, depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia, though there may be other mental illnesses I may not be aware of.
There are mental illnesses linked to ubizo. These are the ones that get healed as soon as one accepts their calling and starts their initiation process, and I have witnessed people who have gone through similar experiences to that of my own. Then there are illnesses that are what I call “normal human experience of psychological illnesses”, meaning it is something that is just natural, it happens to people. Let me use the diabetes example, even though mine is gone. Though it could never be confirmed, I suspect it was linked to my weight gain and the antidepressants I was taking at the time. I was already at risk as it runs in both sides of my family, paternal and maternal. Thus, it makes sense that as soon as I stopped taking the antidepressants, the weight came off, then the diabetes would come off as well, especially since it was early stage. This experience is different from someone who may have had diabetes naturally. The illness is not going to go away because one has a calling. I am of the view that the same applies with mental illness, there are mental illnesses linked to ubizo and as soon as the calling is accepted and amadlozi are healed, the illness goes away. On the other hand, there are other mental illnesses that may be caused by a variety of factors as other medical practitioners in the field will explain. It is important to understand that ubizo is not the only cause of mental illness. There are a whole range of factors that can contribute to one becoming mentally ill.
Before I deliver my closing remarks, I would be remiss if I did not dedicate a whole paragraph to depression and why it is important to understand this illness. The biggest challenge with depression I believe, is that there is no physical injury to point to. As such, people do not believe you when you tell them you are unwell. People have difficulty understanding why it is you cannot wake up, or take a shower, or why you are always sad and emotional. They have a hard time believing anything is wrong with you because you look ‘normal’. At some point I was told ‘to just get over it, everyone has stress, there is nothing special about you’, which is the worst thing you can say to someone with depression.
Someone told me to drink three cups of coffee in the morning to deal with the chronic fatigue I was experiencing. Someone advised I take Red Bull, and another Stress Away. The list goes on. These are the type of comments people make out of ignorance and lack of knowledge, not realising the person can literally take their own life. Having clinical depression means one suffers from chronic fatigue, one feels worthless and hopeless, one feels like no one cares, that one is all alone. Self-esteem is practically non-existent, which is why it is easy to take advantage of and manipulate people with depression. One feels the weight of the world on top of one’s shoulders so to speak. One feels like there is no hope, nothing makes one happy. The things one used to enjoy no longer excites one. I for one love children, but when I had depression, I could not stand them. The slightest noise made me want to scream. One is always sad, teary, and fatigued. Getting out of bed becomes a major hurdle. When I say getting out of bed is a problem, I do not mean standing there and reciting a speech about why I should get up is going to help. Nothing helps because every muscle and every fibre of one’s being is screaming no, we are not going out of bed. That is why one can go for a week without taking a shower, because the body and every muscle refuses to cooperate when you want to move.
It is normal for someone living with depression not to answer their phone. There is not enough energy to speak because speaking feels like a laborious task. Text messages and personal emails can go unanswered for weeks. Work emails are attended to out of contractual obligation. There is no motivation to speak of. Trying to read is impossible, and that is why it is normal for someone with depression to take leave from their studies. One cannot focus. I tried everything from smudging, listening to the YouTube videos of ‘One Hour of Meditation or Focus Music’, ‘Tibetan Singing Bowls’, ‘Deep Focus Music to Improve Concentration’, all in the name of trying to calm my mind so I could read more than three sentences. For us ladies, our menstrual cycle may also get affected. I experienced heavy menstrual bleeding and inconsistent menstrual cycle. The bleeding was so bad that when I was at the psychiatric hospital, I was referred to a gynaecologist who then prescribed an Intrauterine Device (IUD) for me in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
Depression also affects sleep. One can sleep the whole day and be awake the whole night. Once diagnosed, I relied on medication to help me sleep. Eating may become an issue as already alluded to above. Suicidal thoughts become occasional visitors. While I was at the psychiatric hospital, I said to my therapists one day that I felt like I was on autopilot. I was doing things like going to work for survival purposes. If I didn’t work, no one would pay my bills and I would end up without a place to stay or food to eat. Outside of work, I only slept and ate, but once again, for survival, not because my body wanted it. One comment almost sent me to a bottle of pills to end my life. Someone told me that I was useless, that it was not normal for people to be as sick as often as I was, that I should perhaps just re-evaluate my life and consider quitting my job. “Ncono uyeke sisi” (just quit sister, you can’t go on like this), I was told. They said I was making a fool of myself for being so sick all the time. These are some of the things I have experienced. It is important for us to understand this illness as it is when we miss the signs and symptoms that we end up running the risk of losing loved ones to suicide.
I should probably stress here that with someone who has ubizo, the depression will be accompanied by other signs and symptoms. It rarely goes alone. Someone with ubizo will have had dreams that notify them that they have a calling. I often give this example. A parent buys a bicycle for their child as a gift. What the parent is not going to do is tell the entire neighbourhood, but not inform the child that they bought them a gift. Same applies with a spiritual gift.
You cannot be given this gift and your ancestors do not notify you. The reason most of us go through life without knowing is because we have lost our ways as Africans. We no longer follow our customs, and therefore, things like dreams are things we no longer pay attention to.
When one enters endumbeni and finds out they have a calling, it should not be earth shattering news to them, it should be a confirmation of something they already know because they would have seen the dreams and experienced other spiritual gift related signs and symptoms. I should point out that it is through dreams and visions that one also learns of the type of ancestral spirits one is walking with. There are different types of ancestral spirits such as Mnguni, Ndau, BaLozi, etc. Not everyone with an ancestral calling is supposed to go through ukuthwasa. Going through this process is dependent on the type of ancestral spirits one has. This is also an enormous topic that should be covered on its own. Some of the signs and symptoms one may experience when they have an ancestral calling include, but are not limited to: recurring headaches, pain or heaviness on the shoulders, back pain, dizziness, fits, some people hear voices, swollen feet, tummy issues including bloating, developing food allergies, dreaming of animals such as snakes, lions, leopards, cows (context is important here), water dreams, dreaming of being in natural spaces (rivers, mountains, caves, etc.). These are just a few. A spiritually gifted person may also have extroverted introvert tendencies. They can socialise with the right people but need time off to be alone. Some are drawn to certain animals. They may also do a lot of daydreaming.
Going back to the question of mental health and ubizo, professionally, I advise people to consider all possibilities. Make the necessary consultations, tests, follow the doctors’ orders, take their treatment, and continue seeing their therapists if and when necessary. This includes patients that I know for a fact have an ancestral calling. When I was going through depression, the medication helped, the therapy sessions helped, the occupational therapy sessions worked, and as a result I was able to go back to normalcy. It would therefore be difficult for me to argue for the sole use of traditional healing approaches, just as it would be challenging for me to argue for the sole use of western medicine. There are illnesses that we can cure the traditional way, and then there are those that require western medicine. I believe that western and indigenous treatment methods need each other. I look forward to a day when a sangoma can tell a patient, what you have is beyond my scope, I refer you to a psychiatrist, or a neurologist; and a day when a psychiatrist or psychologist can say to a patient, I suspect this may be a spiritual issue, I suggest you go and consult with a sangoma.
To echo Mutwa again, ‘a sangoma also has to be able to distinguish between a hopelessly mad person, and a person who – though very mad indeed – can be saved and made well again’ (ibid.). Mutwa’s statement suggests that indeed there are mental health cases that are treatable, and those that are not treatable, or rather I propose, can be managed through medical interventions. One must be able to differentiate; should I treat the patient as a sangoma, or should I be referring them to a psychiatric facility?
My hope is that we can learn to embrace and respect each other’s professions and learn to identify the limitations in our respective fields. My hope is to see traditional healers in the same conference as psychologists and psychiatrists, to share knowledge for the benefit of the patients who walk into our consultation rooms. I imagine a world where psychologist can confidently say to a patient, ‘have you considered consulting with a sangoma about this issue’, because they would have been taught about the signs and symptoms of an ancestral calling.
From the experience I described here, I can say without a doubt that there is a correlation between some mental illness and ubizo. I experienced it, accepted my calling and as such, I received my healing. Today I am the one providing the counselling, within my scope. I also know it to be a common experience with spiritually gifted people and continue to witness it endumbeniEndumbeni and Indumba mean the ancestral consultation room. with some of my patients. I do not know if I will ever get depression or any of the other illness mentioned above, I highly doubt it. But I can confidently say that my health is currently at its best. I am human, I do get sick every now and then, but right now I am simply grateful to the creator and my ancestors for my good health and their unconditional love.
By the way, as for my family, my main ndumba is at my parents’ house. The same people who had difficulty accepting my calling on religious grounds are my biggest supporters today. My father tells everyone who is willing to listen about his daughter who is an incredible sangoma. He refers patients to me now, calling me and asking me when I am coming home because there are people who want to see me. How did I do it? Faith and snuff is how I did it. I poured snuff and asked my ancestors to intervene, and they did. I went ephehlweni in February 2020. As mentioned, my parents came for my ukugajekela ceremony on the 22nd of February 2020. I waited patiently, and nothing happened for almost five months. One day one of amadlozi came out and I asked what it was I was supposed to do given the fact that my parents were not cooperating. Mkhulu (the ancestor) said to me, do not worry yourself my child, we will handle that situation. And handle it they did.
I was minding my business one day in July 2020 when I got a frantic phone call from my father asking me what needs to be done to help me with my initiation process. I do not know what happened to him because he sounded like someone was chasing him. It was such a big shock that Baba instructed me to go buy cake to celebrate this big milestone. Both my parents were at my intwaso ceremony and paid for most of my homecoming ceremony expenses. My family is united and peaceful today. They still go to church every Sunday, while I continue with my work endumbeni. I visited church once since coming out of ephehlweni as a gesture to my parents to say I have nothing against church, and that my ancestral spirits are not demons, they are not going to get burnt when I step into church, as some people would like to believe.
Everyone’s journey is unique when it comes to becoming a sangoma, but I believe that in sharing our stories, we can inspire others to owning and embracing their (spiritual) journey, with or without ubizo.
#Camagu #Ndau #Thokoza #Makhosi #MnguniThese are all terms we use to greet, give thanks, show appreciation, and acknowledge the presence of our ancestral spirits in each other, and so much more.
Mutwa, Credo Vusamazulu 2003. The Zulu Shaman: Dreams, Prophecies, and Mysteries. Rochester: Station Hill.
|1.||↑||By ubungoma I am referring to traditional healing practice in general.|
|2.||↑||Sangoma is used as a general term here for traditional health practitioners though not all traditional health practitioners are called sangomas. Izangoma is plural of sangoma.|
|3.||↑||Ephelweni and Iphehlo both mean the initiation school for tradition health practitioners.|
|4.||↑||Dlozified has become one of the colloquial terms used to describe spiritual gifted individuals.|
|5.||↑||Ukuphahla is when we officially speak and address our ancestors, like prayer, but directing the conversation to ancestors rather than the creator.|
|6.||↑||When I speak of ‘idlozi coming out’, it means the spirit of an ancestor took over the body of someone to speak. What some would call spirit possession, a word I avoid using as it often connotes evil spirit possession. An alternative term I use is going into a ‘trance state’. In isiZulu we say, usedlozini, meaning you are in ‘dlozi or spirit mode’|
|7.||↑||Endumbeni and Indumba mean the ancestral consultation room.|
|8.||↑||These are all terms we use to greet, give thanks, show appreciation, and acknowledge the presence of our ancestral spirits in each other, and so much more.|