“Your Mom will come in with a necklace of chicken heads with the chickens’ blood dripping down her body.” “Don’t be scared, though you will be.” “People will drum and dance all night. You will not sleep.” This was the helpful advice intended to prepare me for what took place at my house last weekend.
In South Africa, great homage is paid to one’s ancestors and one’s whole life may be spent trying to placate them. When bad things happen, including illness, South Africans commonly point to the upset of the ancestors as to the origin of the bad luck. Through dreams or the intercession of a sangoma, a traditional healer, the ancestors may ask for a ritual ceremony. People gather for a lengthy rite and animals are, indeed, sacrificed in an attempt to settle the spirits and invite healing. Such was the case at my house last week.
The only regular traffic in my village consists of men driving donkey carts full of various hauls. One afternoon, I arrived home from work as a donkey cart full of wood was being unloaded in our side yard. Preparations for last Saturday’s ceremony had officially begun. The next day, two Gogos came to brew traditional beer. The following morning, my Host Mama smeared cow dung over all the concrete surfaces of our courtyard in preparation for the next day’s event. I had questions about every one of these actions and the only answer I received was, “this is our culture.” Left without answers and taking into account my sensitive and empathetic nature, I realized I had to ground myself. I consulted a trusted confidant in the States to ensure I was properly shielded from the influx of energies sure to ensue.
The day of the ritual was a semi-flurry of activity with plenty of last minute arrangements, as is characteristic of South Africa planning. Around 7pm, Gogos and village elders started to arrive. Thankfully, the tent had been erected, but the lighting of the tent had still not been sorted. As Gogos do, they sat on the ground instead of the provided chairs.
My Host Sister and I acted as hostesses, as our Host Mama had not yet returned from the neighboring village. My Host Sister, having never attended such a ceremony was as lost as I was. We prepared tea and served scones to the guests. At one point, I was asked to wait on the room of sangomas. As I entered the room, a rush of energy almost overtook me. It wasn’t a collective energy, but coming from an undetermined source. I took a deep breath, got scolded for improper greeting, set down the tea and scones and left the room. Finally, my teenage language tutor and her friend arrived and provided some guidance. They told us the ceremony was to start at 10pm. As more people gathered, they brought blankets with them and amazingly slept amongst the noise as all of us awaited the event’s start.
Around 10pm, the drumming began and we gathered in the tent. For the next four hours, I witnessed, singing, drumming and dancing as the Gogos, most of whom I believe were sangomas, became possessed by their ancestors. The first, I thought, was having a seizure. Then I realized, similar to kriyas in the yogic tradition, convulsions ensued indicating the presence of the energy, in this case the ancestor within each respective woman. It was astounding to witness elderly women who were unsteady on their feet while walking transform into agile beings while dancing in their traditional outfits. I have no idea what took place during these couple of hours, but it was captivating. Around 2am, I chose to retreat to my room after the eldest of the Gogos danced. In the sanctuary of my room, I burned sage, did some energy healing and slept for about 3 hours while the drumming, dancing, singing and the slaughtering of a goat continued on my doorstep. I awoke the next morning, performed my own morning rituals and readied for what became a whole day of interesting sights and sounds.
On Sunday, the only male of the group performed throughout the day. At one point, a young boy with Downs Syndrome rose from the crowd and was dancing with the sangoma. Their interactions were mesmerizing. Later in the afternoon, the sangoma led my Host Mama back to the tent where she collapsed shortly thereafter. She writhed on the ground while being tended to by several sangomas. As I sat with the young children of my household, the trauma-informed professional inside me was screaming to protect them from their mother’s convulsions. As I don’t speak enough Sepedi to have devised any explanation, the best I could do was rub their backs and concentrate on their heart chakras. As they took my Host Mama out of the tent, the enormity of what they saw hit them. I couldn’t do a thing. My elder Host Sister later told them that our Mama was just playing with her friends, which seemed to calm them.
The ceremony concluded as all South African gatherings do, with the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol. This is consistently my cue to exit. I withdrew to my room, burned some sage, turned on my Himalayan salt lamp and did some energetic clearing. Interestingly, my Host Mother lost her voice for the rest of that day. My host Sister lost hers the next day. I spent most of this week the sickest I’ve been in a long time, was unable to sleep nightly and lost my voice midweek. I’ve done daily clearing and kept up with my own practices. I took this weekend as an intentional unplug and recharge, clearing my schedule and resting to hopefully return to a more balanced state.
I’m incredibly grateful to have witnessed such a rich, cultural experience in such an intimate setting. No one has really been able to explain much of last weekend’s happenings. However, the energy spoke for itself and perhaps it doesn’t require further explanation. I don’t know if the healing ceremony was successful in quieting my Host Mother’s ancestors and providing her with healing. I felt compelled to write about it and share these insights as a part of my own healing and clearing process. ♥
I bow in gratitude to you for joining me during this chapter of service. I hope to shed some light on the emotional and spiritual journey of a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in rural South Africa. ♥
Should you wish to learn more about traditional healing, I recently read Susan Schuster Campbell’s Called to Heal: Traditional Healing meets Modern Medicine in Southern Africa Today and found it a fascinating read.
The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the South African Government.