The title witch doctor did not exist until the coming of the Europeans and their misunderstanding of the indigenous African traditional healing and religious practices. Among the traditional healers and leaders, the witch doctor title is strongly frowned upon. They argue that the word reminds them of the colonial masters who forced their practices on Africa without understanding the traditions of the indigenous people that were centuries old.
Not many African witch doctors have been able to maintain their importance in society due to colonisation, westernisation and Christianity but the Inyanga and Sangoma witch doctors of Southern Africa have been able to stand the test of times.
They are found in South Africa and Swaziland. Among the Zulus, the Sangomas are known as Insagoma. Next to their traditional rulers, the Inyanga and Sangoma are the most revered and significant members of the southern African society.
Their existence traces as far back as the existence of man in Africa. Inyanga is a local term that refers to traditional healers or doctors. The Inyanga uses natural resources such as herbs, roots, plants, tree barks, leaves and animal parts to make mixtures that heal several sicknesses. While some of their medication is taken in, some are rubbed all over the body and hair or kept in rooms for the aroma to prevent illness or death.
The Sangoma or Insangoma is a traditional seer, diviner mediator and protector. They also serve as psychological healers. Due to their connection with social issues and dilemmas, the Sangoma is more popular and visited more than the Inyanga. The Sangoma’s role ranges from predicting occurrences and preventing evil from occurring, serving as an intermediate between the living and the dead, preparing protection potions and enhancing success and wealth. They also advise newlyweds and young adults who have gone through initiation rites.
During the reign of the colonial masters, many of their practices were banned and prohibited. The colonial rulers ensured the arrest or killing of various spiritual leaders or witch doctors to prevent the so-called practices from continuing. This was done in all parts of Africa. It was however tough for the colonisers in Southern Africa to stop the female society of Inyangas and Sangomas from practising. Believing that they were called by a higher power, they practised when they could and did not fear death. After independence in many Southern African countries, the practices were restarted and picked up immediately.
The Inyanga and Sangoma “witch doctors” are critical to the Southern African communities because they are mostly women. To the Zulus and indigenous people of Swaziland, the roles go a long way in instilling respect for women and placing them very high in society. Even though a few men also find themselves in such roles, there are more women.
The Inyanga’s and Sangoma’s are noted for their distinctive hairstyle popularly referred to as a “siyendle”. With their small dreadlocks that have been shaped to look like the head of a mushroom kept short and dyed with local red dye, there is no given reason why they wear their hair like this.
An Inyanga or Sangoma’s life is very focused and dedicated to her calling by staying away from social gatherings and day-to-day activities. The chosen ones are trained for close to two years and initiated into the practice when they are ready. For the chosen Sangoma, they go through a more vigorous initiation process called the Kuftawasa which often confines them into a house to stay away from sex, human contact and quarrels. A Sangoma’s heart and soul must be pure and free from malice.
Colonisation, Christianity and religion have not been able to end the traditional practices of the Inyanga and Sangoma. Through modernity, many Inyanga people have opened shops for consultancy and sell locally made medicine. Many Sangomas also practice and are often consulted by Christians as well.