Visiting a Sangoma – Beads, Bottles and Bones

Juliana Fulton - American Lesotho Peace corpsLast week I visited a sangoma, a traditional doctor, in the neighbouring village.  Traditional doctors get a lot of respect and have a lot of power in Basotho culture.  Not just political power, but actual magical power.

They can see the future and talk to ancient ancestors, even the recent dead.  They can cure people of bad luck and curses, as well as place curses on people.  It is generally thought that only the “evil” traditional doctors, called witches, will curse people.  Some curses can even kill the victims, lightning strike is a very popular method I’ve been told.  Luckily, there are no evil witches by my village, but there are several sangomas that do a good business in curing curses, illnesses (often caused by curses) and getting rid of bad spirits.

I was excited to meet and have my fortune read by one of these powerful Basotho.  The sangoma was a older woman, with a shaved head and wearing a lot of red and white beads.  She was very friendly, and we chatted for a bit before she led me into her hut designated for her sangoma work.  There were animal skins on the ground, which we sat on, and little bottles filled with medicines lining the walls.  There must have been hundreds of them, all different sizes, the medicines were mostly roots and powders in old paint bottles (which took away from the mysteriousness).

The sangoma lit a candle and chanted into a hollow pipe, then held it to her ear to hear the ancestors or spirits’ reply.  She then shook some bones (with a domino and dice with them) and read my fortune from how they landed on the animal skin.  I did not grow up believing in the magic of traditional doctors, so I remain skeptical, but I do not doubt her insight and great ability to understand people.  Some of what she told me I am supposed to keep a secret, but she did make one prediction that I especially liked: my grandfather that died long ago is looking after me and keeping me safe.  She also warned me that a small dark woman (which describes just about every other person here) is jealous of me and sent a Tokolose (a cheeky spirit, often in the shape of a tiny bearded man, that is always up to mischief) to sneak into my house at night and bewitch me.  And if I returned for another visit (and paid more money) she could remove the Tokolose and give me a protective charm against this woman.

After the fortune reading there was a ceremony to commemorate the four months of mourning one sangoma finished after the death of her daughter.  All the family members got their heads shaved and all their clothes washed and one of their largest goats was slaughtered.  The goat’s neck was slit and the blood was poured into a hole dug in the middle of the yard.  All the sangomas in the area gathered together to sing and dance.  It was a traditional dance from Swaziland, and very different from what I’ve seen here in Lesotho.  The dance involved a lot of quick steps and feet movement accompanied by many people playing the drums and singing.

It was a very interesting experience, the traditional clothes and dancing were beautiful, and the fortune reading gave me goose bumps, but I don’t think I’ll be back for that charm, I think my dog can take care of any Tokolose.


The contents of this article are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the American Peace Corps.

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