THE TSWANA : herbs and initiation

this film can be viewed on our youtube channel

The Tswana live in Botswana and the northwest corner of Limpopo province in South Africa. They number several million. Mangoane Magdeline Mokonyane is a herbalist and a traditional healer, who started her career as a teacher. When she was about 30, ancestors began to appear in her dreams and told her she must become a healer like her grandmother before her. She refused. She had a husband, children and a job she was happy in. Becoming a sangoma would mean a totally different life. Then, she told me, as I visited her in her home, she became ill. The ancestors were making her ill because she refused the call. Magdaline, now a woman of about 50, passes her hand over her forehead as she tells me she suffered from terrible headaches and other complaints until, after about two years, she agreed to the request from her ancestors and started training as a healer. 'All my sickness left me right away', she says.


Magdaline gathering herbs

Herbal remedies are very important in her work. She has a patient who has traveled over 500 kilometres to see her. She has been treating him for some weeks now. We go out together to gather herbs for him. She is assisted by three trainee sangoma's who will be initiated in a week's time. We have been invited to film that ceremony. At each bush and plant Magdaline tells me what its properties are. She picks leaves but also digs up big roots, where above ground there is just a little plant. Her knowledge is obviously great. When we get back, the patient, a very thin and sick looking man, is waiting outside her shrine. We go in and she prepares a herbal remedy for him while we film. After he has taken it, they pray to the ancestors together to make it work. An hour later, the man tells me he is feeling better already. When he came here a few weeks ago, he could not even walk.


with a patient in the shrine

Magdaline had three trainees, two women and a man. You see the woman in the photo (and the man in the other one, gathering herbs). They were going to pass into a next phase of initiation a week later so we decided to wait for it. Finally the night came. A tent had been set up, other sangomas and guests had been invited and the drums were prepared and tested by some boys. The ceremony began at nightfall. For hours, the drumming, singing and clapping went on, while first the invited sangomas and then the initiates danced. First, they lay down on the ground in front of the drums, and then again in front of Magdaline, as a sign of respect and then they would dance.


an initiate with the drums

It was already morning when the actual initiation began. There were several tests the trainees had to pass through to see if the ancestors thought they were ready to become a sangoma. Magdaline was presiding over everything. The initiates had to lift a hot iron pot with their teeth from a fire, they had to search for hidden holy objects, they were drenched in holy water mixed with blood and they had to 'sleep with the goat', where they have to exert their power to make a goat lie down and stay still next to them. It was well into the morning when all the ceremonies were over and the initiates (you see one of them in the picture here - all trainees wear that hairstyle) could enter a next phase of the path towards full healership. I had seen many special things, I was excited but also very tired, like everyone.


one of the initiates helping Magdaline


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