“Don’t be scared, ” – my seatmate whispered in my ear. “It looks painful, but their ancestors will never hurt them”. Her voice sounded calm and reassuring, yet it was amusement on my face that made me look tensed and was mistaken for fear.
The escalating sound of drums, interrupted by whistles and tambourines, felt hypnotising. A group of people of all ages was dancing in a large circle, their faces writhing in agony, their feet moving fiercely in sync with the rhythm. The dancers were surrounded by drummers and a handful of invited spectators, with me among them.
I was witnessing an initiation ceremony of Sangoma, traditional healers of South Africa. It was a rare privilege to become a part of the occasion, which is not accessible to most of the locals. The practice of Sangomas is often referred to as witchcraft and it induces fear, but it is an unfortunate misconception.
A lady who invited me to the initiation was an accountant by day, and she fulfilled her healing duties outside of the office hours. “We are no witch doctors”, – she explained to me once. “We are healers. We work with nature and don’t harm anyone- We help people”.
On that hot afternoon, in a township near Pretoria, it was the first time I saw her as a part of a whole different world, that was deeply rooted in Zulu culture. Wrapped in traditionally painted fabric, with red and white beads on her wrists and ankles, she was dancing to the beat of the drum, loosing connection with the outside world with every step. When her body suddenly cringed, and her face started grimacing in pain, my seatmate whispered again: “See, that is it. The ancestors spirits are talking to her”.
Despite the intensity of the ceremony, not a tiny bit of discomfort could be felt among the spectators. Outside of the dancing circle it was merely a celebration, with people singing and chatting cheerfully, or enjoying an afternoon drink.
Meanwhile, inside the circle, a sacred ritual of nature and ancestors calling was unfolding right in front of my eyes. Mesmerised by the sounds and moves, struck by the powerful energy of Sangomas, I was sitting amidst two worlds, caught right in-between the mystical tradition and modernity.