The drums were beating and they came

This is a story of the initiation of Gogo Shumba (previously known as Fadzai) narrated by Gogo Shumba and Amanda, who played the role of helper and support system in that journey.

A Dictionary to help navigate some of the terminology 

Sangoma | Sangoma is the nguni word for a traditional healer who has undergone intwaso

Abangoma | The plural of sangoma

Ubungoma | (noun) The Sangoma Fraternity 

Gogo | Spiritual elder – often used as a way to acknowledge the ancestors that one walks with 

Intwaso/Ukuthwasa | A specific type of training and initiation abangoma undergo to learn the practice of traditional healing

Ithwasa | An initiate of Ubungoma

Ephehlweni | Noun. place of training to become a Sangoma

Gobela | Person responsible to train someone to become a Sangoma

Ndumba | The space where consultations with clients take place and traditional medicines are kept

Imvunulo | Traditional spiritual attire worn by an initiated Sagoma

Snuff/Snuif | finely ground tobacco leaves

Svikiro | spirit medium

Tete | Aunt. Father’s sister

Dom | The ‘dominant’ partner in a BDSM relationship 

Sub | The ‘submissive’ partner in a BDSM relationship 

Switch  | A kinkster who is able to move between being a dominant and a submissive 

Edging | The practice of orgasm control that can be done alone or with a partner and involves the maintenance of a high level of sexual arousal for an extended period without climax  

“Healing begins where the wound was made.” -Alice Walker 

My healing has not only been a process of surfacing years of personal trauma through clinical therapy and dealing with my mummy and daddy issues, but also a journey of healing maternal and paternal generational lines. The winding route that my healing has taken has oftentimes been influenced by family and lovers. It was only later in life, when I started seeing a therapist, that I decided, quite vigilantly, to take control of my life and invest in the type of healing that spoke directly to my soul. I had been living with one foot in the traditional world and the other in mostly Western forms of therapy and I struggled to find middle ground.

But to be more accurate, and to show a clearer picture, even though it’s a snapshot, I must make a disclaimer. I knew more about traditional practices before my family started going to organised religious worship. My aunt, Tete Mai Vai – my father’s younger sister was a svikiro (a spirit medium). Quite often on Friday’s, we would go to my grandmother’s house in Mufakose to hear what messages my aunt had received from the other world. As a child, these Friday meetings were filled with awe and wonder. Every session would begin with Tete drinking water with snuff (finely ground tobacco leaves) from a carved wooden plate – spitting the water and snuff mixture on our faces and our feet to cleanse our bodies in preparation to be in the presence of spirit.

It is quite difficult to comprehend and even align with how life changed when my parents started going to Church, there seems to be a complete erasure of traditional spiritual life before… something seems to have happened in the living of life that got my parents, and my Tete renouncing her svikiro to attending church. Everything changed. We didn’t even talk about the before, all that was left were palm leaves, memorising verses and singing hymns.

I didn’t stop asking questions though – right until the last week before my father’s death, I asked about our people. I could only ask him because he was more open with information about ancestry and traditional practices. I thought I was being rebellious in my questions and being problematic, because I hated Church… but NEVER the drums they played during services. I thought it was because of the lingering images of Tete and the svikiro ceremonies, or the slaughtering during my grandfather’s funeral that called me and drew me to traditional practices. I hadn’t yet realised that the parts of me that needed healing, had already begun to search.

I am Black. I am a woman. I am queer. I am a feminist. 

My mother is Swati and my father is of Zimbabwean and European heritage. Both my parents were raised Roman Catholic. I was baptised in and attended an Anglican church for most of my childhood. While I did attend church regularly my parents were not strongly religious. I also grew up knowing some aspects of traditional practices, rooted in Southern African values. I knew about amadlozi [ancestors] and their role as guides in our lives. 

When Fadzai and I started seeing each other in 2018 I had developed more of an understanding of traditional forms of spiritual practices and had begun to cultivate my own. Southern African traditional spiritual practices make use of umsamo – a small space you create in your home to converse with your ancestors – and is similar to what many refer to as a shrine or altar. In your msamo one would ordinarily have candles, impepho (African sage), snuff, (finely ground tobacco leaves), and whatever else resonates with you and your ancestors such as cloths of different colours. I had put together my own msamo and was conversing with my ancestors and God, through prayer, quite regularly. 

My ancestors have communicated with me regularly through dreams from a very early age. In 2018, I was paying more attention to my dreams and trying to decipher the messages that were coming through. Some warned of negative energies and some gave clues to the history of both my paternal and maternal ancestries. These dreams showed me my family’s history but also relayed some information about my own spiritual path. 

Fadzai and I had many discussions about traditional healing. We were both really interested in cultivating spiritual practices that were rooted in both traditional systems of knowledge and feminist praxis. At first glance these two ideas can seem to be at loggerheads, seemingly representing clashing values and principles. And perhaps they are, or can be. But as queer feminists it was quite important for us to explore a spritual practise that was decolonial (meaning one that didn’t elevate Western religious ideals over African ones) and anti-patriarchal. 

At the beginning of May 2020 the time had come for Fadzai to go and Tswasa (train to become a traditional healer known in South Africa as a Sangoma).

‘Healing is a returning to the memory of wholeness’ – Feminist Rebublik

My name is Gogo Shumba Mutasa, the name given by the ancestors during the Gatshega (ingoing twana ceremony); the sister to two adopted brothers and daughter to a Gobela (Person responsible to train someone to become a Sangoma) I called Baba Vuyelwa, or just Baba. I heard this name, Shumba Mutasa, ringing loudly in my head, while I was under a white cloth, with various herbs burning, and the drums pounding in my ears. The naming process opens the way for the ancestors to connect through me, make home with me, speak and heal through me.

Varimuvhu, nevari mutsoka [those who we walk with, those who are in the soil] led me to Baba’s house with a dish to bath in, black cycling shorts to wear under my Twasana red skirt, sports bras that became part of my dancing regalia, sandals that I got fined for wearing, and my sponge mattress. Life Ephehlweni (noun – place of Sangoma training) is minimalist, something that I have grown to appreciate in a world that is constantly telling us to buy more than what we need.

I mention my list of supplies, particularly the mattress and sandals, because these were considered a luxury, as I later found out from my spiritual sister, Ngwenyama. These luxurious considerations that my Baba ‘allowed’ me to bring made Life Ephehlweni comfortable, which is unheard of. Life Ephehlweni is meant to be hard. It is said that the ancestors want you to suffer to gain an appreciation of your gifts and learn humility. But Baba, who had suffered during her training, was determined to give me an experience that would allow me to learn and not make the process more difficult through punishment or prolonging my stay in Ephehlweni – the gift of having a feminist Gobela who understood the importance of love and care for Spirit growth.

Baba’s process of teaching and guiding me was one of fully engaging me in my spiritual healing which included rituals as routine. I would spend hours in meditation in the Ndumba surrounded by herbs, candles and incense. During these hours in isolation, I was required to take time to get in touch with spirits, a process of remembering where I had come from, the questions I had asked before entering this life and figuring out how to proceed. We would sit together every morning to discuss our dreams and decipher the messages in communal care. This was our movie time. My love language is giving; to Baba, my brothers and others who came to our house, I ensured meals were prepared with love, and kept a clean home.

A huge component of South African traditional spiritual practices and traditional systems of knowledge is ubungoma. Ubungoma is the Southern African practice of traditional healing – a Sangoma is a traditional healer. One is called to ubungoma by their ancestors who have given them the gift of healing. The main, or most common way that one knows that they have been called to ubungoma is through dreams. Once you have been called, you are strongly encouraged to accept this responsibility and begin your training and initiation, called ukuthwasa. 

Myself and Fadzai’s younger sister took her to her place of training (ephehlweni) in the early months of 2019.  

On the morning of, I was fraught with anxiety. The amount of time ithwasa, a trainee sangoma, spends in training is completely dependent on their ancestor(s) who have bestowed them with the gift of healing – on average, however, ithwasa will train anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. They are based solely on their gobela’s (trainer) premises for the duration of their training and spend all their time there, unless permitted by their gobela and ancestors to continue with their normal day job. Ukuthwasa is notoriously difficult – with initiates adhering to very strict rules and schedules, one of which is that an initiate is not allowed to be hugged or even touched by another person. I was worried for Fadzai – I didn’t want her to have a hard time, and I also did not want to spend two years away from her, unable to touch her or see her regularly. Fadzai seemed rather calm, which she usually is, but I worried that she wasn’t allowing herself to feel the gravity of the situation and I worried that it would only dawn on her when myself and her sister would not be around to hold her. 

After her ‘going in’ ceremony she seemed different already – I still am not sure how to explain it in words, but her energy going into the ceremony was different to the energy she emerged with after. 

I did not see Fadzai for two weeks after she entered training. I missed her a lot during this time. I was able to speak to her on the phone here and there but the schedule of a thwasa does not allow for a lot of idle time. Her gobela was someone I knew from the feminist movement and I trusted her feminist praxis a great deal. I was in contact with her trainer often and I had the piece of mind that Fadzai was being well taken care of. 

A call to my soul

My time at Ephehlweni allowed me to go back to my origins and to connect through energy to my surroundings. I was not allowed to watch TV, listen to the radio, have sex or body contact with anyone, there were foods I was not permitted to eat. There were no distractions. 

I cleansed, from the first day I arrived at Ephehlweni till the day I left. Cleansing was done for both my body and the house, including the Ndumba. The water cleanse was done through induced vomiting after drinking warm water and herbs to clean the body from the inside out, washing in the river and steaming under big heavy blankets over boiling water and herbs. Herbal cleanses involved the burning of herbs that would be burnt in the yard, and in the Ndumba where we would sit in meditation.

I have come to appreciate surrender from my days Ephehlweni, allowing the self to let go and give over to faith, being gentle with self, and in believing in the rewards that are unexpected and unseen. For all the punishment I experienced at Ephehlweni, which there weren’t many because I was a model Twasana, Baba also gifted me. All those days spent on my knees in prayer, during ceremonies, or in humble servitude had me thinking about kinksters, and how kink is about love and care for the sub. I was a sub Twasana, now a Gogo who experienced a love that I had not expected. I carry care and love with me and continue to cultivate it and share it abundantly 

As a practicing kinkster with an interest in discipline, pain and punishment, there were particular practices of my training that got me connecting with my sexuality from a different vantage point; where before I had left for Ephehlweni, my experiences with physical pain were within my control, safe words and consent. In Ephehlweni, I relinquished control, I was moved by spirit, and in the state of spirit, pain and interestingly pleasure are engaged with and processed differently. Where I had considered myself a switch, leaning more towards being a dom, I was accustomed to and comfortable with giving instruction and direction while enjoying both giving and receiving pain in its different forms, being a Twasa, got me in direct contact with being a sub. 

After being given stern instruction by Baba on my first day in Ephehlweni to refrain from any form of sexual or physical interaction, or risk punishment, I took this as an exercise in stepping up my edging game. If I was being denied access to sexual release, this would be an opportunity to hold on to every sexual feeling I had or the need for body contact and channel that for whenever my sexual or physical contact would come. It was also an opportunity to look forward to the many rewards that I received as I grew in my training. I was able to link receiving my Imvunulo to being collared; it was the beginning of a new journey as a Sangoma post my initiation and training, a strengthening of the bond, union between myself and my Baba 

It is incredibly difficult though to practice edging when those in relationship with you have not given consent and have to learn and navigate different forms of interaction. It was also an exercise in merging and interacting with my different identities and politics through many internal negotiations. An opportunity to observe myself growing through my many identities, including my new found ability to be a sub.

One of the rules amathwasa need to abide by is one of no sexual interaction or intimacy. This rule even goes as far as saying that there must be no physical contact at all, with anyone – so no sex, definitely, but also no hand shakes, no hugging, no high 5s, no pinky promises – nothing. 

One of my love languages is physical touch and it was incredibly difficult to not be able to even hug Fadzai. 

Some of the reasoning I have heard around the ‘no sex and no touch’ rule is that amathwasa are spiritually vulnerable while undergoing initiation/training and very easily catch onto the emotions and spiritual angst or difficulties of others. If you are an empath or sensitive to energies you will know that even brushing past another person can sometimes result in you feeling or intuitively knowing things about them and their life or emotional state that they have not voiced to you. And so while I did understand how the rule might be a protection mechanism for her, it was hard to not wonder if the no sex rule in particular was playing into the notion that sex is esentially a dirty exchange. 

Bodily autonomy and integrity are huge componets of feminist values and it often felt as though by extension, due to the nature of my relationship with Fadzai, my own autonomy was curtailed. And what room was there to negotiate? – it felt like none at all. Of course one is at liberty to make decisions as they see fit, and I had heard a plethora of stories about amathwasa having sex while still in training and even falling pregnant – but these stories were also accompanied with horror stories of the wrath of one’s ancestors after one had betrayed the sacred rules. Needless to say I was much more afraid of angering anyone’s ancestors than I was committed to questioning the no-touch rule. 

Everyday carried moments of learning, learning love and care that came in the many different forms; from the boys aged between 5 -12 who came to beat the drums for me as I danced to evoke Spirit. The first time I knelt to thank them for beating drums for me, was on the first day I arrived at Ephehlweni. I wasn’t just thanking them, I was acknowledging, respecting and paying homage to their ancestors who had guided them to me. I also thank Gogo Manzini who guided me into unlocking spirit through hours of crying and purging my physical body and soul of generational trauma. I thank the numerous people we met on the road who gave words of kindness because they knew and understood the pain of being a Twasana. I thank my family who held me in spiritual prayer, supported me financially and attended ceremonies; Chido, buwe rangu remakore [my rock of ages]; to Gogo Zanezulu who understood my fear of and flow in dancing and taught me the most graceful way of dancing the Nkane; and to my lover, who knew from the moment we met that I would go into training, that training would mean a pause of sorts for our relationship, and continued to hold me in love.

Like Fadzai I have looked for and longed for a spirituality rooted in a tradition that sees me and values me and does not try to make me renounce myself, my people and my traditions for salvation. It did not occur to me that I would connect with my ancestry and traditions by helping someone else in their journey of healing and connection. There are many aspects to traditional healing that will have one raise their feminist eyebrow. We are not of the mindset that patriarchy, sexism and violence do not exist in traditional practices – they do and we have seen them. And we have also seen the ways in which people, who often do not know you, show up for you – to beat your drums, to teach you how to dance, to help your family to cook large amounts of food for the people attending your ceremony – people whose fellowship you could not make it through your journey without. They have no concept of knowing you, or liking you even, they show up because, well, that’s what you do when you hear the sound of drums beating down the road. And I guess that, for me, is the bridge between feminism and African traditional healing and indigenous ways of knowing – it’s the finding of self in the finding of community.

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