It takes discipline, self-sacrifice and an irresistible urge to become a sangoma, write Amanda Ngudle and Zenoyise Madikwa

If you think your life is a raw deal, consider the life of a young sangoma. Think about waking up before the crack of dawn to invoke your spiritual ancestors by beating drums, dancing and ukuphahla - praising and praying for the ancestors - before performing other daily rituals like vomiting in a chosen herb concoction.

If you think your life is a raw deal, consider the life of a young sangoma. Think about waking up before the crack of dawn to invoke your spiritual ancestors by beating drums, dancing and ukuphahla - praising and praying for the ancestors - before performing other daily rituals like vomiting in a chosen herb concoction.

"By the time you finish all that, it'll be 5am, maybe earlier," says Portia Sekobane, 30, a well-known sangoma in Soweto.

The divinity associated with traditional healing has made it impossible to look at the discipline without feeling sorry for the young chosen who have answered the calling.

And to justify my sympathy Portia, addressed by her initiates as Baba Mvubu, confirms a suspicion we have always had: to be a powerful sangoma you have to be celibate.

At her age Sekobane can count the times when she has come close to a man. She has not been married or had a child.

"Even when I find someone, I get so bored that the whole thing seems pointless in no time," she says.

But some long strides have been made over the years. No more is a child sangoma a familiar sight in the streets of the townships. Sangomas have managed to break away from the world of desolate operation.

"We gather with other healers in workshops, ceremonies and functions and discuss breakthroughs and, unlike our predecessors, we share secrets and miracle-working herbs. One of the developments in our industry is that we have been able to get a remedial method for children who have to thwasa, be initiated, and we can adduce the ancestors to give a child time to grow and finish her formal education before heeding the calling," Sekobane says.

Lesego Bila, 16, whose sangoma name is Dabulwalo, is an initiate in Meadowlands. He says he was called into sangomahood at a very young age.

"I used to have powerful dreams about my calling and seemed to have bad luck. I could not play with other kids because I was always sleepy and moody. I also hated school."

His is a contrary story to that of Sekobane, who wanted nothing to come between her and her studies.

She had persistent unexplained headaches and a Zionist prophet mentioned "the calling" to Sekobane's mother. She wouldn't budge and had to be dragged to sangoma training.

Bila says his parents thought he was just being silly until his guiding ancestor - idlozi - led him to Mapuni Motlhabane, a fully fledged sangoma in Meadowlands. Bila is now training under her.

Says Motlhabane: "It was at about three in the morning when I heard someone scratching my door like a dog. I found a young boy who looked lost and confused. At first I thought he was a tokoloshe, but my idlozi told me he needed help. I've been training him ever since."

Motlhabane says that physical or mental illness is usually the symptom presented by a potential healer. She says Bila's calling was presented by mental illness.

"It is almost impossible to resist the calling once you have been chosen. But if the calling is not severe, a cow is slaughtered to put it on hold until the child has grown up. Some amadlozi are ruthless and refuse to let go. In this case the child has to stop going to school permanently."

Motlhabane adds that Bila will undergo thwasa, a period of training including learning humility to the ancestors, purification through steaming, washing in the blood of sacrificed animals and the use of muti, a range of medicines with spiritual significance.

Dipuwo Pholahani, 18, another initiate in Soweto, says as a young girl she enjoyed attending iintlombe -sangoma celebration gatherings.

"People said my obsession with iintlombe was a sign that I had a calling to be a sangoma. I also used to dream about my calling."

Pholahani says it is not easy to be a sangoma. She says the initiation involves an arduous and disciplined process of self-sacrifice and learning that takes years to complete.

"I have left my life, friends and family to answer the call. There are things I'm supposed to be doing as a young woman but I don't date or go partying."

Pholahani says in the first stage the trainee, ithwasa, crawls on his knees doing hard physical work.

Her routine includes regular cleansing of body and spirit through sweat baths and emetic medicines. Each day she burns imphepo out of respect for, and to invoke, the ancestors.

When her tests are successfully accomplished a cow will be slaughtered as the culmination of the years of training, symbolising graduation. Beaded bracelets and necklaces will be permanently fitted and she will qualify to run her own practice.

And if she would like lasting memories of her graduation, she'll receive a DVD of her ceremony.

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