African spirituality and medicine in the digital age

Traditional healers are increasingly taking their consultations and products online.
Traditional healers are increasingly taking their consultations and products online.
Image: Supplied.

Among the freedoms that came with the fall of apartheid and the rejection of the colonial hold was spiritual liberation. Steadily, Black people are relinquishing the colonial distortions that labelled African spirituality as barbaric and uncivilised and beginning to restore their truth, roots, and identity. 

The results are still unfolding as this freedom evolves. It is mainly characterised by many embracing their spirituality in life and in art; the renewed visibility of traditional healers in mainstream, digital, and social media; and the availability of traditional medicines on online platforms, among other developments.

Traditional health and divine practitioner and communications specialist Nomfundo “Gogo Nomi” Dhlamini’s concept of a “New Age sangoma” captures this shift precisely.

Gogo Nomi specialises in consultations, spiritual mentoring (as a gobela), cleansing, and homemade spiritual products that are also available online. 

For her, being a New Age sangoma means doing a lot of the old work, but doing it differently. “This means connecting with people from different places, using different methodologies and mechanisms, like the digital media sphere. It means being able to tap into the newness of modern-day life,” she says. 

She started her herbal product business during lockdown. The products include a variety of psycho-spiritual soaps, scented candles, scrubs, teas, and imphepho. The main objective was to help those of her local and international clients whom she struggled to service due to distance and the restrictions brought about by Covid-19 pandemic.

“We frame it as a business, but it is based on a model of ukukhanyisa,” Gogo Nomi says.  “The products are things that I dream about, things that my clients dream about. I get given instructions specifically by my ancestors on how I need to do this and why I need to do it. Sometimes it comes down to someone dreaming about a particular colour. Because I have background knowledge and know the exact meaning of a particular colour, I know what I need to help that person. The interesting part becomes the personalisation of the product.”

She adds, “Sometimes someone orders something and I may change the order because that’s not what they need at the time. I think that’s where sight helps. It’s being able to say ‘I’m seeing something different for you’. Maybe let me give you a call and explain this to you. My sight has grown in such a way that I’m able to see a lot of things at a distance, which has helped me significantly to help people in this way.”

African spirituality and medicine in the digital age.
African spirituality and medicine in the digital age.
Image: Supplied.

Gogo Nomi’s process taps into concerns about the implications of the availability of imithi online, which Dr Sinethemba Makanya from the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences raises. In addition to being an academic, Dr Makanya is also a traditional healer and a cultural theorist. “Not everything is meant to be self-diagnosed and self-treated,” she says.

“There’s a worry when I see things like ‘iswasho so ku xosha ilwane’ or ‘iswasho so ku biza inhlanhla’ that people are making in their own homes. If you have consulted and have done the initial root-cause cleansing, and this is just for maintenance, then it’s fine. But I’m worried that some of these procedures — which are quite complex and complicated, and which you need someone else to do for you — will be done at home, and people may not be able to deal with the repercussions. There are implications in bypassing consultation and diagnosing yourself.”

Dr Makanya also points to longstanding critiques of muthi markets and the implications of collecting the medicine. And she poses more questions than answers.

“When collecting the medicine, are you clean? When it’s on display at a market, what energies is it drawing to itself? And because it is a business, am I doing something to the medicine to draw people to come buy from me? Is the medicine still of the same quality?

“We’re in Joburg and I don’t see another way to get it. But I’m also mindful and careful ukuthi even us as healers, go to Mai Mai to buy imithi yethu. There’s hardly that thing of you going to the bush and getting the medicines the way that your ancestors told you. There’s a worry of whether it is still potent. Does it still do what it is supposed to do without causing any harm?”

On the other hand, Dr Makanya believes that the availability and visibility of traditional medicine and its usage, and not just for spiritual ailments, is a good thing. People don’t have to rely only on Western pharmaceuticals. On this tangible spiritual awakening, she adds, “Something that I was told by my ancestors around 2013-2014 was that they were making themselves more visible.” 

Her presence at the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences could see the introduction of indigenous methods to the curriculum.

“I have seen, however, few healers packaging imithi for common ailments, which would be a step in the right direction. Where are inyanga who are actually going to heal high blood pressure, diabetes or sexual reproductive issues?” Dr Makanya asks.  

Gogo Nomi has helped a lot of her migraine patients, and also deals with other medical ailments. Her ambition is to go into pharmaceuticals and open a digital pharmacy. “I’m very much in the digital industry. I would like to be able to send my products all over the world. And this is not only my personal goal — it is the goal of my ancestors, because that’s how far-reaching they have always wanted their work to be.

“This is interesting because we always think our ancestors are boxed in. Ancestors have a bigger picture when it comes to healing. I think it’s important not to have certain expectations, because we all come from different places, people, and nations. This is why soaps make sense for me, because I come from a blended family,” Gogo Nomi says.

The visibility of African spirituality and the availability of traditional medicine have also given rise to platforms like Gogo Online (gogoonline.co.za), which is a web directory service for traditional healers, founded by Siphiwo Lindi and traditional healer Xhanti “Makhosi Ngub’esilo” Madolo. 

The founders believe traditional medicine — just like Western medicine — needs to be made more accessible. Going online makes sense, as that’s where the world is right now. Their concerns have not necessarily been about culture, but about the older generations trying to understand the technology of going online. Access to the internet is also an issue. However, they are forging ahead. Gogo Online is developing an app that will go live in the near future.

On what their business affirms and reveals, the founders say, “Apartheid was not only about lack of opportunities, but also about whitewashing. A lot of Africans are starting to search for their identities. There’s a spiritual awakening and we’re hoping to be part of it.” 

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