Restoring the spirit of a village

The Credo Mutwa Cultural Village is a site of importance for African beliefs, spiritualities and traditions. Rich in African aesthetics, it is tucked away in the middle of Soweto, in Jabavu, in stark contrast with the eventful, urban and modernised township lifestyle.

The sound of crickets and chirping birds, and the swaying of tree branches in the gentle breeze is magnified in the tranquil and serene setting of the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village. Secluded in the woods of the Oppenheimer Gardens historic park, the village seems to be a world away from Soweto, which is only steps away.

The sculptures, so robustly representative of the heritage of the Zulu, Sotho, Ndebele and Arab people among others, are all supersized. The village is also a holy grail for traditional healers because of its greenery consisting of indigenous plants which are used for healing and other traditional purposes.

“ALL LIARS, FOOLS, SKEPTICS AND ATHEISTS MUST PLEASE KEEP OUT!” These are the words on the village entrance’s welcome board, undoubtedly capturing the attention of many visitors. The signage, in black and red bold hand lettering, further cautions that a curse lasting seven years may be cast upon any visitors who destroy any part of the place.

KWA-KHAYALENDABA: Sculptures in the storytelling arena of the village. Photo: Ntando Thukwana.

“There are a lot of people who are skeptical of the village,” says the well-spoken man who spends most of his days at the village. The 35-year-old says he was only six when he paid his first visit to the village, and, since then, it has been a place of solace where he also undertakes some of his spiritual and traditional rituals.

“My name is Mojalefa Njase”, he says, and, adding in emphasis, “wa ha Mofokeng (a child to the Mofokengs).” Njase is his mother’s surname, while Mofokeng is his father’s. He says that according to the BaSotho people, if your parents were never married, you use both your parents’ surnames to symbolise that, ultimately, you are an heir to your father’s family.

Njase wa ha Mofokeng says the sculptures’ eerie and strange qualities create unease in some visitors. Not surprisingly, since some are triple headed and others have skulls on strange parts of the body.

Ntate Mutwa (Mr Mutwa) did not create the sculptures to be worshiped, but some people twist it and think that the people who are living here are worshiping the sculptures, because we refer to them as Modimo mme, Modimo ntate, Modimo morwa and Modimo moya o halalelang (God the mother, God the father, God the son and God the holy spirit). The truth about them is that he wanted us to keep our heritage so that we could pass it on and remind ourselves constantly that this is where we come from,” Njase wa ha Mofokeng says.

Siza Mpye (48) a Christian woman and first time visitor, was not moved by the caution at the entrance warning about the curse. “I am not superstitious,” she shrugged.

However, she was not convinced by another quotation at the village: “A woman is equivalent to God whereby she’s given the honour as God the mother.” Her response was that, “As a Christian, I’m hearing this for the first time and it doesn’t make sense. I don’t dispute that women are powerful leaders and deserve all the respect.”

NDUMBA: A traditional medical clinic in the cultural village. Photo: Ntando Thukwana

In 1974, traditional healer, author and artist, Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa, was given a piece of land with which he created the cultural village, erecting sculptures and homesteads of different African tribes to demonstrate and teach people how different tribes in Africa lived.

The Village was built for the purposes of preserving traditional beliefs of African people in a society that was fast developing towards western beliefs.

During a time of political unrest in the apartheid era, Mutwa is said to have been misquoted by an Afrikaans publication, and this led to student protesters burning the village down. According to the current village dwellers, he was misquoted as having said that the apartheid government should send armies to attack students rioting at the time.

Njase wa ha Mofokeng, who describes himself as a “cosmopolitan man”, says he received his calling three years ago and has still not accepted it, citing the difficulties that come with practising as a young traditional healer.

“As an individual that grew in this cosmopolitan life, it’s not something that one would like to follow and just leave your life behind,” he says.

Mutwa’s renouncement of Christianity in favour of African beliefs was met with a lot of controversy and many believed that he dabbled in witchcraft because of his boldness and unapologetic stance on African beliefs and traditions.

He is said to have predicted the September 11, 2001 Twin Towers catastrophe by way of a painting that hangs in the village’s Green Room that is signed “1979”, long before the crash.

Another claim that has been met with a lot of controversy is that he predicted the HIV/Aids pandemic, and that this is represented in his village in sculpture form.

A phase of neglect

ructures, such as the KwaDukuza Village which is representative of Zulu people’s huts, have been newly thatched.

Before 2008, the entire village had been under maintained resulting in it being crime infested and a danger to surrounding locals.

Lebo Sello (42), a prophet and the site manager of the cultural village, who speaks of Credo Mutwa and the village with the greatest admiration, has been using the village as his sacred sanctuary for almost 10 years.

Sello started making the village his home in 2008 when it was being misused and abused by locals. In him was a desperate need to restore the legacy of Madala (sir) Credo, as he fondly calls him, and much like Mutwa, to continue spreading teachings about African ways of living, especially for the people of Soweto.

SAVING GRACE: Site manager Lebo Sello
keeps bad elements out of the village.

Noma yini bhoza yami, woza (Anything my boss, come),” he says in mimicry of the troublesome young men addicted to nyaope that he constantly has to keep out the site.

“The village was not being used the way it was supposed to be used,” Sello says. “It was destroyed, e nne eli pleke ya di tsotsi. Batho ba tsuba di drugs, ba e fetotse brothel (It was a place for criminals. People used drugs here and turned it into a brothel).”

Sello seemingly possesses a sixth sense that is able to notice even the slightest of movements in the village. He looks over my shoulder and with a squint of the eye, looking into the distance, he spots a pedestrian coming from the end of the village attempting to use it as a shortcut to his journey. “Hey, kgotlela moo otswang teng! (Hey, go back where you came from!) That is not the entrance,” he shouts.

Sello says they have to deal with such challenges daily. “I had to fight first by cleaning out the drug users and the gents who chilled here. I started fighting those that turned this place into a brothel. Even though it’s still happening, it’s happening on a very small scale,” he says, gesticulating with index finger and thumb in front of his face. “So, public indecency, those are the challenges we still have,” a weary Sello says.

Makhosi Jabulani Sibanyoni (52), a traditional healer who has been practicing for 34 years, uses the village not only for his personal spiritual betterment but as a graduation space for his trainees and as a place of teaching for his sangoma initiates as well.

He is the founder of the South African Traditional Medicines Training programme and a member of the Gauteng Traditional and Faith Medical Practitioners.

Sibanyoni attributes the neglect and damage of the village to the student riots that took place in 1976. “After the ’76 riots a lot of negative things happened which we are still trying to get rid of, hence there’s renovations,” he says. “We’re trying to revive the spirit of this place. A lot of wrong has been happening because of the neglect.”

Although the process of cleaning out the wrongdoing started in 2008, renovations to the village started early in 2017 and were expected to finish in December.

The village’s restoration is administered using funds from donations made mostly by visiting tourists.

The heritage site, as declared by Joburg City, is more than just an attraction for the amusement of tourists. The village has a constant bustle of traditional healers looking to pick traditional plants for their medicinal practices as well as Soweto residents needing to find a noiseless space to connect with their ancestors.

The village has been used by the locals to perform cleansing rituals away from their busy lives at home.

Sibanyoni describes his divine discovery of the village saying a dream led him to it in 1989. “I dreamt of this place and then I came just for a visit and I saw the village and started frequenting it. Ngize ngizo phahla (I’d come to appease my ancestors) and connect with the spirits.

Plants used for traditional healing: Intelezi or skanama is used for cleansing three months after the death of a family member.

Then I stopped coming here for quite a long time until 2014. What brought me back here was wanting something that could connect amathwasa (sangoma initiates). We needed a place that would take us back to tradition,” adds Sibanyoni.

Contrasting the current state of the village to how it was before it became rundown, Sibanyoni says, “It was still very tidy, very neat, very very sacred. When you came here as a lady you wouldn’t come here dressed in trousers and without a head wrap.

A guy wouldn’t come here in shorts. Your appearance would be respectful. That was a basic law of this place and you would connect with your ancestors, from the village’s entry point, you’d feel a sense of connection,” he says proudly.

Njase wa ha Mofokeng says his mother was a traditional healer who used to frequent the village for her own spiritual practices. The village to him, extends to more than just a sacred space for centering his spirit and mind, it is an important part of his relationship with his mother. Here, as a young man, he watched very closely her practices.

“My mum was a traditional healer. The mother to my mum was a traditional healer. I knew that they came here and did some rituals,” he says as he reminisces about her.

“When I had my down times and my high times, I spent time here. To revive my soul and spirit. One of the reasons that made me love and be interested in this place was my mum. Mme waka natla mo a dula a tlo pahla a tlo batla moreana (My mum used to come here to appease her ancestors and to look for medicine).

The whole Credo Mutwa Village has indigenous plants,” Njase wa ha Mofokeng says.

This aloe variant is used to flush out toxins in the blood.

Despite the lengthy process of the renovations, this village continues to be a significant part of the lives of the likes of Sello, Njase wa ha Mofokeng and Makhosi Sibanyoni who come from different walks of life in the excessively busy Soweto township.

Since Sello’s attempts at the village’s restoration, the village welcomes members from the Soweto community to join in on the Shamanic drumming sessions held each Friday as well as the celebration of annual rituals welcoming the four different African seasons.

“This place helps me to connect with my inner being, that’s why it’s so very important to me. My favourite teaching is when they speak about the importance of a woman in this world. It brings me back to who I am and where I come from,” Sello says.

Sello truly is the hope of the village. If he had the chance to have the world in one place at the same time, he’d tell them, “Idlozi likhona, liyaphila (Ancestors are real), they are not demons,” he says.

FEATURED IMAGE: Huts at the Credo Mutwa Village. Photo: Ntando Thukwana.

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Vumani bo! seers and sangomas in the city of gold

The Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD) caters for a variety of needs to different members of society; there are retail shops, medical practitioners, clubs, churches, traditional healers and so on. But at times, there seems to be tension among members of society with different religious and cultural belief systems.

A black man wearing a black suit and a white shirt with a red tie standing outside the church door on Eloff Street preaches in an effort to draw people to get inside the church, while doing so he sees a woman wearing sangoma regalia passing by, he starts shouting holding a mic connected to speakers that people should repent from their evil ways and stop consulting sangomas and seek help from the church.

National co-ordinator of the Traditional Healers Organisation (THO), Phepsile Maseko, says pre-colonial Africa relied on traditional healers for physical and spiritual health; however colonisation has made Africans to believe that their tradition and belief systems are “evil”.

A Hindu seer who doesn’t want to be identified owns a chemist; she also sells traditional medicine in the area. The chemist is full of different traditional medication stored in bottles and plastics with no labels. The chemist is decorated with horns, animal skin and feathers.

The seer who explains that she has no time to waste as she is preparing to do a ritual is reserved about the nature of her work to non-clients but highlights that her only problem in the CBD is with some pastors who inform people that they do evil things.

While still complaining about the pastors, an old man gets in and asks two elderly black women sitting next to the door if they still have the muti (medicine) for women, the two women inform him that it is finished and he leaves looking a bit disappointed.

The seer also complains about government wanting traditional healers to have certificates as she says her father trained her for the work that she does as a result she doesn’t have a certificate.

However, Sibonginkosi Mabena, 48, is more open about the nature of her work. She has had to deal with what most sangomas (traditional healers) deal with when they start accepting their calling to become traditional healers including being “labelled as people who are in the dark” by some religious groups .

Gogo Linqe (her sangoma name) conducts her traditional healing practice in her apartment at 93 Derry Mansion on Claim Street. The storey building is a few blocks away from the office of the Traditional Healer’s Organisation (THO) (a non-profit organisation that develops policies and provides support to traditional health practitioners) on De Villiers Street.

Adorned in blue, red and white beaded necklaces, bracelets and colourful strings on her waist, her appearance draws attention even from by standers across the street sitting on the pavement of the Seventh day Adventist Church on Claim Street.

Gogo Linqe has a welcoming smile as she greets with “ Thokoza Gogo” (ancestral greeting). On the way to her apartment, a lady clothed in Zionist church gowns greets her with “nina bakhulu” (the elderly) Gogo laughs and says “thokoza mntanami” (greetings my child).

Gogo Linqe seems to be well known in the area as the women selling vegetables on the street also greet her warmly; one asks whether she’s been sleeping the whole weekend as they have not seen her.

“Isangom’asilali mntanami siyasebenza,” (a traditional healer does not sleep my child she works) she smiles as she walks.She lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her two daughters; Sakhile (26) and Balenhle (11).

JOBURG SANGOMA: Sibonginkosi Mabena standing outside the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a building opposite hers. Photo: Nobathembu Zantsi

At first glance, there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary in her flat; a kitchen with built-in cupboards and two bedrooms however, she uses a corner in one of the rooms as her “indumba” (practice room) where she does consultations with clients.

“Most of my clients are elderly people, youngsters who come here are often accompanied by their parents,” she says.

MEET GOGO LINQE: Gogo Linqe in her “indumba” (practice room) explaining how she conducts a consultation for a client. Photo: Nobathembu Zantsi

Gogo Linqe is originally from Zimbabwe, she came to South Africa (SA) in 2000 looking for better job opportunities.

When she arrived in SA she worked as a domestic worker for 12 years in different households around Johannesburg. She answered her calling in 2013 after years of resisting it. She says she grew up in a Catholic church up until she decided to come to South Africa.

She says she has been aware since she was still a child that she had a calling to be a sangoma but her mother was against it, she says she thought to herself it would go away if she ignored it but it caught up with her even in her adult years.

“I used to see things in my sleep including things that would eventually take place,” she says.Gogo Linqe had many “episodes” before she finally decided to answer her calling.

She recalls one where she disturbed a taxi driver once and almost caused an accident as she was overwhelmed by the spirits of her ancestors and she grabbed the taxi driver by the hand and asked him why he was not taking her to thwasa School (initiation school for sangomas).

One of the passengers realised that she was a person with a calling and quickly gave her snyf (snuff powder) to in hail to appease her ancestors.

“A Zion prophet in the same taxi told me that I had to accept my calling or else I would die,” she says.She went to an initiation school in Diepsloot (a township in Johannesburg) where she graduated after training for 10 months.

She says she finally felt like a load had been lifted of her shoulders when she finally accepted her calling and started practising as a sangoma.

Attending church as a sangoma

However, she would still face more problems after qualifying as a sangoma as it is easy for anyone to notice that she is a traditional healer because of her beads.

“Sometimes that’s a good thing because some people come up to me  and ask for my contacts because they need help but at times I face people who don’t know anything about being a sangoma and will start saying hateful things,” Gogo Linqe says.

“Even now my mother who is a staunch Christian and I don’t get along as she still doesn’t understand the calling that I have,” she says with sadness in her eyes “but I still love her and try to reach out to her,” she adds.

However her father has been very supportive and understands the nature of her calling. Both her parents still live in Zimbabwe.

Gogo Linqe says with the help of traditional healer’s institutions which educate people about the work they do, when people see sangomas on the street they greet them with respect.

“You would walk into a taxi and some taxi drivers would say thokoza Gogo,” she laughs. However, she says, there are still people who think when someone has idlzoi (ancestral spirit) they are demon possessed.

“Healing people is a gift and in the olden days, our ancestors used to seek guidance from sangomas, they were gatekeepers of society,” she adds. Maseko says over the years, with the assistance of traditional healer’s organisations and the government, people’s perceptions about traditional healers have changed.

“People are starting to embrace their calling despite sceptics,” she says. There are currently more than 200 000 traditional healers across the country of which more than 29000 are members of THO.

Gogo Linqe says one of the myths that came with colonisation was that sangomas don’t pray or don’t know God.

She says when you have a calling to heal people you pray even more for guidance from God “even when preparing medicine I pray,” she says.

She uses bones, incense, candles when doing consultations. She also prepares medication using herbs to give to her patients. “I buy most of my herbs at a store in Faraday and sometimes my ancestors show me where to find a particular plant, “she says.

She recalls how she had to be hospitalised for three months after congregants of an apostolic church called her to the altar and prayed for her because they believed “she was demon possessed.”

“Abanye babengiqhwaba benginyathela bengikhaba besithi bakhiph’amadimoni (some were clapping and kicking me saying they were casting out demons) all because I attended church without taking off my beads,” she says sniffing snyf which is used to connect her with her ancestors when feeling their presence.

However, she says at Revelation Church in Johannesburg down town, sangomas are allowed to get in without taking off their beads but they sit together in a different corner from other people.

What causes stigmatisation of sangomas?  

“Some healers don’t use their gift appropriately, they harm people and they give us a bad name,” Gogo Linqe says.

She says she was disturbed by reports that people with albinism were being murdered to make muti.“When I went to thwasa school for 10 months, we were never taught to make medicine using people’s body parts, I don’t know where it comes from, people who do that are not healers ngabathakathi (they are witches),” she says with a louder voice.

She adds that pastors also have to continue preaching so that people stop doing “evil” things. “Sometimes the people who approach sangomas for evil doing are church goers but I turn them down, my ancestors would never allow such,” she adds.

Gogo says most of her patients learn about her healing practice through word of mouth and through THO where she is also a member.“We conduct imihlangano (gatherings) where we are equipped with skills,” she says pointing at her certificates; one a certificate as a senior gobela (trainer) and the other certificate as a certified sangoma.

“Nowadays it’s important for patients to verify if a person is a certified sangoma before consulting with them to avoid ‘bogus’ sangomas,” Gogo adds.  

QUALIFIED: Sibonginkosi holds her certificate with pride. Photo: Nobathembu Zantsi

Government regulation on the traditional healing practice

Gogo Linqe says she appreciates government efforts to try to regulate traditional healers to protect both healers and patients however, she says she is concerned about some of the additional regulations that have been proposed to be effective starting in February next year.

“Government cannot decide how long a person must stay in training because that totally depends on the person’s ancestors, some people do spend a year but others spend three months and so forth and that does not mean they have robbed the process but instead it means that their idlozi matured faster,” she says.

Gogo adds that on the proposed minimum age of 18 to be an “ithwasa (sangoma initiate), she says she understands the reason for the regulation. “Some people are called at an early age and once they have undergone ukuthwasa they are still not ready to take on the responsibility bestowed upon them and end-up displeasing the ancestors with the way they handle themselves,” she says.

However, she insists that government should not impose such regulations on sangomas but instead should involve traditional healers when coming up with these policies. Gogo Linqe immediately got lost in the spiritual realm but quickly came back. “Where were we,” she asks but quickly remembers “ohh the traditional healers act”.

She calls Sakhile, to go call another young sangoma who stays on a floor two stairs down from hers.

Before she arrives, she tells us that the girl had to go to thwasa school at age, 17 because she became very ill. After waiting for a few minutes, Nontobeko Mondlana who goes by the name Gogo Maweni (sangoma name), 21, arrives.

She is also wearing red and white beads and bows while clapping her hands when greeting us.She says she knew when she was still 11 years old that she had a calling but her family did a ceremony to plead with her ancestors to let her continue with school.

She carried on studying until her ancestors could no longer wait so she abandoned her studies when she was still in grade 11.” Ignoring my calling led me to become very ill, I went from having kidney stones to having a stroke but doctors couldn’t help me my family and I knew it was time for me to accept my calling,” she says.

She went to an initiation school called “Vuk’uzakhe” in the township of Thokoza. Mondlana strongly opposes the proposed government regulation on the minimum age to be an ithwasa.

Maseko says she does not understand how the government can reach a conclusion of stipulating how old people must be when ancestors decide to call them.

“How can government decide to control spiritual things, what if a person ends up dying because of not accepting their calling?” asks Maseko.Mondlana also strongly opposes the minimum age to go to initiation school. Making reference to her case she says “ I could have died if I had not answered my calling, no one knows the pain you go through when you resist your calling except you so it’s completely wrong to impose such things on sangomas,”

Mondlana is not a fully practising sangoma although she’s a certified one. She says she wants to be like other young sangomas who are academics and still practice as traditional healers.Despite some negative perceptions people may have of traditional healers in Johannesburg CBD, the traditional healers are determined to continue doing their work and carrying themselves with pride.

Gogo Linqe and Gogo Maweni will be attending umhlangano to be held at the THO office in November in an effort to resolve the plight sangomas still face in modern society and will also be taught more about some medical procedures. “ukufund’akukhulelwa” (you never stop learning).

Gogo Linqe laughs: “Vumani bo!” (agree with me).

FEATURED IMAGE: JOBURG SANGOMA: Sibonginkosi Mabena standing outside the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a building opposite hers. Photo: Nobathembu Zantsi

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