The psychology behind the calling


VOICES: A talking snake led to Nomasonto Baloyi-Tsotetsi discovering her calling as a sangoma. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

She was only a teenager when a black snake with a white collar-like stripe around its neck spoke to her. Little did she know this conversation would last a life-time.

“When people would speak to me I would hear voices inside my head,” said Wits Art Museum’s (WAM) administrative assistant Nomasonto Baloyi-Tsotetsi.

Tsotetsi is one of the many sangomas whose ancestral calling can be diagnosed by modern psychologists as schizophrenia.

Clinical psychologist Dr Esther Price confirmed that the symptoms of schizophrenia present themselves in similar ways as the ancestral calling (known as ubizo, when the ancestors call you to perform a particular task)

“Schizophrenia is a debilitating psychological condition where you hear voices,” said Price. She noted that both the “calling” and schizophrenia involved the hearing of voices. However symptoms of schizophrenia are more distinct.

Psychologists often confuse the ancestral calling with schizophrenia as the symptoms present themselves in similar ways, according to a member of the Traditional Healers’ Association and operational manager at the mental illnes hospital, Sterkfontien Hospital, Iris Mahlangu.

“They don’t take us seriously, they classify traditional callings as a ‘culture bound’ syndrome – meaning we are mad”, said Mahlangu.

Senior lecturer at Wits’ School of Community and Human Development Dr Molose Langa disputes the idea that the ancestral calling is a schizophrenic condition. But he does concede that it can be misdiagnosed. Langa confirms that ancestral callings have very little to do with psychology, but suggests that in the past people who had these symptoms would be sent to the mental hospital.

Tsotetsi, 45, has been a traditional healer for more than half her life, spending 17 of those years working in different departments at Wits University. Tsotetsi said her ubizo was confirmed by her grandfather’s friend who had the same calling.

“It was at my grandfather’s funeral when his friend walked up to my grandmother and told her that the snake I had seen and spoken to was not a real snake. It was a snake that was sent by the ancestors”, said Tsotetsi.

“I was scared that the ancestors would kill me and my three children”, said Tsotesti who confi rmed that her divorce may have been a result of the ancestors not wanting her to get married.

Tsotesti was initially angry about being chosen as a traditional healer but has learnt to accept it as part of her life.