Sangomas with ring lights: Zimbabwe’s traditional healers take to TikTok | Social Media

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Harare, Zimbabwe – Wearing a stylish black leather jacket and a red blouse, a denim sun hat covering her dreadlocked head, Gogo Mafirakureva goes live on TikTok.

In just the first few minutes of her livestream, almost 1,000 people join in.

A traditional song plays from a stereo while she puts on colourful beads and sniffs tobacco snuff – a grounded African tobacco that sangomas, or Southern African traditional healers like her, regularly use.

“Gogo, I have a problem,” a guest on the livestream says.

In Zimbabwe’s Shona culture, when a person gets a spiritual calling from their ancestors to be a healer and accepts, they are initiated as a sangoma, taking on the honorific “Gogo” (grandmother) if they are female, or “Sekuru” (grandfather) if they are male.

“Gogo … I am being forgetful and I have exams coming up. I want your help,” the guest continues.

But Mafirakureva, streaming from her living room in the United Kingdom where she currently lives, is awaiting the spirit of her late great-grandfather to arrive and speak to her.

“Let us wait for his arrival when he comes, he will attend to it,” she says.

According to traditional beliefs, sangomas play a crucial role by acting as intermediaries between the spiritual and physical realms.

It is generally believed that when they connect with their ancestors, spirits or deities take control, allowing them to communicate messages, diagnose ailments, and perform healing practices. This spiritual possession is typically induced by rhythmic drumming, chanting, mbira music and dancing, which helps the healer enter a trance-like state.

A Zimbabwean traditional healer
Thousands of people consult Gogo Mafirakureva on TikTok [Screengrab/TikTok]

In Zimbabwe, there are some 65,000 sangomas. Like neighbouring countries, including South Africa, traditional healers are often the first port of call for many seeking help with physical and spiritual ailments.

But now a newer generation of sangomas, like 37-year-old Mafirakureva, have taken to social media, specifically the popular Chinese app TikTok, to engage with clients and offer advice.

“I went on TikTok not so long ago. When I joined, I realised it was a good experience. From that experience, I have met a lot of people,” she tells Al Jazeera.

‘I will deliver you’

At 30 minutes into the livestream, Mafirakureva burps loudly – a spiritual harbinger that she will soon connect with an ancestor – and drapes a neatly folded red and white cloth synonymous with sangomas on her shoulder.

Almost an hour in, the size of the audience has grown to 8,000.

At exactly 11pm, she bows her head for several minutes in total silence as if in a trance as she connects with the ancestors. Meanwhile, the message board is buzzing.

Mafirakureva’s husband, also a healer, appears on screen and claps his hands in traditional African custom to welcome the spirit of her great-grandfather.

A guest on the livestream addresses Mafirakureva with a spiritual problem that she promptly addresses.

“There is a white smoke that I see rising and it is delaying good things in your life,” she tells the user reassuringly. “Those who are evil will not win. Find sand from a river and I will help stop the problem. Have your tobacco snuffs too and I will deliver you, my daughter.”

Traditional healing has been a part of the culture of Southern Africa for centuries. Usually, sangomas will have a hut or special room where they attend to clients who pay consultation fees and other costs for additional services. The clients visit them for spiritual guidance and special prayers for various problems.

African traditional medicine
Shelves with jars containing herbs and other ingredients to make traditional remedies at the garage of a traditional healer in South Africa [File: Guillem Sartorio/AFP]

According to belief, sangomas connect with their ancestors and sometimes the spirits of mermaids that aid them in their work – the spirit of a male mermaid called David connects with Mafirakureva later in her livestream. Some healers throw hakata, or bones, for divination, and some prescribe herbs and snuffs depending on their clients’ problems. In in-person consultation, healers take cash; in the old days, they would accept tokens such as a chicken, maize, or a goat.

Now, as some in this traditionally conservative community go digital, they are also adapting the way they work.

Several sangomas conduct consultations, healing sessions and cleansing ceremonies on TikTok and Facebook with live audiences from around the world.

On TikTok, they get gifts which they redeem for cash. Additionally, they also conduct virtual one-on-one sessions via Zoom or WhatsApp and receive payments via Paypal, Western Union and MoneyGram. At the same time, they continue in-person consultations in the areas where they live.

For Mafirakureva, who has been a sangoma since she was 24, going on social media to consult the spirits and give advice was initially anathema because she felt technology and African spirituality do not really mix.

“My husband is the one who first joined and encouraged me but I didn’t warm up to the idea easily,” she says.

She has since come to appreciate it and now says TikTok has made it easier to connect with people she would not ordinarily have been able to reach in person. The platform has also helped her connect with new real-life clients.

Pricey consultations

Mafirakureva is not the only Zimbabwean healer on TikTok.

Gogo Chihera, a healer from Harare, is another sangoma using social media.

“Vazukuru [my grandchildren], they are evil spirits that cause husbands and lovers to leave you. Those who just woke up one morning and realised they have been dumped without warning when you thought you were in love, I want to help you today,” Chihera announces in a TikTok video.

A Zimbabwean traditional healer
Gogo Chihera, a sangoma in Harare, connects with her ancestors on TikTok [Screengrab/TikTok]

Others like Sekuru Kanengo and Sekuru Tasvu have achieved mild celebrity status on social media for tackling witchcraft and solving complex problems on video.

Kanengo is a TikTok sensation with 104 million posts and 154 million views. On Facebook, he has 30,000 followers. He charges a significant amount for consultations.

“How are you Vazukuru? Sekuru Kanengo consultation fees, local $200 and overseas $300,” he says in an automated message on his WhatsApp account.

An average in-person consultation with a regular sangoma in Zimbabwe would usually cost about $10.

His main competitor, another TikTok and Facebook star with thousands of followers, Tasvu also charges a princely sum for consultations.

On his WhatsApp catalogue, he charges $80 for what he describes as “clean money” where clients do not have to “spill blood” to make covenants.

Although traditional healing is well accepted in communities, there is sometimes distrust of more shadowy healers who people fear could surreptitiously trick desperate clients into doing something that could bring misfortune.

Tasvu also offers gambling solutions to those who want to win when they place wagers in sports betting.

Just this year, he threw a lavish $30,000 wedding party in Harare that “residents watched in awe as the cavalcade of luxury vehicles made its way to the venue”, local newspaper The Sunday Mail reported.

‘Oil and water’

Despite their popularity, critics of social media sangomas say they are profiteers driven by greed and the desire for money.

“There is no [legitimate] sangoma who uses a ring light,” a Facebook user called Tendai Zenda Zinyama wrote in response to a post discussing sangomas and technology. “During ‘matare’ [spiritual sessions], I mean, people are not even allowed to wear shoes or shiny things in there.”

But Pride Shirichena, another commenter on the Facebook post, defended sangomas, saying they are just “moving with the times”.

A Zimbabwean traditional healer
A Zimbabwean healer shows a traditional medicine in her surgery in Harare [File: Howard Burditt/Reuters]

Prince Mutandi, the spokesman of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (Zinatha), discredited TikTok sangomas as greedy fakes bent on profiteering.

“Most of these TikTok and social media sangomas are thieves masquerading as traditional healers,” Mutandi told Al Jazeera.

Like doctors, Mutandi said, members of Zinatha were bound by what he described as a “strict code of ethics” that barred them from advertising in either mainstream media or social media.

He said “most of them” were not part of the association’s nationwide members. In his view, “spirituality and technology” are akin to “water and oil”.

For Harare-based economic and social commentator Rashwhit Mukundu, the switch to social media by sangomas was “African society innovating on technology”.

“Technology affords easy access to services that people normally travel distances to access, and also affords anonymity, including payment of service fees using digital, online or mobile means,” Mukundu told Al Jazeera.

“Essentially, the traditional African medicine and divinity issues have gone digital and this speaks to the future of society in terms of intersection of tradition, culture and technology.”

Zimbabwe is in the throes of an economic crisis characterised by hyperinflation, soaring unemployment and a significant foreign currency shortage. And this could also be pushing people towards sangomas.

Mukundu said the economic challenges Zimbabwe faces “often lead to social challenges” and these “make people look for alternatives including guidance from ancestral spirits” – and a reinforcement of that culture within technology.

However, he also cautioned: “Some sangomas are, of course, scammers taking advantage of people’s desperation to make a quick buck.”


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