Transmission and Embodiment of History in the Thokoza Sangoma Tradition

  • Posted on October 24, 2013


The thokoza sangoma tradition has its origins among the Swazi- and Shangaan-speaking peoples of southern Africa. The thokoza tradition differs from other sangoma traditions in South Africa in that its adherents are possessed by non-lineage or “foreign” spirits, in addition to family ancestors. These spirits are referred to as Ngoni and Ndau.

I conducted research on thokoza sangomas for my honours degree in Social Anthropology in 2012. My thesis was concerned with how thokoza sangomas embody history and reconcile historical conflict through spirit possession and by training as a sangoma.  My research was conducted in the rural township of Mangweni, Mpumalanga province, near the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique. I conducted interviews and informal conversations with numerous sangomas, observed ritual activities, material culture and instances of spirit possession.

According to my informants, the Ngoni (Ndwandwe people [Harries 1994 and Wright 2010]) spirits are the spirits of dead Ngoni warriors who invaded Mozambique under Soshangane in the 19th century, as well as the spirits of Swazi and Zulu warriors who died in similar conflicts. On the other hand, the Ndau are a people living in western Mozambique near the border of Zimbabwe, many of whom were killed by Ngoni/Shangaan and Swazi warriors in the 19th century. This period of conflict in southern Africa has come to be known as the mfecane (Hamilton 1995).

Historical knowledge of these conflicts is transmitted through spirit possession, the songs sung by sangomas when possessed by these spirits, the language spoken by spirits when possessing someone, ritual greetings, the material culture of sangomas which reflects the “cultural” origin of the spirit and through being taught by one’s gobela (teacher). Through training as a thokoza sangoma, these foreign spirits are said to be healed and incorporated into the ancestral lineage of those they afflict.

History of Ngoni and Ndau Spirits

The oral history that my informants possessed all traced the Ndau-Ngoni conflict to Mozambique, rather than an event that happened in the region that is now known as Mpumalanga and Swaziland. They referred to the region of this conflict as “Nsapa”.

One of my informants, who was known to everyone as Tata Ndlovu, gave a particularly detailed oral narrative of the conflict. Tata Ndlovu identified as Shangaan, and originally came from Ba-Skukuza in Limpopo Province. He was an igidle, a healer who had extensive knowledge of muthi. He was often consulted by other sangoma lodges in the area when they needed counsel on an issue due to his extensive knowledge.

Tata tells of there being a conflict in the Gaza Kingdom (now southern Mozambique) between heirs of the Ngoni throne. The conflict emerged between Mawewe and Mzila, after the death of their father, Soshangane, the first king of the Gaza kingdom. According to Tata, Mzila fled the kingdom. Mawewe and his supporters attempted to hunt him down in Nsapa, land of the Ndau. Mawewe’s Ngoni massacred the Ndau, as they believed that they had aided Mzila. The Chopi and Kosa people were also involved in similar conflicts, and as a result are also referred to as Ndau spirits. A similar narrative was given by sangomas Gogo Makwasa and Gogo Manzana, who claimed that the Ndau fled Nsapa during the Ngoni wars.

The interviews and conversations I conducted indicate that the Swazi, in addition to the Ngoni/Shangaan, were also somehow involved in this war, as they referred to their own ancestors as having killed Ndau people. This is corroborated by the work of historian Maylin Newitt. According to Newitt (1995), Mawewe sought out the aid of the King Mswati of Swaziland, whose warriors assisted Mawewe in the hunt for Mzila.

All of the thokoza sangomas I interviewed indicated that the spirits of the dead entered the bodies of their killers, and were inherited by their descendants. The spirits caused suffering of those who were afflicted by them, as they had not received the proper burials and funerary rites. As a result the spirits had to be appeased, which was done through the embodiment of the spirit and its identity through spirit possession and training as a sangoma.

Appeasement and the Embodiment of History

People afflicted by Ngoni and Ndau spirits usually manifest a calling sickness, during which they become ill, whether it be physically or mentally. In some cases the spirits start manifesting and possessing an individual before they enter the training process, as indicated by two of my informants, Gogo Thembi and Gogo Dingaan. They are usually diagnosed by a sangoma, who they may be led to through dreams, intuition or social networks.

Once training commences the initiate becomes possessed by their Ngoni and Ndau spirits on a daily basis. They assume the identity of their Ngoni spirit, and are referred to by its first name. They have to follow certain taboos, many of which would have historically been followed by Ngoni and Ndau peoples, such as the avoidance of eating fish. The attire worn by thokoza sangomas reflects the cultural identity of these spirits and the material culture in general is comprised of items associated with Ngoni and Ndau people historically. In Mangweni, red beads were worn for Ngoni spirits, while white was used for Ndau. Hiya’s, which are cloths with designs of animals and celestial bodies on them signified Ngoni spirits, while njetti, a cloth with purple or red chevron markings, was used for Ndau. According to Gogo Manzana, Njetti originates in Mozambique, while hiya’s are modern subsititutes for the animal skins worn by Ngoni people. In this sense, the modern identity of the initiate is replaced with the historical identity of the spirit.

Possession by Ngoni and Ndau spirits was markedly different. Possession of a sangoma by an ancestor is known as hlehla. The purpose of hlehla is to bring out the ancestors so that they can embody themselves, deliver messages, greet other sangomas and gain recognition from other sangomas. During hlehla, the sangoma is said to be completely taken over by his or her ancestors. In Ngoni hlehla, the possessed sangoma roars loudly, dances furiously, sings Ngoni/Zulu songs and greets other sangomas in the Ngoni language. During the greeting, the ancestor states its name and surname, the name of its father, grandfather and great-grandfather. The remainder of the greeting is unique to each mpande (sangoma lodge). The father refers to the teacher of the sangoma, while the grandfather refers to the teacher’s teacher and so on. The possession indicates that Ngoni are very warrior like, and thus reflects traits that they were historically associated with.

Ndau possession on the other hand involves dancing on the knees and arms, with the head facing down. The language sangomas spoke when possessed by these spirits was Ndau, which is similar to Shona. As with Ngoni, possession, Ndau spirits would also state their lineage when greeting. Despite the more introverted nature of Ndau spirits, they were generally depicted as being more dangerous than Ngoni spirits. Tata Ndlovu exclaimed that they had the capacity to destroy entire families in acts of vengeance if they were not appeased.

The final rite of dealing with this inherited history is the graduation ceremony of a thokoza sangoma. This occurs over three days, beginning on a Friday afternoon and ending on a Sunday. The Ngoni part of the ceremony involves the sacrifice of a goat, and the sangoma has to undergo arduous tests in order to pass. The Ndau part of the ceremony, known as parula, involves the sacrifice of white chickens, and occurs at a river. The graduation ceremony can be compared to both marriage and funeral rites, whereby the spirit becomes settled and incorporated into the ancestral lineage of the thokoza sangoma and thereby heals an inherited historical legacy of conflict.


Historical knowledge concerned with conflicts in southern Africa during the 19th century is transmitted through the embodied practice of spirit possession by thokoza sangomas. The bodies of thokoza sangomas becomes the site in which this history is inherited and contained. In order to deal with this history, thokoza sangomas manifest and acknowledge spirit identities that their family ancestors came into conflict with historically. The incorporation of these identities into the sangoma’s own ancestral lineage is believed to lead to appeasement, healing and the personal reconciliation of past conflict.


Hamilton, C. 1995. The Mfecane Aftermath: Reconstructive Debates in Southern African History. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Harries, P. 1994. Work, Culture and Identity: Migrant Labourers in Mozambique and South
Africa, c. 1860-1910. London, Berkeley: Currey University of California Press.

Newitt, M. 1995. A History of Mozambique. London: Hurst & Company.

Taylor, D. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wright, J. 2010. “Turbulent Times: Political Transformations in the North and East, 1760s-1830s.” In the Cambridge History of South Africa Volume I, edited by Carolyn Hamilton, Bernard K. Mbenga and Robert Ross. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress. pp. 211-252

Liam Keene is a Masters Research Scholar in the Archive and Public Culture Initiative at the University of Cape Town

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