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On February 11, 2005, the then President Thabo Mbheki enacted the Traditional Health Practitioners Act (No. 35 of 2004) in an attempt to formalise and regulate the practice and teaching of traditional medicine. The Act explicitly defines the traditional health practitioner’ (sangoma) and the traditional teacher’ (gobela) and specifies that traditional health practitioners must have achieved the status of recognized practitioner through specific traditional educational and training processes. 

The title of a sangoma is achieved following an arduous process of learning as an initiate, known as ithwasana. A novice sangoma acquires skills by apprenticeship to an older and more experienced sangoma known as gobela. 

The initiate

Prior to becoming an initiate, a person first receives an ancestral calling. The calling can take the form of a dream or a strong desire. At times the person may experience a series of unfortunate events that will lead them to consult a traditional healer who will inform them of the calling. If the person refuses the call they will continue to be tormented by unfortunate events until they answer the call. 

This is similar to the story of Jonah who was called to go preach in Nineveh but decided to ignore the call and flee to Tarshish. A series of unfortunate events proceeded to occur in Jonah’s life until he repented and went to preach in Nineveh. 

Book of Jonah in the Bible

Upon answering the call by ancestors the person (initiate) goes through an initiation process known as ukuthwasa, a term derived from the Nguni idea of “thwasa” meaning “the birth of something new”. The initiation process involves shadowing and learning how to surrender to the ancestors in a trance state as well as cleansing and purification through induced emesis, steaming, and ritual bathing. Singing, dancing (ukugida), hand clapping, and drumming play an important role in evoking ancestor spirits.    

The initiate undergoes the process of ukuthwasa under the guidance of an experienced practitioner and teacher known as gobela.  


The term gobela is derived from the word “goba”, which means to bow down. Consequently, the term gobela is used to mean two things:

  • The one you bow down before, which suggests that the initiate must respect their gobela. 
  • The one who bows down before ancestral spirits, which suggests that the gobela must rely on the initiate’s ancestral spirits to facilitate the initiation. 

The initiate refers to gobela as gogo (grandmother), mkhulu (grandfather), mama (mother), or baba (father), depending on the perceived gender of the ancestor spirit working through them. 

The role of gobela

The role of gobela is a big one that cannot be taken lightly. It requires profound subject matter knowledge, skills, and experience. The gobela is responsible for teaching and facilitating the initiation process and guiding the initiate on their traditional healing journey, which entails:

  • Learning the appropriate ways of performing the various rituals involved in the initiation process and their significance. 
  • Learning about the cleansing and purification rites.
  • Learning how to induce, analyse, and interpret dreams as well as divine.
  • Learning how to evoke and communicate with different types of spirits and ancestor spirits.
  • Learning different songs, and the different dances that go with different drum patterns. 
  • Learning how to identify and harvest different types of plants.
  • Learning the ethical way of using plants, medicine, divination, and healing.

How an initiate finds their gobela 

The initiate is typically guided by ancestor spirits to go to a particular gobela, through a dream or an altered state of consciousness. For example, the 6 year old boy named Monde reported by Daily Sun TV as the youngest sangoma mentioned that he was guided by the ancestors to his gobela. In such a case, the gobela is also informed about the initiate through dreams and altered states. It also happens that as soon as the initiate is ready to learn, the gobela will come to find the initiate. In general, ancestor spirits choose the gobela who is related to the amathongo (ancestor spirits) of the initiate. An initiate should never choose the gobela that they “like” or “prefer” as the ancestor spirits have to approve of the gobela. 

Family members that are trained and experienced can also teach the initiate. In this case, amathongo are the same for both the initiate and the gobela. 

How an initiate finds their gobela depends on the circumstance, availability, and the parties involved. There are instances where the initiate will be guided and taught by the ancestor spirits and not by the gobela. This normally occurs with an initiate who is “open” spiritually meaning the initiate already knows how to surrender or be used as a conduit. It also happens when an initiate resides in a place where there is no gobela.

The relationship between gobela and the initiate

The best type of gobela is more of a facilitator rather than a teacher. The ancestor spirits are the teachers and they teach the initiate through dreams and altered states. For example, the initiate can be taught about different types of plant medicines and where to find them as well different types of illnesses and how to treat them. The logic is that sometimes the initiate is called to specialise in a field that the gobela knows very little about. As a facilitator, gobela guides the initiate in making sense of the knowledge gained through dreams as well as offer spiritual guidance.

During initiation, the initiate resides with the gobela. The initiate shadows their gobela learning how to conduct consultations, diagnosis, and prescribing treatment. After a certain period of learning, the initiate graduates in a ceremony with family and the community. The gobela is the one that determines when the initiate is ready to graduate. There is no set duration to how long it takes the initiate to learn, some learn for many years while others learn in just a few years. It depends on the initiates innate abilities, pace of learning, and ability to master-self. The initiate’s dreams are a key indicator of how they are progressing, how they dance, and their ability to correctly diagnose and prescribe treatment is another important indicator. 

After graduation, the initiate proceeds to start their own practice. However, even after the initiation is complete, the gobela-initiate relationship does not end. As a novice sangoma, the former initiate remains accountable to the gobela. Hence, during initiation, the gobela plays the role of a facilitator to the initiate. After initiation, the gobela plays the role of a spiritual mentor. 

The gobela-initiate relationship is very complex because so many aspects of the two individual’s lives are interconnected at so many levels, namely, sharing personal space, dreams and visions, ancestral lineage, emotions, finances, etc.). The relationship can be difficult, sometimes abusive, and deeply intimate. 

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