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What is ukuthwala?

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Ukuthwala is polysemic, that is, it has two distinct meanings. Hence, when discussing ukuthwala it’s important to clarify the type you are referring to.

Types of ukuthwala

Ukuthwala is a term used by the law, in a justice sense, and in spirituality:

  • The justice system defines ukuthwala as a traditional practice where a man abducts a woman that he wishes to marry. This practice mostly occurs in rural communities throughout South Africa, with the highest cases being recorded in the rural areas of KZN and the Eastern Cape. Sometimes people confuse ukuthwala with ukubaleka, however, these are two distinct concepts: ukuthwala is marriage by abduction while ukubaleka means to elope, run away to marry in secret. Ukubaleka is when two consenting adults that love each other make a decision to run away to get married. This is usually done when the families oppose the union between the two. Ukuthwala is a practice where a man abducts and married a young woman, usually without her consent. Ukuthwala is not unique to South Africa, it also occurs in other parts of the world and has existed throughout history.
  • In spirituality, ukuthwala is an esoteric practice used by individuals to gain influence and or riches. The practice is not unique to South Africa, other cultures might call it by a different name, such as “making a deal with the devil” or “selling one’s soul”.

Defining ukuthwala

Ukuthwala is a Nguni word that means to carry something using traditional medicines (imuthi), occultic knowledge, and a familiar, a man-made or conjured spirit. Examples of familiars include,

  • Umamlambo, a familiar that looks like a snake, typically used by women to gain wealth. The term is also used to describe a mermaid or a seductive woman. According to Zulu mythology, umamlambo is a river goddess that is usually depicted as a large snake-like creature. It has been described as a fortune snake that helps someone acquire power, riches, and status in a short period of time.  
  • Ichithi, a familiar that looks like a snake, typically used by men to gain wealth.

The aim of ukuthwala is to gain influence, riches and or power. However, the gains granted come at a terrible cost to the individual doing the practice, known as “umuntu othwele” in Zulu, and their loved ones.

In a master’s thesis by Sicelo Ntshangase reviewing the influence of traditional medicine in relation to its various uses by African societies, Ntshangase defines ukuthwala as:

A process whereby a person consults a traditional doctor for the medicine that will make a person very rich.

Sicelo Nthsangase

A side note:

Herein marks the difference between traditional medicine and western medicine. Unlike western medicine which addresses mental, emotional, and physical ailments. Traditional medicines and their ritualistic practices address physical, mental, emotional, relational, financial, and spiritual ailments. 

In another paper by Felicity Wood investigating the analysis of oral accounts of ukuthwala. Wood defines ukuthwala as:

“A Xhosa term for a dangerous and powerful procedure for long-term wealth, that’s widely believed to involve the ownership of a wealth-giving being”.

Felicity Wood

According to Felicity, a person practicing ukuthwala is said to receive medicine for ukuthwala and acquire a familiar, called umamlambo, which bestows wealth on the owner. The owner has a pact with the mamlambo that they are required to sustain with sacrifices that come at a great personal and moral cost. The sacrifice wreaks havoc in the person’s life, damaging or destroying close personal relationships and undermining individual sexuality. 

Oral accounts of ukuthwala

There are varying accounts of ukuthwala, however many cannot be proven, accept one. The only known account of ukuthwala is that of Khotso Sethuntsa, a healing practitioner who was born in the mountain village in Lesotho in 1898. Sethuntsa, is a documented case of a person who has publicly claimed to practice ukuthwala, there are books and articles written on him.

With ukuthwala an individual makes a Faustian pact with an erotic component. The individual is often sworn to silence. The individual is often required to make deplorable and criminal sacrifices, to ensure silence. Talking would be admitting to a crime and or something extremely shameful.

Ukuthwala is real, there are people who practice it. However, practitioners of ukuthwala typically do not openly talk about it. The following is just a high-level walkthrough of how ukuthwala happens:

Suppose Amu is a struggling artist that would like to make it big in the music industry. She decides to look for a practitioner that specializes in ukuthwala. Upon finding the practitioner, Amu tells them that she wants to be famous. After listening to Amu, the practitioner invokes an entity that is able to grant Amu’s desires. The entity tells the practitioner that she wants Amu to sacrifice an animal and eventually her relatives.

Amu is given a familiar that she is also required to have sex with. Her mix tape becomes a hit, and she gets a record deal with a big record label. Due to the familiar’s insatiable appetite for sex, Amu offers her kids to the familiar. As Amu becomes more famous, she is required to do even more deplorable things to keep her fame. To cope, Amu does different types of drugs and struggles to sustain a normal relationship with a partner.

A book by Kenneth Bhengu titled “uphuya wasemshwathi” portrays ukuthwala as being akin to satanism, a collection of beliefs and ideas based on Satan. The person practicing ukuthwala is said to be making a deal with the devil and is considered a devil worshipper. In Arabian and Muslim mythology and theology, ukuthwala is similar to invoking a jinn, a spirit that can take the form of a snake (lizard or human) that engages in sexual acts with a human being and their offspring. The cartoon “Aladdin and the lamb” is a story that originated in the Middle East and is based on the jinn that grants people’s wishes. In the cartoon, Aladdin rubs the lamp and summons a genie (another name for jinn) that grants him his wishes. The cartoon leaves out the fact that an actual genie requires you to do something sordid and sleeps you and your children, before granting your wish. Zimbabweans use Chikwambo, Malawians uses zvikwambo and njoka, and Nigerians use Mami Wata, a water spirit, to gain riches.

Ukuthwala is an act of witchcraft that is practiced in every culture in various forms. It involves a person compromising their morality and relationships in order to sustain a pact with a supernatural being that grants them their desires.

You can further explore the concept of ukuthwala, by accessing Khutso Sethuntso, The Hummer Guy, Isilwane, Isilwane – Familiar, Formication and Amakhubalo

Safety precaution:

The use of traditional medicine in prescribed dosages will yield good results. Misuse and abuse may lead to complications. To learn about correct dosage, consult a traditional healer or a herbalist. You can also visit or email: to learn more about traditional medicine.

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