Spirit-Mediumship in Africa – Central & South Africa



II.1. (pp. 69-103) Elizabeth Colson : "Spirit-Possession among the Tonga of Zambia".

pp. 71-2 the 3 varieties of spirit-possession




"Basangu mediums are true mediums; for their are intermediaries between the spirits and the world of the living. Their messages are almost always of public import ... . ...


The second form of possession, by masabe, is ... for both spirits and their associated dances. ... If of human origin, masabe represent alien humanity and are known by tribal rather than personal names. There are also animal masabe, spirit masabe, and masabe ... of new experiences ... . Whereas basangu possess their mediums because they seek to ... help the public, masabe ... express their own ... essential natures. ...


The third type of possession is ghost possession involving spirits known as zilube, zelo, basikazwa ... . ... Treatment ... involves ... the clanging of iron implements in an attempt to force the


ghost leave ... . Before it flees it should call out its own name and perhaps the name of the directing sorcerer."


__ is muuya (‘spirit’)

which __



"speaks through mediums on matters of public concern."



"enters people to ... force them to dance masabe."

pp. 73-8 Basangu & their media


basangu media


"A basangu medium enters upon his vocation after an experience ... that a spirit has chosen him as its vehicle. No-one becomes a medium solely of his own volition. ... Recurrent dreams in which basangu appear are a frequent symptom of future possession. ...

Finally the spirit is expected to take full control of its vehicle who may be seized with convulsive tremblings, cry out in a strange manner, rush from the homestead and be found in a dazed condition ... . Members of the homestead report the coming, usually by clapping, in the characteristic rhythm used in greeting and thanking a basangu. Neighbours may gather to greet the


spirit with clapping and songs associated with basangu. These deal mainly with the desire for rain and emphasize the basangu’s association with weather.
In this first greeting, people thank the spirit for visiting them and ask what it wishes. It is expected to announce its name and history and why it has chosen to reveal itself. It may predict epidemics, drought, or other misfortune, or demand that old rituals be observed or new ones instituted; ... it may call attention to the breaking of taboos or changes in custom. After this the new medium has provisional acceptance as a possible resource in times of trouble ... . Meanwhile people clap and offer thanks ... a spirit has visited them.

Since each basangu has a name and should be able to tell something of its former history when it speaks through a new medium, it is possible to know whether a new or well-known spirit has arrived."


"Mediums ... obtain occasional messages when the spirits themselves are willing. ...

A few claim constant inspiration with continuous knowledge of what their possessing spirits know. They claim


foreknowledge of events,

the ability to know everything in the minds of those who come to consult them, and all that has happened while they were en route and

what is going on at their homes,

a knowledge of all languages, and

a number of other qualities."


"I have heard tales of

mediums who danced about the countryside on their heads in a state of possession, of

others who balanced objects at impossible angles, of

others who carried impossible loads with no sign of strain.

I have known mediums who claimed to have done such things in the past when they were first learning to cope with their power."


"Occasionally entry of the spirit takes place publicly. ... . ... in this trance, the spirit takes control and is then said to have arisen (ku-buka). ... The medium sits dazed, the face changes expression, the voice changes quality. Some mediums deny memory of what they have said or done during the course of the trance and rely on those who were present to inform them of what happened."


"Mediums say their spirits are with them even when they are not active ... . ... Most mediums wear wristlets of bright or dark blue beads as an external mark of their vocation."


"The Tonga ... recognize that basangu have their parallels elsewhere. Valley Tonga connect them with the mbondoro or tribal spirits of the Shona of Rhodesia (see Gelfand, 1959, 13-66 ...). Some local mediums are said to be possessed by spirits which also possess mbondoro mediums in Rhodesia. ... Thursday is a day of rest for some Tonga neighborhoods because a mbondoro has so ordered."

Gelfand 1959 = M. Gelfand : Shona Ritual. Cape Town : Juta.

pp. 79-82 Masabe spirit-possession


masabe media


"the masabe medium performs in association with others in a dance ceremony whose purpose is the cure of a particular patient struck down by the masabe. The ceremony permits the masabe to manifest itself in such a way that its chosen vehicle can learn its desires and by meeting these control its future manifestations. During the course of the ceremony, one masabe ... may enter any number of mediums, and any one medium may be entered consecutively by different masabe, signalling each new arrival by some characteristic action. Drummers and chorus then shift to the appropriate music. The medium begins the associated dance. ... Each spirit has its appropriate dance, and dance and spirit are called by the same name.


Some Tonga say that masabe, the general term used for any possession dance and its spirit, should properly be used only for dances introduced prior to about 1940, not for more recent dances." {This distinction would be based on the fact that, before 1940, no recent vehicles nor recent implements were regarded as masabe-spirits.}


"Those already possessed are said to have the power to direct their masabe into other people. The breath or essence (muuya) of the medium goes with and directs the essence of the masabe into the" prospective dancer-to-be. "The sender is identified by the masabe itself during one stage of the dance to announce who it is and who has sent it. ... The latter is asked to take part in the last dance of the series required" for inducting the new dancer into the community of masabe-dancers.


"A few mediums may find in their reputed ability to direct their masabe into others a source of satisfaction ... . Most people ... respect masabe mediums for their power, ... admire them for their dancing ability or their ability to dramatize their roles during possession. ...

The originator of a dance learns the appropriate medicines in dreams or visions, but can then give or sell this knowledge independently of any transfer of the spirit."


"In diagnosing the presence of a particular spirit, the only relevant symptom is the patient’s dreams."

"Those who have been possessed speak of

a preliminary tingling in their limbs,

the rapid beat of the pulse and the throbbing of the heart.

Then comes blackness just before

they lose consciousness in the trance ... .

Onlookers call out ..., medicine in given,

the spirit then emerges in control (having risen)."

p. 83 animals as possessing-spirits



























pp. 83-4 tribes as possessing-spirits






















p. 84 vehicles as possessing-spirits















p. 84 manufactured implements as possessing-spirits




shell ornament





p. 84 praeternatural beings acting as possessing-spirits

Bamooba : "Bamooba spread to Tonga country from the west in the late 1940s".



p. 85 diagnostic dreams for dances of masabe

"Each dance should have its diagnostic dream.

One entered by Airplane dreams of being carried by an airplane to the sky and then thrown into water. ...

The Siacilipwe dreamer is being dragged about on a chain ... .

In Kanamenda, ... the dreamer is dragged through the water by a motor boat."

p. 86 costume & treatment of various spirit-media of masabe

"The Airplane must be dressed in leg rattles ..., and usually a black cloth. During the course of the dance, which she is now a whirling propeller ..., she must be brought water and scented soap in which to wash. ...

The Kanamenda medium who has dreamed of being dragged through water is treated by being doused with buckets of cold water ... . Scented soap must be provided for her washing.

The Bush-clearing dancer is bound with an ox chain which she drags with her as she dances. Her body is anointed with diesel oil."

"Madilidili uses a belt of maize tassels,

Bamooba requires a belt or skirt of reeds".

pp. 86-7 sounds produced by spirit-possessed media




Those who have animal masabe imitate the call of the animal; Train


dancers whistle and clank like a locomotive; ... Foreign dancers speak in the language of their spirit’s homeland."

p. 87 gaits for spirit-possessed dancers of masabe

"Cranes wave their arms in graceful flourishes.

Elephants lumber on all fours swaying from side to side. ...

The Impande dancer who begins by dancing backward in a rapid shuffle,

finally rolls about great abandon,

swings heels over head, goes rigid, with the body a curve supported only by heels and crown of head."

p. 87 the nature of spirit-possession of masabe

"the spirit’s emergence" : "Usually the dancer stands or kneels, body rigid, eyes staring straight ahead. Occasionally the first indication is a characteristic cry given ... . ... The first portion of the trance is spent trying to induce the spirit to express itself. Assistants administer the medicines appropriate to the dance – these may be ... sometimes placed in the patient’s mouth. Next the dancer is expected to begin rolling and twisting; the assistants bring her to her feet ... . Then she dances on her own".

p. 89 colors of wristlets worn by dancers for specific masabe





dark blue



Angel [Mangelo]



pp. 94-5 possible historical origins of masabe




"The Tonga say that they always had basangu and basangu mediums. Masabe are something new, appearing within living memory. Most believe the masabe came originally from Shona-speaking areas of Rhodesia. The very name is probably derived from the Shona mashave spirits and mediums (see Gelfand, 1959, 121-153 ...). Some Tonga, however, derive the name from the masabasaba, leg rattles of large seeds used in some of the dances ... . ...


Gelfand describes the Shona mashave as spirits of aliens who die far from home. {cf. [Skt.] /preta/, who are likewise the ghosts of aliens who die far from home} Other than human alien spirits, the Shona have only baboon mashave. ...


In the late 1940s some older Plateau Tonga said that animal dances similar to masabe had preceded the arrival of masabe, and that such dances had been used primarily by hunters. The hunter danced the day before the hunt and again on his return, and his dancing involved animal imitations. ... This suggests that the Tonga may have had dances linked with the hunting cults as did the Lamba and other Zambians to the north and west. Doke indeed records that mashyabe was the old Lamba name for dances which after 1915 came to be called Wamova (See Doke, 1931, 251-259). In Tonga this would be Bamooba".

Doke 1931 = C. M. Doke : The Lambas of Northern Rhodesia. London : Harrap.


II.2. (pp. 104-27) G. Kingsley Garbett : "Spirit-Mediums as Mediators in Valley Korekore Society".

p. 105 spirit-media

"Among Valley Korekore spirit possession is a common phenomenon. Many adult men and women ... belong to one or more of the numerous cult-groups which gather periodically to ‘dance-out’ their possessing spirits." {cf. the masabe dance-spirits of the Tonga}

"Except for those, mostly women, who act as mediums for malevolent ancestral spirits (ngozi) believed to have been grossly offended by some misdemeanour of their living descendants, spirit mediumship is confined to a few men and a very few women. These mediums are believed to speak when possessed with the voices of long-dead spirits whose influence in now manifested among the living by their supposed control over the rainfall" {cf. the basangu rainfall-spirits of the Tonga}

p. 107 spirit-provinces & spirit-realms

"Among Valley Korekore all land, whether occupied or not, is divided into ... spirit-provinces. ... Some spirit-provinces are very large, of several hundred square miles in extent, others are only a few acres. ... Their spirits are believed to control the rainfall ... . These spirits [are termed] spirit-guardians (mhondoro). {cf. /HONDuRas/?} Mhondoro is a special term for lion; the usual word is shumba. But in rituals spirit-guardians are often addressed as ‘keepers’ ... (vachengeti).

The spirit-provinces (nyika ye mbondoro) are articulated into a single system, ... a spirit-realm, by a long genealogy which shows the relations among spirit-guardians. In the case of Mutota’s spirit-realm the genealogy is some 15 generations in depth. ... Spirit-realms may be very large. Mutota’s spirit-realm, for example, is over 3,000 square miles in extent and includes much of the Zambezi Valley east of the Angwa river, parts of the plateau to the north of the Zambezi escarpment, and extends into Portuguese East Africa. ...

Within a spirit-realm the mediums are arranged into a hierarchy which corresponds to a genealogical hierarchy".

p. 114 leonine spirit-mediumhood

"Korekore believe that the few spirit-guardians who return and speak through human mediums do so because when alive they ate special medicines to ensure that their spirits would return. {cf. Taoist elixirs} Spirits which through mediums are termed mhondoro (‘lion’) {cf. ‘lion’s roar’ by a buddha} and are believed to possess much greater powers and concern themselves with a wider range of activities than ordinary ancestral spirits (midzimu). ... Mhondoro spirits ... are believed to be able to control, among other things, wind, rain, clouds, and lightning. They are supposed to be able to manifest themselves ... by using anijals or humans as hosts. Lions and humans are considered to be the hosts most commonly chosen by male spirit-guardians though, among Korekore, the very few female spirit-guardians are supposed to favour the python.

After the death of a man (or woman) who has eaten the special medicines, Korekore believe that his spirit seeks out a lion host in the forest. After a period of dwelling in this host and wandering in the forest the spirit-guardian ... desires to speak through a human host. The spirit-guardian then leaves the lion-host and travels to a distant land where he seeks out a devout man. The spirit-guardian is then supposed to enter the man and cause him to behave strangely ..., to eat raw meat like an animal and to wander in the forest. Eventually through dreams the spirit-guardian reveals who he is and then guides the afflicted man back to the spirit-province to be installed as the guardian’s medium.

Korekore say that about three generations elapse before a medium appears to represent a spirit-guardian ... . During these periods, ... the spirit-guardian dwells in his lion-host in the forest."

pp. 115-6 vocation, training, & being tested in order to become spirit-medium


becoming a spirit-medium


"In many cases ... divination revealed that it was probably a spirit-guardian who was responsible ... . The patient was then sent to an accredited medium for prolonged observation. If he behaved according to the stereotyped pattern – complaining of strange dreams and wandering in the forest – the medium then sent him to the senior spirit-medium for final tests. ...


During the probationary period the candidate may be told

to let his hair grow {as is usual in S`aiva religious orders}, ... and

to avoid eating ‘hot’ (strong tasting) food.

Medicines are mixed with his food to ‘bring out’ the spirit ... . ...


The candidate is supposed to fall possessed in the presence of the senior medium and the possessing spirit-guardian should answer questions about

his (i.e. the spirit guardian’s) past life,

the site of his grave,

the boundaries of his spirit-province and, most importantly,

the genealogy which connects him to the possessing spirit of the senior medium.


As a final test the candidate has to select, from a number of such objects kept by the senior medium, the ritual staff (mwangato) used by the previous medium of the spirit-guardian concerned. {this (identifying the praevious office-holder’s personal regalia) is likewise a standard Bodish test for official recognition of a prospective divine avatara} These staffs are used extensively in ritual {as are the croziers of Christian bishops}, have individual names of historical significance and are supposed to possess healing properties. When a medium dies his staff is returned to the senior medium.

A junior medium, representing a spirit-guardian who has not yet ‘possessed’ anyone before, is given a new staff. When the medium has been chosen or been given his staff, his head is shaved."

pp. 119-20 land-shrine neighborhoods




"Each inhabited spirit-province contains one or more land-shrines ... . Baobab trees are usually selected as shrines ... . ...


The offerings of ... cold gruel (bota) made at the shrine are ritually prepared by old women assisted by young virgins ... . ... When they have been prepared, the offerings are made to the spirit-guardian and also to some of his deceased kin ... and possibly to some of his friends ... . Sometimes an additional offering is made to ‘the unknown spirit’ {cf. Philopatris 9:14; Acts of the Apostles 17:22} in case, as Korekore put it, ‘we have forgotten someone ...’."


II.3. (pp. 128-56) S. G. Lee : "Spirit-Possession among the Zulu".

pp. 130-2 spirit-possession cults : speaking in tongues




"Here we have the states of, typically, amandiki, amandawe, amabutho and izizwe possession. ...

Junods’ accounts (1927, 1934) of Ndjao (amandiki) possession among the Thonga is a relatively full description ... . ...

According to The Collector (1911), ... Amandawu (frequently the same word is used for both possession and possessed) have powers of divination whereas amandiki have none. ... By oral tradition both types of possession are claimed to have originated north of the Pongola river,


... and the amandiki claimed originally to have been sent on a messianic mission by a woman, uSiqungana. ... The amandiki bark like dogs, speaking with strange tongues, and move around the country ... doing much dancing. The amandiki spirits, unlike the ancestor spirits of the isangoma diviner, never appear in visible form."


[quoted from Sundkler 1961:23] "the initiates of amandawe possession" : "An amandawe doctor to called to ... rites and dances designed to cause one of the patient’s ancestral spirits to materialize. The initiate goes through many days of an exhausting dance, until at last the spirit enters her. It speaks through the initiate and expresses itself in a reputedly foreign tongue ... . ... Sometimes two or even as many as seven different ancestral spirits may take up their abode in the person concerned and speak in different languages".


[quoted from Sundkler 1961:248-9] "The best parallel to tongues which people in Northern Zululand know of is the so-called izizwe or amabutho. ... the Zulu doctor ... will ... replace the illness by something the Zulu call ‘soldiers’ (amabutho)".

Junod 1927 = H. A. Junod : The Life of a South African Tribe. London : Macmillan.

Junod 1934 = H. Ph. Junod : "Les cas de possession chez les VaNdau". AFRICA 4.

THE COLLECTOR. Pinetown : Marianhill Mission Pr.

Sundkler 1961 = B. Sundkler : Bantu Prophets in South Africa. Oxford U Pr.

pp. 132-3 diversity of spirit-possession : unmoving spirits of the dead, vs. rhythmic shaking

p. 132

"amandiki ... was caused solely by ‘the spirits of the dead’. ...

p. 133

Izizwe ... cause one to speak out like amandiki, but one’s bodily movements are different. Amandiki sit like men while, in izizwe, you just move your body in a shaking rhythmic manner".

pp. 134-5 definition, & autobiographical account, of ukutwasa




"The word ukuthwasa means a ‘coming out’ or ‘emergence’, as of the appearance of the new moon or the reappearance of a planet {cf. the sighting of the morning star by S`akya-muni, resultant in his becoming a buddha} or constellation. In the case of ‘a new umNgoma emerging from his initiation and starting practice’ ... this ‘coming out’ is the end result of possession by ancestor spirits".


[autobiography, by a divineress :] "I had a very deep sleep after going several nights without. I dreamt that I saw my grandfathers and great-grandfathers ... . ... My grandfather called me and told me : ‘We are you ancestors. We have long tried to make your people understand ... that we want you ... to speak for us. ... Go out quietly ... .


We shall then guide you to where we want you to go’. I woke up. ... When I was out of the umuzi I ran. ... I made my unknown journey to the east. ... I came to a big umuzi. I felt something like a voice saying, ‘Go there’. ... I went straight to the chief isangoma ... . ... Without asking me any questions she jumped up, howled, and began to dance. After this she ... made me dizzy and I felt a shiver go through my body ... . Then I began to cry ... until, after a time, I was ordered to follow immediately. We went .... into the dongas [eroded gullies] nearby. ... Every morning this was done until one night the spirits of my ancestors came to me and told me ... that they were with me. ... We used to go out with the chief isangoma to gatherings of the izangoma. ... At meetings of the izangoma[,] people hid things here and there. I could now follow the thing until I pulled it out from where it was hidden."

pp. 136-8 dreaming in order to become inyanga


dreaming & its consequence


"Fynn (1950, 274-75), writing about 1833 :

This species of witchcraft is professed by men and women which appears not to be a choice, nor could it be accomplished by choice, but as they state, commences ... with a delirium during which they dream dreams and run wild in the river or woods during which time the spirits appear to them with a song composed for his or her use which is the one sung by them on all occasions when called on. He or she then ... recovers from the trance which ... has been brought on him by the spirits of his forefathers with the intention that he should fallow the profession of inyanga. ...

On his return he is addressed with the same respect that is given to a chief. ... Having previously prepared his dress for the event [divination of the whereabouts of a concealed object], he puts it on, ... as fancy may dictate."


"Shooter (1857, 191) : ...

Symptoms supposed to indicate an individual’s coming inspiration are mental depression, a disposition to retire from his accustomed society, ... severe and numerous dreams. ... The neophyte talks about his marvellous visions, and [to quote the words of Mr Fynn] ‘commences running, shrieking, plunging into water, and performing wonderful feats ...; and he speaks and acts like one under the influence of a super-natural being’. He catches live snakes ... and hangs them about his neck {this is S`aiva}. Thus arrayed he goes to a prophet; and ... seeks to be instructed in the mysteries of the profession."


"Callaway (1870, 259-60) :

The condition of a man who is about to be an inyanga is this : ... And he tells them that he has dreamt that he was being carried away by a river. He dreams of many things, and his body is muddled (dungeka – stirred up or made turbid – like a river) and he becomes a house of dreams. And he reams constantly of many things, and on awaking says to his friends ‘My body is muddled today. I dreamt many men were killing


me; I escaped I know not how. And on waking one part of my body felt different from other parts; it was no longer alike all over’. At last the man ... is about to have a soft head. (Note : a soft head, that is, impressionable {sensitive; psychic}; diviners are said to have soft heads) ... He shows that he is about to become a diviner by yawning again and again, and by sneezing again and again. {I myself have (over a period of some days, in C., GA) undergone a repeated sneezing, producing phlegm in impossibly large quantities.}

Fynn 1950 = H. F. Fynn (de. by D. McK. Malcolm) : The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn. Pietermaritzburg : Shuter & Shooter.

Shooter 1857 = J. Shooter : The Kafirs of Natal and Zulu Country. London : Stanford.

Callaway 1870 = Canon Callaway : The Religious System of the Amazulu. Springvale : John A. Blair.

pp. 138-9 ukutwasa; becoming an isangoma

p. 138

"The Collector gives a clear account of initial symptoms of ukuthwasa, the commonest signs being excessive .. yawning and ‘having a certain creeping or nervous sensation, especially in the region of the shoulders’."

p. 139

"possessing spirits" : "Kohler reports spirits of both sexes as casual among the Bhaca."


"Asmus (1939) shows ... that becoming an isangoma cannot be achieved through any apprenticeship ... . His account ... describes the placing of the crossed strips {bandolier} of magical goatskin over the shoulders of the novice, the plaiting of the hair into separate strings, and ‘amongst other things he is ordered [by the spirits] to fetch a snake from a deep pool. ... The people ... see him emerge from the river painted all over with different coloured clay – the work of the ancestor spirits – which they have performed down there in the depths of the waters. Around the neck of the isangoma coils a python".

Kohler = M. Kohler : The Izangoma Diviners. ETHNOLOGICAL PUBLICATIONS, 9. Department of Native Affairs, Pretoria, 1941.

Asmus 1939 = G. Asmus : Die Zulu. Essen.

pp. 139-40 further details of ukutwasa




"there may be some symbolic connection here between the python theme so common in accounts of ukuthwasa and the fact that the inkata, the central and most important sacred object of the Zulu (see Asmus, 1939), was covered in the skin of a python. In most accounts the power-giving snake is a female python – an intriguing parallel with the Delphic pythoness of the ancient world." {cf., supra, p. 114 : "among Korekore, the very few female spirit-guardians are supposed to favour the python".}


"Bryant (1917), found that ...


To every statement by the diviner the surrounding people, including the petitioner, answer ‘We agree’. Sometimes the diviner requires them to clap their hands or beat two sticks together as they give the response. ... . ... the ukuthwasa process and training are ... divined directly, the spirits speaking in a high whistling tone through the possessed medium."


[according to an informant :] "There are two main causes of ukuthwasa :

firstly if you are continually bewitched (ensorcelled) with earth {goofer dust} from the graves of your ancestors, ... this may be converted to ukuthwasa.

Secondly, it may happen that you are born with the spirits of your ancestors. These cause you to do thwasa and they are always benevolent towards you."

Bryant 1917 = A. T. Bryant : "The Zulu Cult of the Dead". MAN, 95.


John Beattie & John Middleton (edd.) : Spirit-Mediumship and Society in Africa. London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.