A Calling to a Different World
Aphelele Mbana (17) was in her early teens when she was called to answer to a spiritual world. At the time, she could not make sense of it - but dutifully responded to it nonetheless.
Aphelele was born in Cape Town and lived in Samora Machel with her grandmother, her mother, her aunt and four siblings.
“It was a big, happy family and if we had arguments we got over it quickly. My grandmother was the best, she made sure we went to church and to school. We never went to bed on an empty stomach.”
Aphelele describes life in a shack as being less than ideal.
“We lived in a shack. There wasn’t enough space for everyone. The kitchen and living room area was separated by a curtain and the other room was where we all slept. You never got your personal space, especially when you needed to study. It was always crowded.”
Life unexpectedly changed for Aphelele in Grade 9 (she was 14 years old) when the world as she perceived it, took on a different quality.
“I started having visions about things. I began behaving in a weird way. I felt like I could see things in people that I was unable to see before. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t have control over my body and my emotions. It’s as if something was taking over.
“One night I woke up at the bridge of the N2 highway. I can’t explain how that happened and everyone was looking for me. My mom was worried and she was crying. She thought the worst had happened.”
Aphelele remembers her grandmother assisting her to find an explanation for the way she was feeling and the strange events she was experiencing.
“My grandmother said that if these things were happening and it couldn’t be explained logically then maybe we needed to see someone.”
That’s how Aphelele found herself in the consultation room of a Sangoma who explained what was happening to her.
“It turned out that all of this was because I had an ancestral calling. She said that my grandmother refused to accept the calling and it passed on to the next person and that was me.
“My grandmother confirmed that because she is very religious, she did not want anything to do with her calling.”
It was a confusing time for Aphelele because she didn’t fully comprehend what this revelation meant for her. She felt that she couldn’t refuse it and decided to take up the calling.
“Even though I was also a churchgoer and had second thoughts about what was happening to me, my weird behaviour and how real my visions were, convinced me that I should accept the calling. Some days, I would dream about a place that I had never seen before and after a few days, I would be at that place. I could not make sense of how that could be possible, but I could also not deny what I was experiencing.
“I started initiation school when I was 14 years old. On the first day, they told me what was required of me and what was going to change for me. I was no longer going to be a kid living a normal life. At first, it was hard because I had to let go of my social life.
“I had to dress in a certain way because I had to respect my ancestors. I needed to be back home before sunset to avoid bad spirits and had to be awake at 03.00 am (before sunrise). It is believed that 03.00 am is when the ancestors are around and it is easier to feel their presence.
“It was so hard for me because I had to let go of everything I knew and go into a foreign world.”
The training was for one year and in that time Aphelele was still a high school learner. This meant that she could only attend initiation school from Friday afternoon until Sunday.
“I was actually struggling to balance school and the initiation school but my grandmother and mother supported me.
In the school, we were six trainees and our spiritual guide (mentor). I was given my sangoma name by the ancestors - Makhosi (fearless, the lion head).
We were taught many different things at the initiation school. How to control the spirits and be able to connect with them in order to assist people in need and how to read the bones during consultations and to make potions to heal people. But most importantly, they taught us to be disciplined. Our spiritual guide used to tell us, ‘never forget, you were human before you were a sangoma. Your humanity will tempt you with negative emotions towards others due to personal issues. Never use medicine or potions to harm. Our calling is to do good and help people.’”
Aphelele describes losing some of her friends during this time because of the change she was undergoing.
“Many of my friends could not understand or accept what I was going through. It was overwhelming, even for me. A lot was expected and I was only a child. There was a point where I was like, ‘I’d rather die because I can’t live up to what is expected from a sangoma or all the responsibility put upon us’.
“I felt like I couldn’t really talk to anyone about it and that no-one would understand me.”
The turning point for Aphelele came when she became close to one of the trainees who attended the same initiation school. She helped Aphelele to express and accept herself.
“I didn’t really believe in myself, I doubted whether I could manage the process. My ‘spiritual sister’ as I called her, fully understood me. For the first time, I could just be myself and talk about what I was feeling.
“She was the one who made things easier for me. I could talk to her every time I felt like giving up. She was like a sister and beyond. She taught me to believe in myself.”
But just as Aphelele was learning about self-acceptance and to express herself with the help of her sister, tragedy unexpectedly struck.
“I, three trainees and our spiritual guide travelled to Mpumalanga for the graduation ceremony. I was excited - we were finally going to graduate. Sangomas and trainees from different parts of the country were meeting in this village. The village was in the middle of the bush and in this village people didn’t live a modern life. Everything looked like it was from the past. They cooked outside, people helped each other and it felt like such a safe space. There was such a spirit of unity. I loved the experience.
“We were there for two weeks. We were a lot of people and we continued learning during this time. The last two days before graduation was when the ceremony started. The villagers joined the group to assist. For two days the drums played and people danced.
“This was the time during which we, as trainees, were tested for our strength, to find out if we were ready. I was nervous about the process but everything went well. They hid objects from me and I needed to sense which objects were hidden and where. I would tell them and afterwards go to fetch them. I found the bones that I use now for consultations in this process, among other things.”
It was during this time that Aphelele’s spiritual sister’s health began to deteriorate.
“During the ceremony, she started getting sick. She got hot and then cold but in a really bad way. She was also coughing. She did not show any symptoms before that day.
“A few days before, the oldest sangoma had told our spiritual guide that she was sensing something bad was going to happen, but she could not see it clearly. She asked her to be vigilant. So, when this happened they rushed my sister to the nearest clinic. In the clinic, they immediately referred her to hospital as the condition was very serious. The doctors diagnosed her with TB*.
“I was worried about her but I was also feeling guilty because in the run-up to the graduation we had had a silly argument and we both stopped talking to each other.
“It was good to see our spiritual guides use what they had taught us. They used to say, ‘sangomas don’t control everything, they are not God. There are things we can heal but other things we need to refer to western medicine immediately.’ Some of the things we don’t treat are asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, HIV, TB among others.’”
On their return to Cape Town after the ceremony, Aphelele’s spiritual sister was admitted to hospital again. This was the last time that Aphelele saw her.
On the third day of her hospital stay, she passed on.
Aphelele took the news badly.
“The thing that hurt me the most during the time that she was sick was that I wasn’t there for her. She was always there when I needed her. No one else understood me the way she did. Even my own mother - I never talked to her the way I did with my sister.
“For some time, I was in denial. There were times I would pick up the phone and just call her, even though I knew she was dead.”
Looking back, Aphelele is thankful for the relationship with her sister. Particularly for her helping Aphelele to believe in herself again.
“I have eczema. I was always hiding it from people so they wouldn’t see. I was bullied about it. She’s the one who got me to be confident in my own skin. She would always say I’m beautiful as I am.
“If I could have a few more words with her I would tell her, ‘thank you for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.’”
This year, Aphelele is in Matric. Due to the fact that it is a very demanding academic year she has put her journey as a sangoma on hold.
“I have stopped because I am in Grade 12 and I want to focus. Next year, I want to study at University and become a criminal psychologist. I am not yet sure if I will be practising my calling again.
When asked for her final remarks, Aphelele said, ‘you never know what life is going to bring your way. I have learnt that when you embrace things as they are, you stop resisting them and you give your best. In the end, things do work out.”
Aphelele is a Leaders’ Quest participant.
*TB is the leading cause of death among South Africans, with WHO estimating 330 deaths caused by TB on a daily basis.