In the early 19th century traditional healers in parts of Africa were often referred to in a derogatory manner as “witch doctors” practicing Juju by early European exploiters. Contemporary ethnology records that the Dogon, or their ancestors distributed throughout Southern Africa before the 20th century, practiced shamanism.
In the semi-desert Northern Cape region, the shamans of the |Xam people were known by the compound word ‘!gi:ten’, where ‘!gi’ is ‘power’ and ‘ten’ indicated possession. The word is phonetically identical to the Xhosa word for ‘doctor’. In areas in Eastern Free State and Lesotho, where they co-existed with the early Sotho tribes, local folklore describes them drawing pictures on cave walls during a trance and were also reputed to be good rainmakers.
The classical meaning of shaman as a person who, after recovering from a mental illness (or insanity) takes up the professional calling of socially recognized religious practitioner, is exemplified among the Sisala (of northern Gold Coast): “the fairies “seized” him and made him insane for several months. Eventually, though, he learned to control their power, which he now uses to divine.”
The term sangoma, as employed in Zulu and congeneric languages, is effectively equivalent to shaman. Sangomas are highly revered and respected in their society, where illness is thought to be caused by witchcraft, pollution (contact with impure objects or occurrences) or by the ancestors themselves,either malevolently, or through neglect if they are not respected, or to show an individual her calling to become a sangoma (thwasa). For harmony between the living and the dead, vital for a trouble-free life, the ancestors must be shown respect through ritual and animal sacrifice.
The term inyanga also employed by the Nguni cultures is equivalent to ‘herbalist’ as used by the Zulu people and a variation used by the Karanga, among whom remedies (locally known as muti) for ailments are discovered by the inyanga being informed in a dream, of the herb able to effect the cure and also of where that herb is to be found. The majority of the herbal knowledge base is passed down from one inyanga to the next, often within a particular family circle in any one village.
Shamanism is also known among the Nuba of Kordofan in Sudan (former Nubia).