Nathalie Bertrams

The Sangomas of Mthatha
Location: Brussels, Belgium
Nationality: German
Biography: Nathalie Bertrams is an award-winning freelance photographer and journalist who publishes in major newspapers such as The Guardian, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Al Jazeera, De Groene Amsterdammer and the Mail & Guardian. She is a National... read on
Public Story
The Sangomas of Mthatha
Credits: nathalie bertrams
Date of Work: 12/31/69 - 12/31/69
Updated: 07/18/17


The Sangomas of Southern Africa are the traditional healers, the respected guardians of knowledge and traditional African medicine. They play an important role in society, as they are responsible for the healing of physical, emotional and spiritual diseases; for rituals concerning birth and death; for narrating the history, cosmology, and myths of their people as well as counteracting witchcraft. South Africa has an estimated 200,000 sangomas and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that up to 60-80% of the population rely on traditional medicine as primary healthcare.

Central in their work is the shared belief in the power of the ancestors over life. The Sangomas not only represent the knowledge of the community but act as guides helping to maintain the balance between nature, man and the spiritual world. They form the link between the living and the forebears, acting as the spirit mediums between this world and the next. Authorities in the channeling of ancestral powers, they can summon the spirits for symbolical treatment. These complex rituals are part of festivities; the ancestors are called in ceremonial dancing, drumming and chanting. The spirits will possess the Sangomas when they work themselves into a trance, accompanied by the rhythm of the drums and the echoing of songs.

Traditions and beliefs that transcend time are now co-existing and converging with the modern world. Through their cultural practice, their ceremonial dances, their trance rituals, the Sangomas are the keepers of identity, maintaining the survival and presence of indigenous music, songs and traditions of the communities. In a society in need of modernisation, in aspiration to leapfrog poverty, under pressure of globalisation and consumer ideologies, these rituals and beliefs activate and balance the deep desire for spiritualism, for the recognition of identity in the community.

I documented a Sangoma ritual in the rural town of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. The festivity was held to honor a group of visitors who had an appointment with the chief. Attended by a large crowd, traditional horsemen displayed their art and a group of Sangomas celebrated ancient, rural Xhosa dance rituals.„Ah Dalibandla“ is the greeting for the chief in the village.


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