Cloth-wraps; some meanings in diviners dress.
by Juliette Leeb-du Toit
The use of cloth by indigenes in KwaZulu-Natal was one of the earliest manifestations of the embracing of extra-cultural objects in the region. Initially its usage was selective and uncoerced and came to be associated with both prestige and rites of respect (hlonipha). Further cloth signified wealth, as it was acquired with the exchange of surplus production, and then only with the permission of the patriarchal head. However, the use of cloth by sangomas in the region testifies to a more complex series of associations and implicit values.
The distinctive identity of the popular diviner or sangoma in the greater Durban and Pietermaritzburg areas of KwaZulu-Natal, has recently become expressed in the usage of particular commercial cloths which have been assimilated into the cultural value system of the region (Berglund 1976: 188). While many of the cloths are also to be found elsewhere in South Africa, also utilised by sangomas, their significance and localisation has been underlined by the fact that over the years they have acquired specific names and associations. While the cloth combinations vary, depending on the school where the sangoma trained, consistencies and implications in colour, design and imagery are examined insofar as they retain associations with isangoma practice that have existed since at least the mid 19th century. It will also be shown how cloth has become imbued with personal, symbolic and contextual dimensions which had no precedents in sangoma attire, thereby enriching the vocabulary of dress with new and more complex signification, and in fact evolving a new collective identity with renewed meaning.
In an 1857 text Shooter describes the sangoma's apparel as consisting of skins (especially the crossed braces or nqwamba), bladders (inyongo), a spear (umkhonto), and switch (inkonkoni). He notes further; 'To the shaggy ornaments of a Kafir's ordinary dress he (the sangoma) has probably added the skins of serpents; small inflated bladders are tied to his hair; in one hand he carries a short stick with a gnu's tail affixed to it, and in the other a trusty assegai' (1857:174). Included was a small shield as well as the crossed skins (nqwamba) on the chest, and what appears to a thong belt. To a similar brief description in 1936, Krige notes that in addition 'a square strip of leopard skin and a bunch of genet tails round the loins' may be worn, and was to add that while the isangoma are known to define their distinctiveness in dress, there is 'no hard and fast rule as to how a doctor should dress (Krige 1965: 308-9). While these generalised descriptions failed to identify either the symbolic significance of the accoutrements nor their associations with the rites of passage, training or practice of the sangoma, this was gradually amplified by scholars such as Tyrrell and more recently Berglund. What is marked in their dress is the total absence of any cloth, which Tyrrell indicates would have been regarded as uthakhati, that is tainted or unclean, because of its western or foreign derivation. In the 1950s only a small amount of red cloth was deployed by sangomas. (pers. comm. 1998).
By the late 1960s and especially from the mid 1980s several distinctive cloths become intrinsically association with divination In the region.1 One, known as an ibhayi (a term also commonly used for a cloth covering of the shoulders as a sign of respect in terms of hlonipa) consists of a patterned bright red, or maroon cloth (less frequently a royal blue) with black and white motifs, characterised by a decorative border surrounding a central motif consisting of African fauna or symbols, such as lions, leopards, crocodiles, ostriches, and shields, amongst others, or more exotic ones, such as the tiger, peacock. A so-called 'Swazi cloth' with the central motif of King Mswati, and others with either minister Gatsha Buthelezi or ex-president Nelson Mandela, have also become popular more recently.
The imagery on the ibhaye has been developed as a result of a protracted process of requests and interventions that have been negotiated by shopkeepers, designers (local and foreign), the neophyte (uthwasa) and sangoma .The ibhaye animal image has acquired significance in that it alludes to two aspects central to sangoma practice. Firstly it is intrinsic to the rites of passage of the sangoma, as the cloth is usually selected only when an image appears constantly in a dream to the neophyte or uthwasa. (Zwane pers. comm. 1988). 2 In this the image conveys a personal experiential dimension besides its collective one (as a cloth for diviners). Krige notes that one of the symptoms of a calling by the shades is to become ill and dream constantly, often of 'wild beasts and serpents; he hears voices calling him and telling him to go to certain spot and find roots or catch some animal there' (Krige 1965: 302-303). The neophyte (uthwasa) will search the local stores or further afield until they find a cloth that replicates one of the animals or images that they dream of.
The central motif therefore further betokens enlightenment by, and access to, the shades. The Swazi monarch and political personages similarly function as mediators and protectors. Snake imagery recalls the practice, especially among inyangas, of the wearing of snake skins which further allude to the amadlozi snake to whom the neophyte has access when he/she metaphorically descends into a watery realm (the domain of the snake) to beg for medicinal clay. This inundation is one of the early rituals to which the uthwasa is subject. The snake is also associated with the presence of the amadlozi snake to which the sangoma is said to potentially have access to more readily than the ordinary individual does.
A sangoma in Pietermaritzburg, Sandile Ngcamu notes a terminological variance dependent on how the ibhaye is worn. If worn as a skirt or over the commonly worn black skirt, it is referred to as an indwango; if worn as a shawl over the shoulders it is referred to as an emahlombe; and if worn as a tied garment which is fastened above the breasts it is termed an ibhubesi (Ngcamu pers. comm. 1998).
In addition the isangoma utilises various colours and amounts of imitation-pelt cotton or cord cloth in red, grey, brown, or peach to be worn as cloaks, as a tunic, a hat or in a synthetic fabric vest. (Naidoo 1998: pers. comm). Termed ingwe (meaning leopard) this cloth as well as the animal motif on the ibhaye could symbolise the leopard skin referred to by Krige. Previously the sangoma was able to acquire his/her own pelts, expected of the uthwasa. The original pelt was to protect the wearer from any future harm by said animal (Tyrrell pers. comm. 1998). However, given that many of the sangomas a circumstantially unable to realise this act, the 'pelt', albeit in imitation, metaphorically expresses its realisation and presence as a significant stage in the rites of passage of the diviner, invokes protection from harm, and signifies access to power.
Further there is a widespread usage of a velour or felt-like cloth with maroon, black and white designed in a specific and unchanging criss-cross grid of organic motifs known as ingetti (injiti/ingethi) which is worn as wrap around the lower half of the body, around the shoulders or more rarely as a head covering.3
The sangoma also wears a short-sleeved vest which can be of red or white although the colour can vary if the wearer was given an indication (by her teacher or in a dream) of a different colour. This vest is often substituted for a skipper (a sleeveless vest) which may be in the former colours or any other deemed colour. More recently these are made of synthetic fabric and have distinctive leopard or cheetah pelt marking, when it is then referred to as an ingwe, which might again have the associations outlined above. (Naidoo 1998 per comm)
For ceremonial purposes, a lavishly decorated apron with plastic beads and bottlecaps, known as an ixhama is worn. Often but not exclusively it occurs on a red or blue ground. This is worn as an apron at the rear of the sangoma, usually over a black skirt, or the prescriptive isidwaba of the married woman.
Peculiar to the ingetti and ibhayi, is the predominance of red, white and black. The earliest record found (at present) associating these colours with a diviner is Isaacs' 1836 description of a renowned sangoma whose one eyelid was painted red, the other black and her nose and hair were blackened (Isaacs 1836:78?). Tyrrell also notes that the 'first ancestors' were said to coloured, one red the other white (Tyrrell pers. comm. 1998). The function of the sangoma to access and derive power from the shades, would therefore reinforce this ancestral and colour association.
Of several sangomas interviewed all note that the three colours are associated with 'power' and were suggested by the shades. This may allude to another dimension of colour relevance. Ngubane outlines the significance of black, red and white medicines for the isangoma. These principally herbal medicines: black (imithi emnyama), red (imithi ebomovu) and white (imithi emhlope), are used (serially in that order) in a ritual context and also have 'symbolic meaning'.4 Essentially they are to establish a 'balance between the person and the environment' metaphorically (ibid Ngubane 1977: 109 and 112). Red and black are equivocal as they represent both good and bad, while white represents power and ultimate well-being. Red and black medicines are used to expel 'what is bad' and also to strengthen the body against future 'attacks', whereas health will only thereafter be restored with white medicines. (Ngubane 1977:113). Red medicine is also often worn in bottles suspended from the neck and in this case the intrinsic power of red equivocally counters the red (as evil) of the alleged malevolent mamtotsi bird, who sows evil wherever it occurs (Tyrrell 1971:99).
Ngubane further notes how the colour sequence is linked to the 'cosmic order day and night'. Thus those who are ill or polluted are referred to as being 'without light and in the darkness' (i.e. black) and require cleansing, whereas white (umhlope) is associated with light (ukukhanya) and daylight which therefore represents life and good health. Thus to regain what is described as 'mystical health' requires a progression from night to day or black/red to white. (Ngubane 1977: 114 and 116). Given these connotations the isangoma wearer of these colours in effect displays her access to the intrinsic power and 'mystical integrity' conveyed by these powerful colours.
Further a black cloth skirt, often worn by mature or respected sangomas is associated by some informants with the wearers' status as a married woman, thereby acting as a cloth substitute for the isidwaba. The latter denotes marriage, social acceptance and the acknowledgement of a patrilineal heritage of amadlozi, access to which is essential to many isangoma. In therefore wearing black, the isangoma is able to convey either an extant or desired reality, which may in fact be unattainable, given economic or social constraints. Berglund refers to a square piece of black cloth, the ingubo yamadlozi or 'cloth of the shades', used by some diviners to cover the shoulders when divining or which can be used to cover the knees 'to cast a shadow'. It can also be used by male diviners as a mat on which to throw the bones (Berglund 1976: 176).
The uthwasa also commonly wears a plain red cloth wrap or skirt. The red here is associated with her/his expected regressive status as a 'child' requiring instruction, and in this resembling the blood cloth (ihluhle), which ultimately develops into the foetus in the womb. Red is by some however also supposed to symbolise 'the evil of the mamtsotsi bird', which is in turn neutralised by white beads or any white part of the sangoma's clothing (Tyrrell 1971: 94). In the above cloth has in fact embraced a concept which previously had no designated expression in dress. It is also significant that red and white (and often other colours) also appear in the sangoma headdress, with similar connotations.7
Red and white are further associated with the rites of passage of the uthwasa who will wear either red ochre and/or white medicinal clay on her face, neck and shoulders, which areas are said to be most accessible to the shades, or as the most spiritual and therefore requiring protection (Berglund 1976 and Tyrrell 1971: 42). The white medicinal clay the uthwasa must ostensibly (or symbolically) collect at the bottom of a river from the idlozi snake (Tyrrell 1971: 89) also betokens bravery and power which can counter the negative impact of red (and other evil), and is equal in strength to its opposite. Ngubane further indicates that the white clay of the neophyte (just as mother's milk) represents 'excessive goodness or excessive power which is abnormal' and therefore accesses similar power in the wearer of clay or cloth with white (Ngubane 1977: 96).
Another preferred cloth is a blue and white cotton check cloth with a red double band at the border, this is known as palo and is usually worn as a cloak. While there has been no suggestion by sangomas interviewed as to what its specific meanings or origins were, Shooter notes that in 1857 Isaacs wanting to access a 'prophetess' requested a larger cow as payment plus some calico. He sent her four yards of check which was obviously acceptable as she arrived the next day (Shooter 1857: 175).
While the usage of cloth by traditionalists and isangoma can be attributed to lack of access to former materials, or the wearer's not being able to conform to prescribed dress codes due to unrealised ritual requisites, the cloth selected has been reinvested with aspects of cultural significance central to the wearer's status and consensual identity. In addition a personal dimension that was formerly subsumed in a more collective one, has been articulated either in imagery, or beads. Somewhat in contrast, a new collectivity which draws on medicinal relevance and aspects of the practice and rites of passage of the sangoma, has resulted in prescriptive dress codes determined by the initiate schools or tutors. While there is a degree of personal input (for example in the ibhayi animal imagery), a coherent codification, based both on particular cloths and specific colours, is preferred. Significantly, aspects of cultural practice that were unacknowledged, or only partly acknowledged in former organically derived sangoma dress codes, have been implicitly conveyed in cloth, thereby reinforcing the relevance of cloth to contemporary cultural practice and identity by providing an increased vocabulary of significance.
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