Living in KwaZulu-Natal it’s not unusual to see sangoma’s walking along the streets dressed in their traditional attire. Wearing skirts, shawls draped over their shoulders, and beads in their hair and criss-crossed across their chests, sangoma’s are fairly easy to recognise. What we don’t always think about though when we spot these women is what their attire means.
The amabhayi, a piece of fabric worn either as a skirt or a shawl, would originally have been made from an animal, with the different hides, feathers or bones, representing different meanings. A lion skin, for example, was a symbol of immense power and garnered respect akin to that of royalty for the ancestors the healer represented. Different skins also referenced the sangoma’s journey – healers who were initiated in the mountains would wear the hide of land animals, while those who were initiated in water would wear the skin of snakes, crocodiles and hippos. The feathers, skins and skulls of river birds were also used. As time passed and people gained ready access to fabrics, amabhayi transitioned from animal parts to material, but with different meanings still attached to the various prints and colours of the fabrics used. For example, an ibhayi made from a fabric with a white lion print will be associated with power, innocence and new beginnings, whereas a peacock or chicken print represents ancestors who respond quickly when summoned.
It is said that it’s not the sangoma who chooses the ibhayi, but rather the ancestors who guide them in their choice – yet another way in which the living and the dead are connected in traditional Zulu culture.