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On the Digital Application of Ancestral Work

by Heidi Sincuba

For a place without a solid network infrastructure, this part of rural KwaZulu-Natal is extremely well connected. There are traditional ceremonies every other day and though there isn’t any advertising to speak of, players and spectators arrive in droves, each dressed decorously in traditional attire. Somewhere seems to be a cloud that holds the archive of songs, dances, fashions and foods from which its participants draw.

Nowhere is this inexplicable coordination clearer than emcimbini yezangoma – imgidi. Each event unfolds like a well-oiled machine in which every aspect from ubuhlalo to ughubhu, even the animal for sacrifice and those who await it on the other side, is integral.Their collision is something of an ignition—indeed a connection.Ancestral work is all about connection. Its purpose reveals itself through connection itself. The contemporary moment that poses urgent questions about connection and connectivity refracts the ancestral realm through a digital lens.

African spirituality as practiced digitally was amplified by COVID-19. In her car complete with signage brandishing her phone numbers, gobela Ma Thobile Ncayiyane testifies that since people couldn’t come directly to her homestead eMachi, as they did in multitudes almost daily, she was forced to conduct her consultations over the phone. The sangoma’s role is invoking the ancestors and connecting them to their living selves and Ma sees potential in using phones and the internet as a platform for this connection, especially at this time.

Ancestral work online is nothing particularly new. Gogo Mayeni, one of the stars of Mzansi Magic’s reality show, iZangoma Zodumo, has tens of thousands of followers on Instagram with whom she shares images of all sorts of spiritual happenings. There are Facebook groups like THOKOZANI MY ANCESTORS AND MY ELDERS, which has over 60,000 members and countless influencer sangomas, such as Gogo Dineo, Gogo Moyo and Gogo Bathini Mbatha, who demonstrate the prevalence and popularity of ubungoma online.

The quantity of these iterations, which range from podcasts to tutorials on dreams or ukupahla to lectures on ukuthwala, have the potential to produce new ways of practicing. This aligns with one of the key principles of ubungoma: (re)creation. Online sangomas create connections with constituents in all corners of the continent and globe, though some argue that shameless plugging contradicts ubungoma’s principle of obscurity. Moreover, the online healing process is frequently fraught with financial angst. While the internet provides a platform, the context of capitalism is yet to be reconciled with the purposes of African spiritual practices.

This is clear in the case of Gogo Bathini Mbatha, who is intricately connected to the web through regular uploads on his Youtube channel. The elder’s phone number is plastered all over the platform. Upon calling it one is greeted by a secretary who ensures to alert one of the cost of consulting. Gogo Mbatha’s automated response on WhatsApp partly reads: “… Strictly NO Whats App & phone consultation. … The consultation fee is R200. More cost will depend on the outcome of the consultation. PLEASE DO NOT SEND MONEY WITHOUT SEEING ME. SOMEONE IS SCAMMING PEOPLE IN MY NAME!”

Even if one makes an appointment to see the sangoma—getting to the actual consultation is no small feat. On the phone one is directed to Union Street Empangeni and told that Gogo only takes consultations between 7am and 12pm. With this time in mind, one arrives to find ikemisi lesintu which is part of the many pronged Bathini Mbatha empire. A security guard then disseminates more meandering directions to Gogo Mbatha’s actual homestead kwaMkhuphulan Gwenya. Even after finding it, there is no Gogo in sight.

*audio: Security ekhemisi empangeni directions

His thwasas—smartphones in hand, can’t do much except note our names on an exam pad, the order of which is often in question. All the while Gogo cannot be reached. Having arrived at the allotted times, the people wait and wait in the scorching sun, shifting intermittently to try and share shade. When Gogo finally arrives hours later, he barely greets us as he enters isgudlu. A far cry from the accessibility of his YouTube persona. Once the consultations begin, it becomes clear that the patrons at the front of the line are allotted more time and those behind them are doomed to brief encounters.

By the time it’s my turn, Gogo is done consulting, citing the changing weather as the culprit. Having waited around seven hours, I’m disappointed but not surprised and begin my long-ass drive back to Durban, knowing full well that I’d be back. So seductive was the evasive intersection. Though I ponder the fate of those who, unlike the majority of Gogo Mbatha’s clientele, do not have time and money to spare. Due to the digital tools at their disposal which could improve the user experience, online sangomas can inadvertently appear exclusionary and somewhat exploitative.

In this era of the African scammer, spiritual practices must evolve to address the public’s genuine desire to safely distinguish between authentic practitioners and crooks. Solving such problems could correspond with efforts to decolonize digital technologies. Based on the ideals of ubuntu, the institution of ubungoma has the capacity to conceive radical revisions to the colonial construct of the net.

While movements like Afrofuturism and black accelerationism champion the relationship between blackness and technology, a new frontier exists for Africans engaged in the ancestral realm as it exists online. The internet as a methodological tool offers something of a common language, where black folk from across the globe can connect based on a black net aesthetic. The onus is on us to develop an internet that serves our spiritual needs. We should not only expect our internet to be a resource for finding, vetting and paying our healers, but also actually enriching our spiritual existences.

Ma Ncayiyane’s academy benefits from the beginnings of this beautiful blend of traditional and contemporary technologies. Most of her thwasas have phones—called obhopopo as they are not so smart. Yet these phones wake us up every morning at 2.30am to connect with spirits. They are the conduits that carry messages about our crossing to loved ones and often deliver the funds required. While most of the thwasas live on what they call imali yaRamaphosa (government grants), airtime consumes a considerable component of that tiny budget. Cellphone towers are an anomaly in these vast valleys blanketed in bitterly brisk mist, yet the thwasas will willingly walk to particular peaks to find hotspots—areas where the connection is stronger.

Notions of the net have even sunk into our vernacular. Even though they have no such luck, the thwasas often joke about ukugooglisha as a way of confirming facts or sourcing information about congregants, and even sorting through their medicines and diagnoses. They refer to burning impepho or sniffing ugwayi wesintu as going online or uploading data, because of the closeness these rituals register to the ancestral realm. These lighthearted remarks appear completely unconscious of the tangible potential the internet must improve their work and are therefore prophecies.

The internet and the ancestral realm are already elaborately entangled. They exist both in the ether and essentialise speculative action for connection to be achieved. There are keys, codes, combinations, like candles, bones, ughubhu, impepho, ukugida, amakhamba or ugwayi wesintu. All these can be used for ukuphahla, which is something like buffering. The question is how these technologies and their various branches could be integrated without compromising one another. One possibility is an app that allows us to consciously construct and consume the data conjured by the divine dimension.

I have started speaking to my gobela and other thwasas about an African spirituality app to include features such as a database, ratings, navigation, live chat and dream interpretation tools, a list of vendors, muthi and livestock delivery services, and a social network based on geographical location, ancestral lineages and izithakazelo. Even an appropriate payment system that can incorporate imali emhlophe, eyezitha, nemvulamlomo.

Ma Ncayiyane seems aware of the dangers of current social media platforms for young Africans. Through her practice, she sees the toll it takes on their mental health and though cautious, seems more receptive to the idea of an app built specifically for us by us. Each practitioner I ask conceptualizes their own model of what this technology could look like, thus the app or platform would allow varying versions of African spirituality to exist simultaneously, in turn allowing us to make more informed decisions on which paths we choose to follow. An otherwise painfully problematic process.

Gogo Thulas who seems to be a permanent fixture of the Facebook group, Ancestral Roots: Ikhaya lethongo, appears to be building something along these lines. On the group she writes: “What I don’t understand is why Healers … don’t want to sign up for the Healers Database but are quick to say ‘inbox me’ on the comments section”. The healers’ database claims to achieve “accountability and responsibility” through a “rigorous vetting process”. Asking such questions of our sangomas can be a sensitive subject, but we should not forget that they are here to serve us and our ancestors, and they should ensure that they do so efficiently.

The school of ubungoma would not exist had our predecessors not dared to dream. Dreaming. Designing. Divination is code. Throwing bones is writing. Determining what actions can, must or will follow. Manifestation if you will. The initial steps that determine the ensuing algorithm. The contemporary sangoma must harness these conditions and work on removing the oblique barrier between digital technology and indigenous knowledge systems. They must find avenues that allow this philosophy to thrive on the internet—a net that is not about cash and consumers, but conscious constellations in a universe of complex connections.

Contrary to popular opinion, many of the people we consult have not rejected western medicine or technology. Indeed it is usually their first choice and they come to us as a last resort. But they do come in spades, and that’s a sign that mainstream systems are failing. We would be wise as traditional practitioners to focus our efforts on bridging this gap instead of widening it. This speculative digital application posits the indigenous technologies that legitimize the labyrinth between the living, the cosmos and all technological objects. It sets a tone for an internet of not only things, but also of beings.

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