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Traditional medicine


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Traditional medicines (or umuthi) have changed very little over the ages. administrators of these traditions have various roles in the Zulu society. They are the inyanga or herbalist who is concerned with medicines made form plant and animals, the isangoma or witchdoctor who makes contact with the ancestral spirits and prescribes medicine according to their dictates and the isanusi who is a diviner capable of “smelling out” sorcerers and other evil-doers. Both the inyanga and isangoma must acquire their knowledge through a long apprenticeship, the isangoma however, must have been sacredly called to their profession, and have little choice when called. In modern society the status of these medicine men or woman has been translated into wealth. Most izinyanga (plural of inyanga) in urban areas have shops in which they have consulting rooms and from which they sell their medicines.

Plant cures

Animal cures


Tribal doctors use three main methods of diagnosis:


1. Throwing of Bones

Amathambo or the throwing of bones is the ability to consciously interpret though images or symbols produced by the arrangement or the bones that have been thrown, and apply them to the health of the patient. There is no direct perception from the consultant to the doctor.

2. Transmental Diagnosis

In this method, the Sangoma goes into a trance to determine what is ailing the patient. This is simply an altered state of consciousness brought about by drugs, plants or in many cases self induced, as with autohypnosis.


3. Perceptive Diagnosis

This form of diagnosis implies the ability to see or feel and interpret the various vibrations emitted by the patient (almost like an aura). The doctor sits a few feet away from the patient and, without having to exchange words, he or she will physically perceive the pain actually experienced by the patient.

All tribal doctors have developed their unique methods of diagnosis and act intuitively. They seldom touch their patients to find the troubled part. To explain the phenomenon of those who have perceptive power is beyond rational understanding. It is an inborn gift which many Sangomas have inherited. These powers are called imimoya nayambibi.



The izinyanga have learnt a great deal from various animals – their behaviour patterns, their natural resistance to injuries and poison, their strength, agility and cunning. Thus, despite the toxicity of certain animal tissues, their bones, skin, teeth and viscera are often used ritualistically or medically. Many medicines include these animal ingredients, but particularly their fats or Amafutha/ Mafutas.


Some plants are used as intelezi for their psychoactive virtues to keep evil away, calm fears, defeat rivals and shapes the future. Others are used for more scientific purposes to cure many illnesses. These herbal remedies can be prepared in many different ways. The main methods are:- mpuphu (powdered muti).

  • ncinda (tasting the umuthi – often performed ritualistically to treat mysterious allergies and epilepsy, chorea, apoplexy, etc)
  • ukuchatha (enema or colonic absorption – can be used to relieve constipation and for cleansing of the lower bowel, also employed in cases of inflammation of the organs of the pelvic cavity and for the spinal column.)
  • wokuphalaza (emetics – can be used to induce vomiting.)
  • mgaba (cutaneous implantation – small incisions are made with a sharpened knife or razor blade. The umuthi is then brushed over the cuts to introduce it rapidly into the blood.)
  • gquma (inhalations and facial sauna)
  • geza (external applications)
  • izituobo (similar to poultices or herbal compresses.)
  • bhema (snuff – the process of sniffing powdered umuthi up the nostrils.

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