Gogo the sangoma : an initiation into biography writing

Saffer, Margot (2010-12)

Thesis (MPhil)--Stellenbosch University, 2010.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: This dissertation is a study in the field of life writing. It is a biography. It also tracks the relationship between Gogo, an elderly Christian Xhosa sangoma (sacred specialist / ‘traditional healer’), and her would-be biographer. Both are women, both are South African, but like many South Africans, their race, religion, age, level of education, and class has separated them. This thesis tells of how the project of the one to tell the story of the other brought the two women together, but also highlighted their differences. As a black person, Gogo was disadvantaged during apartheid South Africa, working in domestic labour, one of the few careers available to her. As a woman in the milieu of African Traditional Religion, she was downtrodden by the patriarchal society in general - and her father and husband in particular. This situation was overlaid by the repression of both the Christian missionaries who, upon settling the land, dominated its peoples and their faith; and further, the Afrikaner Nationalist government’s theological justification of apartheid laws. It is through religion that Gogo was oppressed, but it is also through religion that she gained her power. It was one of her employers, whom Gogo describes ‘like a sister’, who encouraged Gogo to follow her calling into traditional healing, which she had avoided most of her life. Gogo returned to the tradition that oppressed her, but this time as mouthpiece of the Ancestors. The thesis draws on the ‘Tribal Politics’ theories of postmodern sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman. He proposes that within today's ‘imagined tribal communities’, we appeal to ‘experts’ to approve our ‘self-constitution’ – we construct our own identities from available models of identity. She has become an expert within her own community. Her ‘sacredness’ lends her status in an environment where New Age spirituality is a growing ‘imagined tribal community’ from within which indigenous cultures are being respected and resanctified by the descendants of colonialists, Christian Missionaries, and apartheid supporters. To tell her story, the author conducted over twenty interviews with Gogo, over two years. She travelled to Gogo’s hometown of Zastron in the Free State Province. This dissertation is Gogo’s biography. It tells of her hometown, her family of origin, her working life, her relationships and her children. As a psychology student, the author was interested in an indigenous tradition of physical, social, spiritual, and psychological healing. From a feminist psychological standpoint, she felt Gogo’s story of overcoming oppression should be given a voice. The author discusses theories of life writing, most specifically Paul J. Eakin’s theory of relational biography. He states that one’s life story is simultaneously the story of all the people in one’s life. This is not dissimilar to the South African notion of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (we are people because of other people). Beyond this, though, as proposed in feminist psychology, and the theory of observer effect - the life story is also affected by the person listening to and recording it. Despite the literature, the author learned that the process of recording a life is more difficult than she anticipated. She dealt with other players in her subject’s life. She had to discern fact from fantasy. She had to trust and be trusted. This dissertation tells of the relationship between the author and Gogo, the biographer and her subject. This is a discussion of attempting to build and maintain a relationship of equality. More than Gogo’s narrative, it is the author’s initiation into the process of life writing, with its assumptions, intentions, problems, theories, interpretations, setbacks and ultimate conclusion.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Hierdie voorlegging is 'n studie in die gebied van lewensbeskrywing. Dit is 'n biografie. Dit volg die verhouding tussen Gogo, 'n bejaarde Christen-Xhosa sangoma (heilige spesialis / ‘tradisionele geneser’), en haar biograaf. Beide is vrouens, beide is Suid-Afrikaners, maar soos baie Suid-Afrikaners, het hul ras, godsdiens, ouderdom, vlak van opvoeding en klas hulle geskei. Hierdie tesis vertel hoe die projek van die een wat die storie van die ander vertel, die twee vroue saam gebring het, maar ook hul verskille beklemtoon het. As 'n swart persoon was Gogo benadeel gedurende die Suid-Afrikaanse apartheid. Gedurende hierdie tydperk het sy as huishulp gewerk, een van die min beroepe wat aan haar beskikbaar was. As 'n vrou wat haarself in die miliur van Afrika Tradisionele Godsdiens bevind was sy oor die algemeen vertrap deur 'n patriargale samelewing en in besonder deur haar vader en haar man. Hierdie situasie is vererger deur die onderdrukking van Christen sendelinge wie, na vestiging in hierdie land, sy mense en hul geloof oorheers het, en verder deur die Afrikaner Nasionalistiese regering se teologiese verdedeging van apartheids wette. Gogo is deur godsdiens onderdruk, maar godsdiens is ook waar Gogo haar krag gevind het. Een van Gogo se werkgewers, wie sy as 'n suster beskryf, het haar aangemoedig om haar roeping in tradisionele genesing, wat sy voorheen vermy het, te volg. Gogo keer toe terug na die tradisie wat haar onderdruk het, maar hierdie keer as mondstuk vir die Voorvaders. Hierdie tesis is gebasseer op die ‘Tribal Politics’ teorieë van die postmoderne sosioloog, Zygmunt Bauman. Hy stel voor dat in vandag se ‘imagined tribal communities, ons 'n beroep doen op ‘kenners’ om ons ‘self-constitution’ goed te keur - ons bou ons eie identiteite uit die beskikbare identiteit modelle. Sy het 'n kenner geword in haar eie gemeenskap. Haar ‘heiligheid’ het haar status gegee in ‘n omgewing waar ‘New Age’ spiritualiteit ‘n groeiende ‘imagined tribal community’ skep, waarvan die inheemse kulture gerespekteer en verheilig word deur die nasate van kolonialiste, Christen-sendelinge, en apartheid ondersteuners. Om haar storie te vertel, het die skrywer gedurende twee jaar meer as twintig onderhoude met Gogo gevoer. Sy het na Gogo se tuisdorp van Zastron in die Vrystaatse Provinsie gereis. Hierdie tesis is Gogo se biografie. Dit vertel van haar tuisdorp, haar gesin van oorsprong, haar werks lewe, haar verhoudings en haar kinders. As 'n sielkunde student, was die skrywer geïnteresseerd in 'n inheemse tradisie van fisiese, sosiale, geestelike en sielkundige genesing. Vanuit ‘n feministiese standpunt, her sy gevoel sy moet ‘n stem gee aan Gogo se storie van onderdrukking en how sy dit oorwin het. Die skrywer bespreek teorieë van lewensbeskrywing, en meer spesifiek Paul J. Eakin se teorie van ‘relational biography’. Hy beweer dat jou eie lewensvehaal ook die verhaal van al die mense in jou lewe vertel. Dit is soortgelyk aan die Suid-Afrikaanse begrip van ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ (ons is mense as gevolg van ander mense). Verdermeer, soos voorgestel in feministiese sielkunde, en die teorie van die sogenaamde ‘waarnemer effek’ – word die lewensverhaal ook deur die persoon wat daarna luister en dit opneem beïnvloed. Ten spyte van die letterkunde, het die skrywer geleer dat die proses waardeur 'n lewensverhaal opgeneem work moeiliker is as wat sy verwag het. Sy het ook met ander spelers in die hoofkarakter se te doen gehad. Sy moes onderskei tussen feite en fantasië. Sy moes vertrou en so ook vertrou word. Hierdie tesis vertel van die verhouding tussen die skrywer en Gogo, die biograaf en haar onderwerp. Dit is 'n bespreking van' n poging om 'n verhouding van gelykheid te bou en in stand to hou. Meer as Gogo se verhaal is dit die skrywer se inisiasie tot die proses van lewensbeskrywing, met sy aannames, intensies, probleme, teorieë, interpretasies, terugslae en die uiteindelike gevolgtrekking.

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