An Angora goat awaits its sacrifice to the ancestors at Badimong valley on the Lesotho/Free State border, South Africa, January 2001. Jillian Edelstein/The Stand

Valley of the Ancestors

Somali Refugee - Italy

Jillian Edelstein

Free State, South Africa. 2001-2012

Badimong, “the place of the Ancestors,” is a beautiful, sacred place near the spectacular Maluti Mountains on the borders of the Free State in South Africa and landlocked Lesotho. Here miracles of healing take place. It is home to a community of traditional healers, known as Sangomas, who live in small settlements below a cliff face around smoky fires and trickling waterfalls.

They live in caves, under escarpments, and in mud huts for from six months to several years to train as healers. It’s a rigorous existence, comparable to the life of an initiate monk in a Himalayan monastery, where, winter or summer, they rise before dawn to pray, dance, prepare medicines, carry out cleansing rituals involving animal sacrifice and offerings to the Ancestors and ready themselves to be of service to their communities.

Sangomas respond to a calling from their Ancestors. If the call is not heeded they are reminded urgently that it is unwise to ignore. In Badimong they inherit the healing skills of their forefathers. It is a pace where there is a palpable interface between the living and the dead. Others make the journey here to be healed, putting their faith in rituals and indigenous plant remedies beyond the boundaries of Western medicine.

Q&A with Jillian Edelstein

How did you find out about the valley? What sparked your interest?
A writer called Nicola Graydon had been to the sacred site known as Mautse, or Badimong, where she met Monica Mangenengene. They had developed a close relationship and Nicola suggested a feature about the Sangoma to The Sunday Times Magazine who decided to send me to photograph the Sangoma and their initiates, the trainee sangoma (lethwasane).

You shot this over several years, why?
After the first trip to the valley I became riveted by the spiritual quality of the daily habits and the people there. I had been skeptical about it on arrival, but by the time I completed the project I was in awe of the customs and age-old traditional rites that I observed and that were being carried out on a daily basis.

The Sangoma are called by their Ancestors. The calling comes in visions or dreams. If the calling is ignored, the Ancestors will punish them. I had also been working on a project related to my own ancestors in Eastern Europe and the fact that the Sangoma have a gift of communicating with the spirit world of their Ancestors piqued my curiosity.

How did the valley change over the years you spent there?
I did not see any evident shifts or changes, but there was talk of the valley, which was owned by a local (White) farmer, being transformed into a game reserve.
I would love to go back to see what changes have occurred.

How did you change your perceptions and approach over the years you photographed there? 
I think I explained earlier how my skepticism shifted after the first trip there.
The Sunday Times requested classic black-and-white photography, emulating the images of the Native Americans by Edward Curtis. As soon as I decided to continue the project I adopted color – I did not want to create images that harked back to some bygone era.

You did not shoot any of the rituals, was that a choice, or how things panned out?
I did shoot plenty of the rituals …the sacrifice of goats and chickens, the healing rituals, song and dance. I was present at many of the prayer circles, the dancing and the muti (medicine) making and the ablutions, vomiting, and practices like the pricking of the skin to exorcise certain demons or ill health.

A healing ritual was carried out specifically for Nicola and me at one point. Monica claimed that there was something blocking the completion of our project and that my ancestors were in conflict. A pigeon was burnt on a pyre and we did much chanting and dancing round the fire in order to clear the bad spirits.

Was there any single outstanding experience during your time there?
I can’t think of any one standout experience. All of it was powerful. Climbing high up in the mountains to reach a particular fertility cave at dusk and walking into a large group involved in a prayer ritual was an extraordinary moment.

I have a phobia of rats and the ‘dassies’ (rock rabbits); they are considered to be Ancestors. I recall taking images in Monica’s hut and having to overcome my fear of being overrun by the rodents !

I once took my young children to the Valley. My son had put his new iPod in his jeans pocket. One of the trainee Sangoma had taken the children to a sacred children’s spot alongside a rock pool where they could swim. The iPod had fallen somewhere into the long grass – a mass search began, but trying to explain what an iPod was a challenge, and the search like trying to find a needle in a haystack. We never did find it but we fantasized about a Sangoma finding it and having a listen to the Black Eyed Peas.