Ancestors, Embodiment and Sexual Desire

Wild Religion and the Body in the Story of a South African Lesbian Sangoma


  • Adriaan van Klinken University of Leeds and Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study
  • Kwame Edwin Otu University of Virginia



indigenous religion, sangoma, South Africa, embodiment, sexuality, queer studies


This article explores the intersections of religion, embodiment, and queer sexuality in the autobiographical account of a South African self-identifying ‘lesbian sangoma’, on the basis of the book Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma, by Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde. The article offers an intertextual reading of this primary text, first vis-à-vis David Chidester’s Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa, and second, vis-à-vis some black lesbian feminist writings, specifically by Audre Lorde, M. Jacqui Alexander, and Gloria Wekker. This intertextual reading foregrounds the embodied and in fact queer nature of the wild forces of indigenous religion in contemporary South Africa, and it illuminates how embodied and erotic experience is grounded in the domain of the sacred. Hence, the article concludes by arguing for a decolonising and post-secular move in the field of African queer studies, underlining the need to take the sacred seriously as a site of queer subjectivity.

Author Biographies

Adriaan van Klinken, University of Leeds and Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study

Adriaan van Klinken is associate professor of religion and African studies at the University of Leeds (UK) and visiting fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study (South Africa).

Kwame Edwin Otu, University of Virginia

Kwame Edwin Otu is a faculty member at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African studies at the University of Virginia (USA).


Alexander, M. J. (2005) Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham: Duke University Press.

Buijs, G. (2007) Sexual orientation and gender identity among Zulu diviners. In K. Maynard (ed.) Medical Identities: Healing, Well-Being and Personhood 84–100. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Chidester, D. (2012) Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chidester, D., Kwenda, C., Petty, R., Tobler, J. and Wratten, D. (1997) African Traditional Religion in South Africa: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport and London: Greenwood Press.

Coakley, S. (ed.) (1997) Religion and the Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Comaroff, J. (1985) Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Gaudio, R. P. (2009) Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City. Malden and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Homewood, N. (2016) ‘“I Was On Fire”: The Challenge of Counter-Intimacies within Zimbabwean Christianity’ in Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa (eds A. van Klinken and E. Chitando) 243–59. London and New York: Routledge.

Johnson, E. P. (2004) ‘Quare studies’, or (almost) everything I know about queer studies I learned from my grandmother. In E. P. Johnson and M. G. Henderson (eds) Black Queer Studies: Critical Anthology 124–60. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lorde, A. (2007) Uses of the erotic: the erotic as power. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press.

Loughlin, G. (ed.) (2007) Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body. Malden: Blackwell.

Mkasi, L. P. (2016) African same-sexualities and indigenous knowledge: creating a space for dialogue within patriarchy. Verbum et Ecclesia 37(2): 1–6.

Morgan, R. and Reid, G. (2003) ‘I’ve got two men and one woman’: ancestors, sexuality and identity among same-sex identified women traditional healers in South Africa. Culture, Health & Sexuality 5(5): 375–91.

Muller, R. (2013) African Pilgrimage: Ritual Travel in South Africa’s Christianity of Zion. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate.

Nkabinde, N. Z. (2008) Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma. Auckland Park: Jacana.

Nyanzi, S. (2014) Queering queer Africa. In Z. Matebeni (ed.) Reclaiming Afrikan: Queer Perspectives on Sexual and Gender Identities 65–9. Athlone: Modjaji Books.

Stobie, C. (2011) ‘He uses my body’: female traditional healers, male ancestors and transgender in South Africa. African Identities 9(2): 149–62.

van Klinken, A. (2017) Queer studies and religion in contemporary Africa: decolonizing, post-secular moves. Scholar & Feminist Online 14(2).

Wekker, G. (2006) Politics of Passions: Women’s Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zabus, C. (2013) Out in Africa: Same-Sex Desire in Sub-Saharan Literatures and Cultures. London: James Currey.



How to Cite

van Klinken, A., & Otu, K. E. (2017). Ancestors, Embodiment and Sexual Desire: Wild Religion and the Body in the Story of a South African Lesbian Sangoma. Body and Religion, 1(1), 70–87.