As with all things to do with religion and culture, the definitions of certain ritual roles in Zulu society are quite fluid, and have often been misdefined. An example of this is the word ‘inyanga’. For many years, this would have been defined as a ‘witch-doctor’ by people from outside Africa. This term, apart from being patently insulting, is incorrect. Let’s start with etymological definition first:
the word inyanga fits into a class of nouns in isiZulu which usually contains words for certain ritually or culturally (as opposed to biologically or relationally) defined humans: such as inkosi (chief), intombi (girl at or around the time of menstruation or ukuthomba), and indoda (man or husband). The root of the word is -nyanga, which is also this word’s homophone – inyanga, meaning ‘a moon’ or ‘a month’. So, at the heart of this word is the root-meaning of ‘moon’.
Thus, to offer an etymological meaning of the word, I would suggest ‘moon-ritual-person’.
But this doesn’t really help us to understand what role the inyanga plays in Zulu society, other than to say that they are associated with the moon. In fact, the practical definition of an inyanga might be ‘herbalist’ or ‘medicine-mixer’ (in contradistinction to the isangoma who, traditionally, did not make use of physical concoctions or herb-lore in order to heal). An inyanga is usually a lineage-based position, meaning that it is passed on from parent to child. The position is one of inherited or traditional knowledge, and involves the specific concoction of various medicinal materials in order to heal the physical, psychological and spiritual ills of clients who come to consult the inyanga.
So how does this relate to ‘moon-ritual-person’? According to an inyanga whom I interviewed as part of my MA thesis, as well as various anthropological writings on the subject, many of the medicinal materials can only be gathered at certain times of the day, when the essence of the material is particularly strong. This often coincides with specific lunar cycles, and the gathering usually occurs at night. Hence ‘moon-ritual-person’.
I hope that this clears up some misconceptions about izinyanga in general – they are not witch-doctors at all, but are rather something like a mix of doctor, psychiatrist and chemist.