Snuff Container

Artist:Ndzaleni Dlamini (attrib.)
Culture/People: Zulu
Place: South Africa
Media: Brass and copper wire
Dims: 3.5 x 2 in. (8.9 x 5 cm).
Date: c. 1945-50
RTC No: AF0052
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011


When the echoing ancestral lands call you, and when there is a need for connection, sometimes there is a relationship through plants that is not explainable. The mystifying plant world is a mysterious concoction of truths, whispers, medicines, and knowledge, so powerful that it existed for generations in the Zulu Kingdom accessible by gifted, extraordinary individuals.

This portable snuff calabash container (3.5 x 2 in.) is noted to have been made by the original owner, Ndzaleni Dlamini when he was still a young man—although there is no further information on when it was created or by whom it was used. It became part of the Coe collection in 2010. Decorative brass and copper wire snuff containers such as this were carried around everywhere with the user and made to store and access powdered plant snuff. Usually made for tobacco snuff, it was used for hundreds of years in South Africa after tobacco was introduced in the 16th century by the Europeans. It was only used as a pastime, but more accurately, was linked to the practice of traditional medicine.


In South African Indigenous medicine, there are two main types of healers: those who consider themselves to be a sangoma and those who refer to themselves as inyanga. Sangomas work by maneuvering through different time worlds and accessing information of the past, present, and future. They are able to understand how it is all connected to reveal a certain truth or divination. Meanwhile, inyangas work with plant knowledge and medicine, work with restoring balance to the human condition, and all this may entail. Both are healers in that they redirect gifts of the divine and communication with the ancestors to heal and restore the bountiful nature of the world.

The research of South African traditional healers has demonstrated the use of snuff tobacco to be widespread and especially needed for divination or connection with the ancestors.  South African traditional healers have been important in maintaining traditional knowledge dating back since time immemorial. Traditional Healers, highly revered, were accused of practicing witchcraft during the British colonial presence and afterward in the Apartheid government. Targeted as witches, sangomas, in particular, were banned in 1957 under the “Witchcraft Suppression Act” and were not officially recognized again until the Traditional Health Practitioners Act, which was passed in South Africa in 2007. The ability to practice these ancestral truths remains unregulated by the South African government, despite traditional healing being a practice that has existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and is still in use today. Community members still seek these healers to heal the sick and unbalanced, to channel energy and messages from other spiritual portals, or to divine the future. In fact, jumping to today’s times, their presence is so much needed that even digital tools are being created to enable consultations through the pandemic.

Have you consulted with a traditional healer before? If so, what kind of plants did they use? Do you remember what kind of containers stored these plants?

— Alison Guzman

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