March 6, 2015 4:00 AM EST

From former male model and horse breeder to respected traditional healer, Chris Ntombemhlophe Reid left his life of excess and wealth to become one of the first white sangomas among the Pondoland people in South Africa.

Sangomas are spiritual healers who practice traditional forms of African medicine. However, they do not reject Western medication, often incorporating it into their practices.

Reid is one of 200,000 sangomas in South Africa. He was first initiated in 1997, and regularly gives consultations in Cape Town as well as around his homestead in the Transkei, a southeastern region of South Africa.

Before becoming a full-fledged sangoma, trainees, who are initiated in a spiritual ceremony, must go through a learning period when they are referred to as a “thwasa”. This process can last several years.

German photojournalist Corinna Kern was given unprecedented access to follow sangoma Reid to document his lifestyle and the initial ceremony of becoming a “thwasa”. “I slept with them in the homestead at his place, it was very rural and there was no electricity,” she tells TIME. “The most eye-opening thing for me about this whole project was the trainees and what they have to go through to become a sangoma. They have to wear white clothing when they get initiated and they are not allowed to sleep on beds. They can only sleep on the ground or on a thin mat.”

Looking back on her project, Kern is “grateful to have had this unique experience, to see all of these things that most people, even in South Africa, would never see.”

Corinna Kern is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in South Africa. Follow her on Twitter

Adam Glanzman is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

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