Ancient Teachings from South African Traditional Healers
In isiXhosa there is a wonderful saying ‘uthando lothando’ (love is love). After my sangoma initiation ceremony and apprenticeship, I added ‘ubuntu oluthando’ (humanity is love). When we care for one another with a spirit of openness of heart and mind; when we treat other cultures and languages with a spirit of quiet enquiry rather than judgement and fear, then this is possible to achieve
As we enter a new phase of our democracy in South Africa, I take a pause to reflect on my 21-plus years as a sangoma in South Africa. From the sounds of dogs barking and goats bleating in the townships to lawnmowers in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, I feel this pride and excitement about being South African. What a rich and dynamic country we live in, the opposite of sterility, a place of abundance and chaotic wonder. From the rural countryside and urban cities, I feel the spirit of ‘Ubuntu’. I feel hope. I know that this is not the general feeling and what most South Africans speak about in the mainstream, but then I am not part of the mainstream. As a sangoma and traditional healer, I have had the good fortune of travelling everywhere, from the rich elite to the poorest people in the townships of the Eastern Cape, as well as the entire world. My story is unusual and my message is one of ‘ubuntu’, love and co-operation, because this has been my experience, literally against all odds.
I suffered from the dreaded ‘thwaza’ or sangoma calling illness in the early 90s, for over seven years coming close to death and then, after Mandela was elected president in 1994, I had the opportunity for the first time of finding a sangoma teacher called MaMngwevu, a Xhosa medicine woman in the Eastern Cape. She had a prophetic dream the night before I met her, in which she recalls the Great Spirit or ‘uThixo’ coming to her and telling her to be ready to train someone from another culture to become a senior sangoma like herself. The next day I walked through her gate with my Xhosa friend and girlfriend at that time. She looked at me and knew that I was the one she had to train. She later told me that she felt nervous when she first saw me because she didn’t know how she would teach a white guy, but then, when we sat down and started talking, she felt my calling and an overriding urge to help me. My skin colour was never an issue. We bonded instantly.
In my first meeting with MaMngwevu she divined my sangoma calling and spoke about the last seven years of my life and how sick I had been. I was shocked, as this was the first time I met her and she was so accurate. She looked deeply into my eyes and asked me what took me so long to come to her. I replied: “Apartheid!” She responded with: “Ahhh Thixo, enkosiam…!” Oh God, I am so sorry, we almost lost you!” A tear moved down her face as she felt the gravity of my sickness and, in that moment, there was no white, blonde man called John and no black Xhosa Mama, just two people who connected beyond words.
In Mama’s next breath she asked me if I would like to become a sangoma and her apprentice. I had only heard negative speech about sangomas and I didn’t know the truth about them. I felt she could share this with me. I asked her what sangomas were. She said sangomas were healers and that, when I connect with my ancestral spirits, I will be able to help heal people in all different ways. When I accept my calling, I will also stop being sick. I felt the truth and honesty in her words. I accepted my calling and agreed to become her apprentice. She smiled lovingly and said I should return the next day to receive my first white beads as a sign that I was her apprentice and a sangoma in training.
Three weeks after my first meeting with Mama she received another dream from her ancestors, in which they told her to call me ‘uCingolweendaba’, the messenger or bridge between people and cultures. The family was in awe of her dream and a small gathering of sangomas organised a little ceremony with me to baptise me into my new name. They said it was very auspicious and that the ancestors had a big job for me. I was only 26 years old and hadn’t travelled much. Since then I have travelled the whole world, spreading the ‘ubuntu’ teachings of my beloved sangoma community. The place that finds it hardest to receive these teachings is South Africa. This is a pity, but understandable considering our background. To change this, we need to challenge our perceptions of other cultures and peoples and delay our judgements until we find out more about ‘the other’. After living and working in townships and rural areas across South Africa, I have found the exact opposite of what I had been told to believe about black culture during the apartheid era in the 1980s. I found friendship and a depth of humanity in the townships that I haven’t found anywhere in the world. I have also encountered holy people and prophets of the same calibre and higher than I found in South Korea amongst Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as in Europe and America.
MaMngwevu and her husband, Tat’ uSukwini, adopted me and taught me the ancient teachings of ‘Ubuntu Ubunzulu’, literally meaning ‘the depth of humanity’. These involve the mystical teachings of ‘ubuntu’ and its power to connect, not only the human realm but plants and animals too, into a circle of life involving reciprocity. They taught me to pray and honour my ancestors. I learnt that one of the stumbling blocks in South Africa between different cultures is not hatred but rather misunderstanding; and sometimes literally misunderstanding one another’s language. My teacher doesn’t speak English and I had to learn Xhosa. I had a simple foundation after studying it at university, but I had to work towards being conversational. The Xhosa language is beautiful and very deep. For example, the word ‘Izinyanya’ means ancestors, but it also means nature spirits and it speaks about our bones or ancestors as being portals into the next world. As we honour our forefathers, the portal to nature opens and we get to see the reciprocity between the animal, plant and human worlds.
Sadly, many South Africans don’t understand the sangoma tradition. They demonise it and accuse sangomas of practising black magic. This is not my experience. As in all religious and spiritual traditions, there are always going to be a few bad apples. The sangoma tradition is one of the oldest shamanic or indigenous healing systems in the world. In order to preserve if for future traditions it is important for it to be treated with respect and dignity. Sangomas are the dancing monks and nuns of Southern Africa.
In the early days my sangoma road wasn’t easy. It took about five years for the local Xhosa community to accept me. They were distrustful of me because the only white people they knew in the early days post-apartheid were soldiers and police. I was an oddity. They disliked the colour of my skin because of their previous association of oppression. I knew it wasn’t personal. However, it was still difficult to live with. One ceremony on a cold Eastern Cape evening in the township everything changed and I bore witness to one of the most fundamental ‘ubuntu’ teachings of the Xhosa tradition i.e. we all have red blood. I was having a particularly difficult time because the community didn’t accept me. I looked at my teacher from across the room and without words I knew that she felt my pain. Then when it was her turn to speak, she shouted at all the people and chastised them for their lack of humanity. She said that I was like a son in her home and that, when she visited my parents in Johannesburg, they treated her and her assistant with the utmost respect. She recounted an old Xhosa saying that was used in the olden days when people encountered other nationalities. She pointed to her wrists and said: “Xa unokusika apha, kungaphuma igazi elibomvu.” (If you cut my arm, red blood flows.) “Xa unokusika uCingolweendaba, kungaphuma igazi elibomvu.” (If you cut John’s arm, red blood flows.) “Ngamanye amaxesha ndiphupha izinyanya zabelungu, ngamanye amaxesha uCingolweendaba uphupha izinyanya zamaXhosa.” (Sometimes I dream about the ancestors of white people, and sometimes John dreams about Xhosa ancestors.)
“Ngaphantsi kwamanzi zonke iintlanga ziyancedana, zisebenzisana kunye. Thina apha emhlabeni sikruthakruthana sodwa. Sonke sinegazi elibomvu kwaye uThixo mnye kuphela.” (Under the river all the races of man mingle and help each other; however, above the ground we fight one another. We all have red blood and there is only one Great Spirit.)
In my final initiation ceremony in 2007, I had a huge celebration at my teacher’s home in the Eastern Cape. In traditional Xhosa culture all the neighbours are welcome and even people walking past on the street are allowed to participate. The reason behind this is that the people are bringing their ancestors with them and their voices and songs. As they do this with an open heart, they are blessing the ceremony. A good ceremony is seen to benefit everyone and strengthen ‘ubuntu’ (humanity), with the result that the community and humanity at large become stronger and happier. I felt very lucky to witness this. Even known gangsters or tsotsis were allowed into the ceremony and sacred kraal area. My adopted father, Tat’ uSukwini, told me that he had his eye on a few troublemakers who were helping with the ox in the kraal. He said that they respected him and that, if there was any trouble from them, then he would ask them to leave. Tata is one of the Xhosa elders tasked with helping to initiate the boys to men in the traditional Xhosa way. Many of the young men knew him. He has a way of generating respect, largely because he treats everyone with respect and kindness. At the end of my ceremony the following morning, I asked Tata how he thought it went. He said it was amazing and in Xhosa he said “umoya phezulu” – literally, the spiritual energy was high, people were happy. He recounted watching two young tsotsis walking down the street after leaving the ceremony in the early hours. They were talking loudly, evidently drunk. Tata was worried they might start fighting. Eventually he heard them burst out laughing and put their arms around one another as they walked into the distance. He said that was one of the signs that my ceremony was successful. Even tsotsis were given a chance to redeem their ‘ubuntu’ and connect with the larger community in peace.
Ubuntu is about more than just humanity and being kind towards one another. It is about co-operation and helping one another so that we can all live with dignity. When my sangoma friends and I help one another with a ceremony or with something meaningful in our lives, we just shrug our shoulders and say “sivasa isandla”, which literally means one hand washes the other. It happens out of necessity because one hand can’t wash itself. No one can survive as an individual on their own; we all need one another, no thanks are required. As we help one another in important ways, we cleanse each other – like one hand washing another – and we strengthen our ‘ubuntu’.
I performed my first ‘ubuntu’ sangoma ceremony at the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo about five years ago. I taught people about ancestors, the kraal, medicinal plants, dreaming and how we pray or ‘nqula’ (honour) our ancestors in the traditional South African way. I was greeted by the organiser, who was apologetic, saying that there weren’t many people and the people who were there were very old, some had sticks and one was in a wheelchair. She asked me if this was okay. I told her that I was delighted and this was a sign that white people were very similar to Xhosa or Zulu, because in traditional Nguni culture we, as sangoma healers, need to be introduced to the community by the elders, the old people who are carrying the memories of the community. I had a feeling that the retreat was going to be very profound on many different levels. I was proven correct when one of the participants, who was in a wheelchair and over 80 years old, approached me at the end of the weekend. She was very happy, she said, because she was brought up in Zululand and could speak isiZulu but no one could explain the traditional culture of ubuntu and ancestors to her. She had a wish before she died that someone could explain this to her. She said today her wish had been fulfilled and gave me a huge hug. I was speechless. This moment was almost exactly the same as one of my earlier moments in my teacher’s home.
I had been an apprentice for a few years and I had just completed an important initiation. My teacher and husband had invited many people to the ceremony, but only a few arrived. I felt sad and despondent. I spoke to Tat’ uSukwini and asked him why only a few people arrived, was it because I was a white guy? He looked at me and said he wasn’t sure but that I must look at the people who had arrived and then he asked me to join me outside. I followed him. Outside the sun was bright and there were a handful of people in the shade and under a few umbrellas in traditional clothes. He asked me what did I see. “Ujonga ntoni?” I replied. “Abantu abadala” (Old people). He said: “Ewe!” (yes, that’s right). He then went on to say that some of these people he hadn’t seen in years and he had wondered if they were still alive. Today he sees them and he is shocked that, although they are so old, they still managed to leave the comfort of their homes to support my ceremony. He looked me square in the face and said, “wena thamsanqa kakhulu!” (you are very lucky!) In that moment an old lady got up and came to join us. She smiled at me in a loving way and her eyes were shining. She held onto my hands and spoke quickly saying how people had told her about a white skinned sangoma and she had to see me with her own eyes. She said that she had been watching me carefully the whole weekend. She watched me dance (xhentsa), nqula (honour) my ancestors and my teacher, MaMngwevu. She then started to cry, saying, “ligqirha nyani! (You are a real sangoma!) Now I know that apartheid is over.” As she said this, she kissed my hands and her tears fell upon them. I was being blessed by a traditional Xhosa grandmother.
In isiXhosa there is a wonderful saying ‘uthando lothando’ (love is love). After my sangoma initiation ceremony and apprenticeship I added ‘ubuntu oluthando’ (humanity is love). When we care for one another with a spirit of openness of heart and mind; when we treat other cultures and languages with a spirit of quiet enquiry rather than judgement and fear, then this is possible to achieve. To cross the Rubicon between two people from different cultures involves nothing more than sitting over a cup of tea, looking at each other and listening.