The strange and wonderful saga of the white sangoma
John Lockley recounts how he as a middle-class white man crossed the divide to become a Xhosa shaman
“A few years ago I crossed paths with a strange-looking, extremely white man dressed like an exotic sangoma priest. Looking at him I wondered what kind of turbulent journey could have possibly marooned him into this ‘mess’ and what shaman could have managed to drag this white man into tradition not of his ancestry,” says Malidona Patrice Some, a West African writer and teacher in his foreword to John Lockley’s memoir Leopard Warrior.Lockley, 46, a psychology honours graduate from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, is now a fully-fledged white sangoma known as Cingolweendaba (the messenger). He became a sangoma in 2007 after spending 10 years training under MaNgwevu, a Xhosa sangoma, in a township in the Eastern Cape.
One of Lockley’s other names is Indlu Yengwe (house of the leopard) which was given to him by Credo Mutwa, a well-known Zulu sangoma, storyteller and author, in recognition of his work – bringing sacred African teachings to the western world. Hence the title of his book.Lockley, who has been invited to share his healing insights with other renowned shamans around the world, says he was inspired to write Leopard Warrior because “I wanted to share with the world and fellow South Africans the miracle that a middle-class white man was able to cross the divide between races to become a Xhosa sangoma. The miracle of how we came to love one another and get adopted into one another’s families. It didn’t matter that my teacher didn’t speak English or I Xhosa at that time. What united us was our shared humanity.”
Another reason he wrote the book was to tell people the truth about sangoma culture. “For too long sangomas throughout South Africa have been demonised and belittled by mainstream culture as black magic practitioners working in superstitious and primitive ways. This has resulted in sangomas getting pushed to the edge of society and into poverty. I have stood by the graveside of many of my colleagues who have died from poverty-related illnesses … Sangomas are the traditional monks and nuns of southern Africa and should be treated with the same level of respect and dignity as people in Asia treat their Buddhist monks and nuns.”
As the son of a Catholic mother from Ireland and a Protestant father from Zimbabwe, Lockley writes about how when he was growing up he had no idea what a sangoma was or what they did.“If I thought of traditional African healers at all, I thought of them as ‘witch doctors’ trading in magic and superstition. The colonial culture in which I lived had done a good job of planting and reinforcing those false ideas. To be clear, we are spiritual messengers. Our job is actually simple – to receive messages from the spirit world through dreams, waking visions, or divination and give these messages to the people. We are metaphysicians: soul doctors. We help people connect with their inner worlds and thereby find harmony and balance with the outer world.”“The first 18 years of my life were about me finding my vision and place in the world – a white child with an indigenous calling, growing to manhood while navigating an alien and troubled society. White middle-class men were supposed to be lawyers, doctors and psychologists, not witch doctors or shamans. Yet I dreamed. My dreams were about the African bushveld, animals and plants, about illness and healing,” writes Lockley.
In 1990, while working as a medic in the South African military, on a retreat in the Tzaneen Mountains in Limpopo, Lockley had a “calling dream” – a Xhosa sangoma dressed in the old ways came to him and told him he was going to teach him to become one of them.
When he woke up the next morning, his legs hurt. “I looked down to see large welts and boils in my legs. I had contracted tick bite fever.” And then began “a series of unfortunate events” that would last for seven years.In an interview with Grocott’s Mail in Grahamstown, he said: “I got tick bite fever twice, glandular fever, hepatitis, bilharzia. I was swept out to sea. I snapped my leg, broke my toe. I was so sick it felt like I had 1,000 volts of electricity in my stomach, I had a near fatal accident, I couldn’t sleep. I lost weight, I went to doctors but no one could help. I had exhausted the ‘white’ options.”
Lockley says he battled with his ukuthwasa, a calling illness – a mysterious condition that affected his body, mind and spirit – for more than seven years. “No matter how much I ate, I lost weight. I was plagued by terrifying nightmares. As my body grew weaker and weaker, I fell victim to one ailment after another, some of them grave. I spent those years in pain, fear and confusion, unable to explain why I could never completely recover from one illness before another struck me. Western medicine had no answers for me.”
At that time Lockley had no idea that he had the “calling illness”.
“I was so sick because I had been called to become a sangoma, a traditional South Africa shaman and healer. But this was uncharted territory. I was a middle-class white student who had grown up in South Africa in the era of apartheid. Black and white people were forced to live separately. Even if I had known what my illness meant, and that apprenticing to a senior sangoma held the cure, I would not have been able to follow that path. Had I tried to enter any of the black townships where the sangomas practised their healing arts, I would have been questioned by the police. And had I persisted, it is likely I would have been arrested and imprisoned.”Lockley doesn’t want to think about what might have happened to him if the apartheid system had not collapsed but is grateful that in the end it did and South Africa was ushered into a new dawn in 1994.
It was during this time that a series of events, strong dreams and persistent intuitive messages led him at last to the divination room of MaNgwevu, a powerful senior sangoma in the Xhosa tradition.
Lockley describes his encounter with MaNgwevu:
“My body shook as I sat before her on the floor. To my side sat a translator of the Xhosa language. Electrical impulses of deep knowing cascaded down my spine as MaNgwevu described long years of illness – accurately and in detail – saying how lonely I felt inside and how some days I just wanted to die. I simply nodded, overcome with emotion as I took in the smells of strong herbs and the sight of animal skins hanging from ochre-coloured walls. Then MaNgwevu stopped speaking and simply looked at me. Her eyes pierced through my soul, and in that moment there was no MaNgwevu or John Lockley. There was just the divining wind flowing like water between us.”
“What took you so long to come to me?” MaNgwevu asked.
“Apartheid, mama,” I answered.
“Ahh, Thixo, Nkosi yam, siphantse saphulukana nawe,” MaNgwevu said, her voice brimming with pain and concern as tears slid down her cheeks. I turned to my translator. “She says, ‘Oh Lord, my God, we almost lost you!’”
Was he surprised by the calling?
“In some ways, yes, but in other ways, no. At the age of 10 during the height of apartheid I used to hear black people chanting and playing their drums in the veld on a Sunday close to where we lived in Johannesburg. I loved their singing and all I wanted to do was join them. What surprised me about my calling was how my teacher MaNgwevu and other Xhosa elders recognised my gift in such a clear and direct way.”
Lockley, who describes himself as a quiet and private person, says he only told his close friends and family about his calling.“They didn’t know how to respond because they don’t know the world of the sangoma and traditional African healers. They listened and offered their support in the best way they could.”
He does not have any regrets because it was clear this path chose him.
“Being a sangoma is not about the colour of your skin, it is about your calling. There are spiritual doctors all over the world, regardless of skin colour.”
The important lesson that Lockley has learnt as a white sangoma is that people must never be judged by what they look like.
“I am a sangoma, my skin colour is secondary. I have also learnt the power of language. I see so much misunderstanding between people in South Africa because they don’t know one another’s language. The more I learn the Xhosa language the more I understand the people.”Leopard Warrior: A journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct, and Dreams is published by Sounds True and is now available via Amazon.