It is closing in on three in the morning and sleep is the furthest thing from my mind. The night is electric as the relentless call of drums stretches out into the air under the African stars. In front of me dances an old African man Thembitongo - his back is bent, his eyes half closed as his feet tap out an ancient rhythm. He is old and in pain. It is hard and painful to watch him as he creeps along in a shuffle-dance. As he falls to his knees the drums stop their call.
By Sarah Bullen
Thembitongo is now on his knees calling to his ancestors for blessings. His prayers are received by the watching crowd with claps of appreciation and a resounding “makhosi” (thanks) in a time-old ritual that will play out all night.
Then his Xhosa greetings stop and he switches to a language I am far more familiar with: American. Thembitongo is actually not Xhosa, he is American. Nor is he old. He is 27 and grew up in Portland.
Two years ago Thembi was called Doug Blessington and he studied mechanical engineering at the University of North Carolina. He is white and upper-middle class. He now lives in a rural village in the Transkei on the coast of South Africa where he is training to be a traditional African doctor and spirit channel.
Doug is part of a growing community of younger people looking for greater meaning in life. Many of them are turning to indigenous cultures to find a deeper connection to the world they live in. Because there are so few indigenous cultures left in the world, this has brought a lot of them to Africa.
The land we have all gathered on in Botswana belongs to the family of white sangomas Niall and Colin Campbell. They are Batswana by birth and Scottish by descent. But they are both are deeply African, respected by the local communities and keepers of a custom many black Africans themselves have moved away from.
Colin lives in London where he consults with larger corporations on natural law. Niall runs the home base and has spent most of his life in the bush (open lands) abridging his family farm just outside of the Botswana capital Gabarone. He now lives in Cape Town where he practices as a traditional healer and holds workshops with large international groups on natural law and indigenous culture. But every year he comes home to preside over the rituals and ceremonies.
Those who gather from all corners of the world are those who have all studied under him. There are even more guests this year than before.
Ya’Acov Darling Khan is an ‘urban shaman’ who lives in Devon takes people on dance workshops as part of his growing School for Movement Medicine. Mpateleni Makaule is princess from Venda who runs a foundation that is working to revive traditional culture and practices. Londoner Liz Hoskins is the head of the Gaia Foundation and as comfortable barefoot in the bush as she is in Prada. Baba Ndimande is a ritual doctor living in a backwater town but she travels the world working with clients are far and wide as Germany, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Niall is not surprised that he is seeing a growing flood of Westerners coming to find answers for life in traditional cultures. He believes, as do many shamans around the word, that the soul is searching for older ways and way of life that is more in tune with the earth.
“People the world all over are seeking alternatives to the North Atlantic paradigm. This is the model of work, spend, and produce.”
“Most of us live in cities and we work from the age of 18, most of the day. Most of us never actually ever touch the soil with our feet. We never take off our shoes until we go to bed and then it's a carpet or a tile.
We are totally out of touch with nature and with the cycles of life. We work to buy things, to accumulate and to spend.”
“We are kept busy working and we are told not to look inside ourselves. It is conditioning that makes us think this is normal.
“I don’t think its normal and the end result is that there is a disconnection between the things that keep us connected with each other, and with nature.”
Another guest in open land that night Henry Fletcher (29) feels that disconnect. He too has been called to discover a deeper relationship with the earth.
He is visiting from London and met Colin Campbell in London at a ‘Reclaiming Wildness’ event. Henry had thought it was a costume party and had made a tribal mask out of wood he’d nicked off a friend’s tree.
But it wasn't a party like that.
The group met in a small flat in south London over tea.
“We sat in the lounge on couches in a circle and each person talked. We did a sharing circle about the loss of wildness in our lives. After the discussion we all split up for quiet time alone Everyone sat on a cushion for 20 minutes in meditation before we came back and shared our personal reflections.”
Later that night I danced with Henry in the African bush. We all danced around and around in a circle under the full moon in the middle of the African bush to the drums and the screams and calls from our own voices.
Later we danced around a hut singing to the heavens before going into a group steam in a smaller hut set up next to the fire. We chanted and sang as the pace got faster and faster. Hot rocks were passed into the tiny hut as herbs and song carried our voices higher and higher.
When the songs ended it could have been hours, or days. It was timeless. Then it was time for each of us to crawl out from the baking hot ‘steaming hut’ we were splashed with ice water and stood, some naked and some in sarongs, spluttering under the ancient stars.
“This is totally wild,” he smiled.
I felt it. Wild.
This is wild without drugs or clubs. Without a thumping bass and a cracking hangover.
This is wild rapture found under ancient skies and on ancient land.
After the steaming hut we danced some more. The dancing went on until the sun rose. There was no talking circle. There was no silent sitting. There was no lounge with tea served. There was no quiet time. It felt like there was no civilization even.
And still the drums beat on into the night.
We are familiar with social dancing.
Ritual dancing is different. Dancing in this way has been used for centuries as a way of accessing other worlds and in the African tradition it is the way that each sangoma allows its spirit family to visit and descend into their body.
Each sangoma has their own song, their own steps and their own dance. It is not them entirely who dances, but the spirits that they live with. In another world it could be called possession. But the container for it feels ancient and safe. It comes from a place before churches and labels and the world of law suggested that a close connection with the world of spirits was a bad thing.
“You have to sing,” Niall says. “You sing to connect to the divine or spirit. We call it going into ‘air’. Air is the etheric connection with the other realms. We get there by using song.”
Doug/Thembitongo comes to sit later. He tells me he found Niall through a dream he had one night in Portland.
“I was living a pretty regular life. I was sleeping next to my girlfriend and I had a really vivid dream. The dream was incredibly powerful and in it I was told three very clear things. I had to leave the relationship I was in, move to South African and contact someone called Colin Campbell.”
As luck would have it Campbell was not hard to find. He is high profile player in the global speakers circuit an expert on Natural Law, was in California at the time presenting a talk at an inter-spiritual conference. He met with Doug and he told Doug to get hold of his brother Niall in Cape Town.
Doug’s trail gave him another dream, that of a man wearing white beads on his forehead – the beads of the Xhosa tribe living in the Transkei on the West coast of South Africa. It was there that he found his spiritual teacher and Doug decided to undergo a process called uku-tswasa the grueling training that an African shaman must undergo in order to become a traditional African doctor or ritual specialist.
It is a grueling rite of passage and an initiation into working with spirits.
Most often the calling to become a traditional doctor is not an easy path. The African tradition understands it as a calling from the ancestors that you must answer. Often the call to tswasa is dramatic and it cannot be ignored. It comes in the form of dreams or visions, other times in the form of a physical or psychological illness – from bipolar to depression.
I had met Doug/Thembi towards the end of his Tswasa in a chance meeting in Cape Town. He had been living in hut for six months. He was reed thin under the draping of animal skin and beads and he had sores all over his mouth, body and feet.
He knew by then that an initiation is a baptism of fire not to be taken lightly.
“When I arrived on the first day the old grandmothers laughed – they said I would never make it. But I knew I would. There were times I thought I was going to die. I was living in a hut in the middle of nowhere and I realised fast that I am not as tough as the local people. I was a weak American. My immune system was not used to the bugs and parasites.”
His lowest time was when he ate goat and developed severe food poising.
“I didn’t know at the time what was going on. I was just so incredibly sick – I didn’t know if I was going to live or die. I took a taxi to a clinic and they told me I would live and the doctor gave me good advice: ‘Don’t eat a sick goat.”
Stories like this are common around the fire in Botswana. This is the world the Campbell brothers work in. It is far from the realm of ‘rational’ understanding. But that’s why people all over the world are coming here to learn.
People want change. Niall has his finger on a pulse that has beating for a decade now, and is growing stronger.
“We are really lucky that we live still side by side with cultures who have maintained their relationship with the earth for millennia. It is these cultures now that will lead the way back to harmony and balance,” he says.
“Most of us live in isolated worlds and are driven by individualistic thinking. We are driven to amass and accumulate. We think of wealth in terms of finances or property – and it is artificial and unsustainable. We are all trying to accumulate and keep. There is no longer flow. This is going to change.”
Niall and Colin are working to change that on a bigger scale than just working with individuals. They are hosted all over the world from New York to Russia to explore with governments and communities another way. They also bring decision-makers and leaders on life-changing workshops in the African bush.
“We believe that the millennia of experience that indigenous people have, should be recognised as a model for environmental and social sustainability.
“Nature is the original law. Change comes when you show people the power of a more connected way of life. When people come on our workshops they may find their views change. We let them sleep a night in the bush; let them reconnect them with nature and community. We show them that they had ancestors who did the same. That is how change comes.”
The weekend is over too soon. I sit down on British Airways flight back to Cape Town and as we pull up and leave the stark planes of the semi-desert of Botswana behind me I find myself seated next to a guy I know, flying home from a work conference. He asks where I have been. I am worried I have a crazy look in my eyes.
“Isn’t all that woo-woo weird stuff a bit scary?” he asks.
I think of the bugs and flies. I think of last night singing in a tiny packed hut that felt as if it was soaring in a charmed sky.
I think of Henry heading back on another plane to the cold concrete jungle in South Kensington.
I am pretty sure I can feel a bug in my shirt.
“Yip,” I grin. “It was totally wild.”
Mahlaladibbeni Ngwenyama Niall Campbell
by Pieter Hugo In Spirit
Portraits of traditional healers in trance, communing with the Ancestors
Sarah Bullen is a writing coach, literary agent and book editor. She coaches writers on how to become authors and how to write to get published.