John Lockley - Nature as Divination - Tracking Nature, Tracking Spirit

The sun crested the horizon as mist rose from the wet road, creating a mysterious haze. The countryside around us consisted of thick bush interspersed with open grassland. Occasionally, MaMngwevu pointed to a plant and mentioned its qualities. As we descended a steep ravine, a troop of baboons crossed the road. We all shouted “Camagu!” and honored and praised our ancestors.

The baboon (imfene in isiXhosa) is one of my animal spirits (isilo), something I discovered after a number of mysterious dreams and physical encounters. Many sangomas have baboon isilo. This animal is one of the guardians of the plant world, and when they come to us in a dream it is considered very lucky. They are the “old men of the bushveld” that depart their intuitive wisdom to us sangomas so we can maintain the balance between the natural world and man. A large alpha baboon stood guard over the troop. My friends laughed and pointed at it, as they felt it represented me and my upcoming ceremony: a lucky omen.

We arrived at the sea as the sun broke through the clouds and spread its inviting rays across the ocean surface. MaMngwevu stormed toward the sea like a general leading her troops into battle. The ancestors were waiting, and she was anxious to start her prayers before the sun climbed any higher. I grabbed her ceremonial sticks and ran after her. We all greeted the ducks flying overhead with “Camagu!” and waited for MaMngwevu to open the morning prayers.

We watched the sea for signs. Then Mama began, shouting amid the roaring sea and whistling wind: “Camagu bantu abadala. Ndiqula; izinyanya zam.” (I honor and praise you old people. I honor and praise my ancestors.) When she paused, we all responded to her prayers with “Camagu!” Mama made offerings of tobacco, rose petals, and an assortment of herbs to the sea.

As MaMngwevu prayed and chanted, the sea seemed to rise up and take on a life of its own. It became a living, breathing creature, with the power to grant our wishes or take our lives. We stepped gingerly on the cloak of her white foam with a sense of trepidation and excitement.

So MaMngwevu opened her heart and prayed like her life depended on it. She asked them to bless her family and bless my sangoma umgoduso ceremony. She scattered white and turquoise beads into the waves while chanting her prayers in a quick, staccato fashion.

The sea responded by moving closer to her. Suddenly she was drenched above her knees. Apprentices rushed to her side, holding her elbows from both sides and pulling her back from the sea, but she was in another world, and the fingers of the sea were drawing her closer. Tata pointed and whispered, “Abantu bomlambo bapendula thina.” (The spirits from the sea have answered our prayers.) We all screamed, “Camagu!”

One by one we approached the sea to pray and make offerings to the sea spirits to ask their blessing. MaMngwevu completed the ritual by blowing her whistle and thanking the izinyanya for hearing our prayers and responding so well. Then we turned as one and moved up the beach, collecting sand and seawater. The prayers felt like a divine orchestral performance of music, rhythm, and light, with MaMngwevu as the conductor.

We drove back to the township. En route we stopped at a small sacred lake that had been frequented by the Xhosa people for generations. Again, Mama approached the water and addressed the abantu bomlambo, people of the river. Mama sprinkled some tobacco on the water and then threw a large handful into the center of the lake. It sank straight down and was followed by a series of bubbles that rose like Morse code from the depths of the water kingdom. The sangomas were ecstatic and shouted out, “Camagu!”

Mama stepped back from the water’s edge and gave us a chance to pray to the waters of the lake. Each person received different messages, depending on where they were in their life. In the pauses between our prayers, stillness descended on the lake, as if the spirits were wait-ing for us. Then the magical interplay of animals, plants, and insects continued as we prayed from our hearts and directed our spirits to the heart of the lake. The lake became a divining mirror, reflecting our souls’ journeys and offering us both a blessing and inspiration for the road ahead.

Once again, Mama closed the prayers with a few words to the waters. I sneaked back and dipped one of my sacred sticks in the water. I felt a bolt of electricity shoot through my stick and into me. This left me feeling quite jumpy, and I later apologized to Mama for breaking what felt like sacred protocol. She laughed and said I was afraid of the river people, who had power and magic aplenty. Then we both laughed, and Mama said everything was okay — I shouldn’t worry.

Our morning of ritual had been a huge success. Our ancestral and nature spirits had accepted my upcoming ceremony: the signs were clear that I was being blessed. All we had to do now was turn up, be present to the ceremony, and continue to honor our ancestors and uThixo.

We returned home to the sound of the drum. The amagqirha were waiting for us, singing one of my favorite iingoma, which speaks about the crab as the messenger from the river people. I reveled in the rhythms. The ancestors had accepted all our prayers, and it was clear that they approved my final sangoma initiation ceremony: umgoduso.

The spiritual experiences we had witnessed that morning were now feeding the community. The story of our morning ritual was being told, every word solidifying our connection to the sea and forest people. As the elders spoke, the young children listened and passed what they had heard to other children, who ran down the road to carry these words farther afield. The message was clear: “The people of the waters had spoken.” Passersby on the road paused and heard the elders and then continued their journeys with a lighter step and more spiritual confidence. Their walk said, “The old ways are alive. The ancestors have spoken.”

About the author: 

Excerpted from LEOPARD WARRIOR: A Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct, and Dreams, by John Lockley. Sounds True, November 2017. Reprinted with permission. John Lockley's teaching memoir Leopard Warrior is available at Dubray Books, Hodges Figgis, O’Mahony’s, Waterstones, and