Mysteries of African Shamanism: What Can't Be Explained Must Be Experienced
© Geral Blanchard
By Geral Blanchard, LPC
Sitting in the entry to a thatched hut with Mandaza, an African Shona healer, I was riveted to every word he spoke. Wearing a lion’s cape he looked regal, and his very proper Queen’s English added poignancy to his words. He said that gentle peace and a devotion to serve humanity is essential to the heart of a shaman; that a calm presence is a quiet force for healing and, in consoling others, the shaman also is consoled.
With characteristic humility, Mandaza emphasized the role of ancestral spirits, midzimu, who guide the work of a shaman. He spoke of his youthful resistance to the spirit world despite repeated signs that came to him in dreams. Now a healer of the water spirits tradition, he explained that water spirits are carriers of peace. “We must be watchful for them,” he said, “and open to their appearance however they may come to us.”
Suddenly, as if the moment was infused within the presence of divinity, two white doves flew into the entryway. One landed on Mandaza’s head, the other on his shoulder. Then, one of the doves fluttered over to me and landed on my head, as if imparting some divine blessing or a consecration. In the company of Mandaza it seemed like an ordinary occurrence.
Mystery – the unknown and ineffable – can encourage unusual, even incredible experiences to arise.
The numinous nature of traditional African rituals and ceremonies can facilitate the unfolding of amazingly rich events. What may appear to be a supernatural experience to most Western observers may more accurately be regarded as a super natural occurrence in the indigenous world. The word supernatural implies an irrational conception of causation. But what may appear miraculous to the rationally oriented can be quite commonplace to a shaman, an event that is infused with nature’s great balancing energy. The shaman’s perception of the healing powers of nature opens the door for the dramatic realignment of matter to a degree that may seem unimaginable and impossible, yet is demonstrably real.
Mystery of this kind suggests that invisible and immeasurable spiritual forces may be at work. Mystery defies explanation but often is the portent of boundless healing to come. Whereas Western medical and psychological practices must always be documented, explained, proven, or disproven, submitted to strict research procedures and restricted by limitations, shamanic medicine intuitively transports patients to new vistas where absolutely anything is possible and mystery is allowed to stand unchallenged.
Shamans activate the patient’s inner healer that resides within each of us. The shaman’s task is to remove obstacles to healing, which all too often in our culture is a rigidly scientific mindset. Neither science nor ancient medicine knows the limitations of our body/mind’s self-correcting and journeying abilities. In fact, there may not be any. Not knowing, or what Buddhists refer to as the beginner’s mind, can be a powerful and magnificent healer.
In 2005 I traveled with three other adventurers to the politically corrupt and impoverished nation of Zimbabwe. Our hope was to meet many shamans, but especially Mandaza Kandemwa, and learn about traditional healing practices. As a conventionally trained psychotherapist of 35 years, I always felt my work stopped far short of resembling a sacred service. I wanted to respond to people in a way that reflected more of my treasured values such as generosity, compassion, and service. Each member of our group had their own very strong personal interest in learning about shamanism. We weren’t just stereotypical Canadian and American tourists; all of us held reverent attitudes toward indigenous people who employed sacred healing methods.
The harrowing van ride across Zimbabwe was marked by several ominous interruptions. Traveling by night we were often the only vehicle on the road. Our approaching headlights suggested to locals that we were either military personnel under the control of long time dictator Robert Mugabe, or tourists who were likely to have money with them. For years the average citizen has not been able to afford gasoline. If someone had petrol for travel purposes, they must have money aplenty.
As we traveled, small campfires aside the road would signal possible danger ahead. Approaching the flickering light, men wearing phony orange police vests would step onto the roadway and block our movement. Brandishing weapons, it was not clear if we were encountering soldiers or individuals posing as law enforcement officials who were hoping to extort money from us.
Our guide and interpreter was a South African shaman of the Venda tribe. We repeatedly deferred to him when it came to determining the authenticity of the people standing before us and the dangers they represented. He would instinctively assess the situation as we approached the armed “officials” and either cajole them with his winning smile and humor, or sternly rebuke them, much like a father lecturing an errant child. Sometimes he would ebb and flow from laughter to a completely uncompromising demeanor, gauging which technique would serve us best. He would also invoke his status as an elder shaman to appeal to the best values of the highwayman’s culture. Our guide eventually delivered us, exhausted but safe, to the home of Mandaza . There we were greeted by our host’s engaging smile and exuberant embraces.
As a child of nine or ten Mandaza Kandemwa had wandered from village to village, looking for the educational opportunities that he craved and any home that would shelter him. No matter what farm school he approached, people always offered him a bed and meals in exchange for field labor. From the example of his many hosts, Mandaza absorbed the virtues of generosity and graciousness, and that was how he greeted us. He moved outside his modest home and gave us the family beds while he slept on the ground with his wife, Simakuhle.
Mandaza Augustine Kandemwa is a water spirits healer (nyganga) of the ngoma tradition, a Bantu language group that is united around the sacredness of water. This healing style approaches illness from the understanding that each ailment of body or soul is uniquely shaded by their ancestry.
Anthropologists refer to the water spirits tradition as a cult of affliction. In this tradition an initiate must learn how to enter and navigate the spirit world and become a mediator with humans and their ancestors, even animal ancestors. In Mandaza’s case, his father’s ancestral line and family totem is the lion.
Most of Mandaza’s healing work is done in close proximity to water, sometimes under the spray of the magnificent Victoria Falls. He calls upon a community of spirits, the midzimu, who represent the oldest layer of the ancestral world. The midzimu are said to be the spirits closest to God, and God is regarded as a verb, reflecting the movement of Spirit in people. Beyond healing the presenting malady, one of Mandaza’s goals is to help the patient approach Spirit more hospitably so they may ultimately fashion a life of greater service to humanity. When Mandaza’s work with a patient concludes, it is abruptly punctuated by taking a bundle of leaves soaked in water and medicine and, with a sharp snap, splashing water on their face.
Beside Mandaza’s home is a thatched hut with the imposing head of a stuffed lion, its frozen gaze greeting all those who enter. Inside the hut Mandaza works with patients wearing his leopard and lion capes, symbols of the animal spirits that share their power with him. When Mandaza becomes trance-possessed by the spirits he most frequently experiences shumba (the lion) roaring within him and may shapeshift, behaving like the lion.
Behind the Kandemwa living quarters is a third structure, a very stark, concrete, one room building with a small window that provides just enough dim light to witness the healings conducted inside during inclement weather. Outside its door is a small pond where healing rituals are conducted, as well as initiations into the water spirits healing tradition.
The first night at Mandaza’s home found me sitting with him on a log under a bright starlit African night. The nearby city of Bulawayo was dark as electricity was only sporadically available to ordinary citizens. As we sat together Mandaza explained that a rural Shona shaman had arrived earlier that day, learning from a dream that visitors from afar were coming to his home. She walked many miles to greet us and to be with us. Being quite tired after her trek and content to meet us at daybreak, she immediately went to sleep on the ground nearby.
Mandaza invited me to freely inquire into his culture’s healing ways. While I realized the fulfillment of a dream was before me, I was so exhausted I said little. It was enough to simply share space with this gentle man.
The next morning I was summoned to the concrete healing chamber where an eerie sight greeted me. There, lying on the hard floor was the visiting shaman, her eyes rolled back. She was hissing, growling, snarling, and writhing about. Were it not for Mandaza’s ever-present and reassuring smile I would have been very frightened. He explained that she had momentarily shape-shifted into a leopard. I soon witnessed the shaman return to a more familiar human form and she began talking to Mandaza in their native tongue which he interpreted.
The shaman somehow knew things about me that I had not shared with anyone else. Through Mandaza she inquired about a silver ring missing from the second finger of my right hand. Typically, I wore a silver elk tooth ring on that finger, but planning for the trip to Africa I decided to leave all jewelry at home. The shaman feared it had been lost in my travels as she had never “seen” me without it.
Next, she informed Mandaza that I had fathered one child and that my son lived many miles away. Too far in fact, making him very sad; he needed my presence more often. That was all true. She further inquired into why I had chosen to have only one child, appearing to sense that I long desired a daughter as well. How was it that this mysterious Shona woman was able to divine detailed information about me?
Before I could ask that question, I was led outside. Mandaza said it was time for me to develop my “third eye.” I understood it to mean an additional way of seeing and experiencing the world. He sat on the ground and began preparing muti (medicine) for me. He asked me to open one hand and filled it with what he described as termite dung. Seeing the obvious look of revulsion on my face, Mandaza chose not to tell me what he was placing into my other hand. I was instructed to consume the muti. It seemed like forever before I choked it all down; it was if I was eating dirt. Mandaza waited patiently until it all disappeared, carefully watching that none of it “accidentally” spilled to the ground.
He stirred up a frothy mixture that was placed in dollops on my shoulders and chest. Next a floral mixture was poured over my entire body. To help me enter the dream world and open my third eye, I was encouraged to snort a black tobacco-like substance up my nose. My instinctive trust for this man was so great that I went along with it all. This stood in dramatic contrast to my normal, questioning, and skeptical nature. My university training had always emphasized critical thinking, relying on research and analysis before acting, and an emphasis on scientific rigor. An intuitive side, however, had been awakening for several years. And in the company of Mandaza I felt now was the time to surrender to the process and let personal experience be my teacher.
I was led to the rear of the compound where a water spirits ceremony was about to be performed. I agreed to participate in an initiation rite which would help forge my unique healing path and discover an authentic life of service to the world. Mandaza instructed me to change into hiking shorts and submerge myself in the pond. The visiting female shaman approached and stood next to me. I must admit, I didn’t feel comfortable having her there as she created uneasy emotions in me. Nervous apprehension, distrust, and a lack of safety ran through me. Almost instantly I had to decide if I would approach uncertainty and, literally, “take the plunge.” I said nothing, but upon noting an approving look from Mandaza, I immediately entered the water. She followed me.
As soon as I submerged myself I felt the woman’s hand touching me in the cloudy water and my entire body began convulsing. It was like a cold shiver that a person commonly feels after emerging from warm water and stepping into a cool breeze. I couldn’t hold my breath so I quickly surfaced. “Is this a spirit possession?” I asked myself.
When I felt the cool winter air blowing over me, I was warmed and the shaking immediately subsided. Everything was in reverse. I looked for Mandaza, and was greeted by one of his reassuring smiles as he motioned for me to submerge myself again. The same scenario repeated itself four times. Then, referring to me as a sea lion, he invited me to exit the pool and sit on the cool ground to warm myself.
I closed my eyes to reflect on what had transpired so far. Upon doing so I noticed images of African animals coming into focus. lways, they were seen in side profile, with just one eye visible. Every hair of each animal came into sharp focus and then would fade away. Immediately another animal would visit me, first hazy and then extremely crisp, clear, and colorful. Bewildering as this was, it further surprised me to see what appeared to be very subtle smiles on some of the animal’s faces. My logical mind told me that animals don’t actually smile, but a slight simper was repeatedly evident.
Testing my contact with reality, I opened my eyes. There I was, near Mandaza, surrounded by my traveling companions, alert to time and place. With my training in psychology this awareness comforted me. I said to myself, “I’ve got to check this out again.” So I closed my eyes once more, only to have the slide show resume, animals coming into focus as if to greet me, and then fading away to allow another visitor to come forward.
Before the experience had completely subsided, I was led away to a sweat lodge ceremony, Shona style. There we were joined by another visitor, a shaman who sat on his haunches, having shape-shifted into the form and demeanor of a lion. He sat to my immediate left. A common bowl filled with a mysterious liquid was passed around counterclockwise and each person inside the lodge took a sip from it. When the bowl came to the lion, he took a large gulp, turned to me, and spit the fluid on my face. I glanced around in the darkness for any hint from Mandaza as to what was happening. No response. The lion took another gulp and spewed it onto me. The fluid ran down my face and onto my chest.
Somehow I knew better than to object or to wipe it away.
As with the other mysterious experiences of that morning, there never seemed to be adequate time to reflect on what had just happened and discern the meaning of it. We were always moving from one ritual to another with only minimal conversation. I was left to wonder if perhaps I was hallucinating when the animals appeared to me, if my convulsions were indicative of a shamanic-like conversion experience, if the shaman’s expectorant was a sign of disrespect.
After the whirlwind day of rituals had passed one of the shamans had a dream that an ill man in Swaziland needed our immediate help. Indigenous African healers believe dreams are to be acted on with immediacy. So we jumped into our van and headed out of the country to find the elderly man of the dream, though we had no address. Mysteriously we found him with little difficulty and, as it turned out, he was waiting for us. He immediately consumed the medicine one of the shamans had prepared en route. His recovery from a lung problem was evident within two days. More questions arose, but I chose to sit quietly with the experiences.
Only after the passage of many months, and additional personal experiences in the company of other shamans, was I able to formulate personal conclusions. I had in fact discovered my third eye. Muti helped me discover this new way of seeing. It opened me up to a parallel reality and taught me I could go there on my own. But it would no longer be a necessary aid should I desire to cross that threshold again. The convulsions, I concluded, were positive signs of a deep conversion experience unfolding. And the spitting; it was a prayerful blessing, delivered in the traditional Shona manner.
As I prepared this article I went back to journal notes from that time period. I found a forgotten passage: “As humans in this spirit world, our task, with the help of ritual, is to enter the spider web symbolic of the interwoven connectedness of all the Earth’s people and animals. Together, the more creatures we include, the stronger the healing network of humanity becomes.”
After weeks in Africa and meeting many shamans of different traditions, I returned to the counseling agency I directed in Wyoming. However, I was dramatically transformed by all that my senses, including my third eye, had absorbed. Spiritual matters now loomed larger than before, and the substantial profits from the counseling agency that I directed seemed so unimportant, almost obscene. While I hesitate to use the word enlightened to describe my reaction to this and other shamanic explorations, at minimum I was awakened to a deeper purpose and meaning for my life.
I don’t feel a need to explain—either to myself or anyone else—how these events effected my transformation. As a psychotherapist that would have been my normal inclination before traveling to Africa. Today I simply want to live the mystery and allow my heart to be enriched by awe and appreciation.
In 2008 I closed the doors of the agency and moved to another state where I am supported in conducting a healing practice that is more influenced by mystery, spirit, intuition, and the sacred. There will be no turning back. The rewards of following an indigenously influenced path have left me feeling like I no longer work in the counseling profession attempting to cure disorders. Now I facilitate healing in a “ministry” driven first and foremost by love, an agape form of love that serves everyone with compassion, while seeking nothing in return. It is in giving that I receive, bountifully.
Geral Blanchard has traveled to several continents to observe indigenous medicine people healing patients in traditional ways. He is a licensed counselor who provides training and counseling services that blend ancient and modern healing methods. Headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, he provides individual addiction and trauma recovery intensives in the mountains of Montana.
This article was originally published in Sacred Fire magazine, an initiative of the Sacred Fire Foundation which seeks to help all people re-discover and celebrate the sacred, interconnected nature of life, a perspective held by indigenous peoples and spiritual traditions everywhere which is the source of all personal, cultural and environmental well-being.