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'I am Irish, I am English, I am a sangoma and I am a human being with a mystical gift'

Lockley has written a book about his experience – Leopard Warrior – which aims to answer people’s questions about how a white man occupies such a role.

John Lockley
John Lockley

AT JUST 37, John Lockley has lived a very interesting life: born in South Africa to an English father and Irish mother (with roots in Dun Laoghaire), he has been a medic, a Zen student and is now a sangoma.

What’s unusual about his latest role is that it’s not one that a white South African-raised middle class person would usually hold. Sangomas are, in southern Africa, traditional mystical healers, and Lockley’s training was with the Xhosa tribe.

Sangomas are not usually white people. They are called by their ancestors – who have typically lived on the African continent for generations – to fulfill the role, and this calling is usually through suffering an initiation illness.

Dreams play a huge role in the sangoma world, guiding people, and showing them the future. A sangoma’s work can involve animal sacrifice, drumming, working with medicinal plants from the forest, divination, and working with people on their spiritual issues. They are seen as traditional healers, and are legally recognised in South Africa under the Traditional Health Practitioners Act, since 2007.

So how does a white South African with a European background become a sangoma – and why does he say that he’s not trying to encourage other people to choose to do it?

Leopard warrior

2585 - John Lockley-1 John Lockley

Lockley – who runs a clinic in Dublin and travels here during the year to work with clients and see his Irish family – sets out to answer these questions in a book about his experience, called Leopard Warrior.

In the book’s introduction, medicine man and elder Malidoma Somé is frank when he sums up the unusual elements of the situation:

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 a tradition not of his ancestry… I was indeed struck by his humility, as he appeared to carry the demeanour of the sage with dignity.

But Somé goes on to say that he accepts Lockley and his calling to being a Xhosa sangoma:

“John Lockley’s story is a remarkable and fascinating testimony to the ways in which the African ancestors pick and choose who they want to be the voice of their wisdom in the world.”

Lockley traces his sangoma spirit back to his Irish grandmother, who had what he calls a traditional mysticism rooted in Irish culture. “The mystic in Irish culture is the same as the African sangoma. The only difference is the colour of the person’s skin,” he says.

I wrote the book to say here is humanity: I am Irish, I am English, I am a sangoma and I am a human being with this mystical gift that is so profound that it scared me, giving me nightmares, and it’s bigger than me. The gift is much bigger than me.

What’s interesting – and perhaps challenging – about Lockley’s life experience is that it involves a confluence of race and class, at a time when race is being much discussed globally.

Add this to the fact that Lockley’s experience happened in South Africa just after apartheid, when black South Africans were oppressed, and it becomes a topic that leads to much discussion and unpacking.

But Lockley says that the book is also a way of challenging perceptions about sangomas and traditional African shamanism, as he had “got to a place where there was so much misunderstanding” about it.

“I suppose it is about me, because the thing is it’s tricky because this tradition is kind of secretive, so I’m not writing it as an anthropologist,” he says of the book. When we meet, the only trace of his Xhosa sangoma role is the colourful beaded necklaces he wears.

“I’m not writing my story to say how great John is, but to use my story as a way to explain something which is very sacred in southern Africa, and misunderstood by mainstream Western Culture.”

“From the late 1800′s to the current generation African traditional healers have been demonised. From the early European colonialists involving both missionaries and British military African traditional healing has been misunderstood. Through my work and story I hope to educate people and debunk this negative stereotype,” he said.

Compared to his friends who live in poverty, Lockley notes that he is educated, is also educated in the Xhosa tradition and language, and thus can travel the world to spread the sangoma word.

He wants people not to demonise African spirituality, or to talk about it “in terms of black magic”, but to be respectful of it.

Though Lockley points to the negative impacts of missionaries, he also says:

“I’m not going to go on about them, they did some wonderful work, but they also made some very serious mistakes. And one of them was to demonise this very ancient culture, because they didn’t understand it.”

Can anyone reading this decide to be a sangoma? No, says Lockley. This is one of the more unexpected parts of his story – this isn’t the case of a man deciding to be a sangoma. Lockley says he had dreams, and then a calling (which involved intense illness), and that his teachers “felt the ancestors had checked me out” which allowed him to become a sangoma.

“I never went to my teachers and said ‘train me, I need to be a sangoma’. And even now, I’m not endorsing people to become sangomas,” he says. “Because it’s very sacred and very difficult. And I don’t really endorse people to become shamans either, unless they have the calling. And the calling is very specific.”

IMG_7752 (1) John Lockley

“I’m very, very careful with my teaching because I’m saying this is very difficult – it’s not up to you to get the calling, it’s up to the spirits and ancestors to give it to you,” says Lockley. “It doesn’t matter what colour your skin is. Look at me. Why [am I sangoma?] Because I have the dreams and the elders recognise me and they recognise my dreams, and they also dream about me. It’s not about colour, it’s about the grittiness of this shamanic calling.”

Glamorising shamanism

He says that traditional shamanism the world over is dying, but that at the same time within western culture there are some who “glamourise shamanism”. He criticises ‘spiritual tourism’ and says that the west is dealing “with very, very strong commercialism in the spiritual arena”.

He also says that “if there are sangoma people practicing in a negative way, they are not sangomas. They are misusing the word and the term”.

Lockley says that if people second-guess him because he is a white sangoma, they should examine why.

“Let’s just examine what my feelings are when I see this guy dressed up as a sangoma. I’m feeling maybe he’s this or that – OK, feel that, but listen to what he’s saying. Don’t judge what he’s saying. Read his book.”

Lockley says sangomas such as him will encourage people to go to their doctor or a clinic with a physical ailment if they approach them without having gone to the medical doctor first.

“Mostly the sangoma works with the spirit and they are very good with that,” he says.

Lockley knows that people will question him because of being a white-skinned sangoma, but believes this is part of his calling, “to help educate people and question deeply-rooted stereotypes, thus alleviating racism”.

“Because of the way I look, people would be very quick to judge me,” he says. “But if I’m talking about my story no one can judge me. I’m a very shy person, I don’t find any of this easy, but I’m doing this because my friends are dying of poverty, and the root of it is cultural misunderstanding. It’s very serious, it’s not a joke.”

Leopard Warrior by John Lockley is out now, published by Sounds True.

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