White sangoma dreams his destiny
White-faced women beat drums. Sangomas in beads dance, sing and clap. All eyes move to an ox in the kraal. The animal is blessed, a spear flashes. With its final breath it utters a loud bellow.
With that bellow Ucingolwendaba becomes a fully-fledged sangoma. The ox's cry is a sign that Ucingolwendaba, a Joza sangoma, has been accepted by the ancestors.
He stands up. The people cheer and clap as this white, blond man in traditional Xhosa dress, who towers over the other sangomas, begins to dance.
Five kilometres and another world away, when he is just wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and kicking back in Grahamstown, the sangoma Ucingolwendaba is known as John Lockley, a 35-year-old psychology honours graduate from Rhodes.
He graduated from Rhodes in 1997. A decade later, he graduated again; this time as a sangoma.
It's in this township where Lockley has spent much of his time over the last 10 years training to become a sangoma. He sleeps in the herbal room at the home of his teacher MaMgwevu. He has been initiated and adopted by her clan - Sogwini.
"I believe I'm one of the first white men to become a fully fledged Xhosa sangoma. I know there are others in other traditions like Zulu, Pondo or Sotho, but I haven't heard of another white Xhosa sangoma," Lockley grins.
Since being taken under the wing of MaMgwevu, Lockley has travelled around the Eastern Cape as a candidate sangoma, helping with ceremonies. He has also been studying plants, learning about humanity and dreaming. In fact, his journey into sangomahood started with a dream 17 years ago.
Lockley was on retreat in the Tzaneen mountains when he had a "calling dream".
"A Xhosa sangoma man dressed in the old ways came to me. He told me he was going to teach me. It was very real. The dream was telling me that I needed to find a Xhosa teacher, but I was a white boy and it was apartheid, and I didn't know what to do with the dream."
According to Lockley, when he woke up the next morning his legs hurt. "I looked down to see large welts and boils on my legs. I had contracted tick bite fever." That was the first of a "series of unfortunate events" that would last seven years.
"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 car accident. I couldn't sleep. I lost weight. I went to doctors, but no one could help. I had exhausted the 'white' options."
He says he was going through the thwasa - the illness that afflicts initiates in order to put them in the direction of a teacher who will heal them and train them.
"I got sicker and sicker. I didn't know what to do. How could I? I'm a white guy."
In a bid to find answers to his anguish, Lockley decided to study psychology at Rhodes.
"I got sicker and sicker. I dropped out of university in 1992 and went to South Korea to participate in a three-month silent retreat with Zen Buddhist monks."
Still the thwasa kept coming: a lump in his throat, emotional turmoil, night sweats, no energy, feeling debilitated. In 1995, Lockley returned to Rhodes to complete his psychology degree.
In 1997 "I was doing my honours in clinical psychology. I was underweight and suffering from anxiety. I had gone into Joza with the honours class and the lecturer to work on an Aids-awareness campaign. That's when I met a herbalist. The lecturer was quizzing the herbalist. Here were two different world views colliding.
"I asked the interpreter to take me to a sangoma for a private consultation."
MaMgwevu says that when this tall, gangly white man walked through her gate, she knew he was the one.
"I had a dream the night before that came straight from uThixo (God) that I would train someone from another culture," she says at her home in Joza.
MaMgwevu told Lockley that he'd been called to become a sangoma and asked him if he would accept. He nodded.
"I was weary, but as soon as I said 'yes', I felt a burden had been lifted. She told me she was going to make me white beads, which is what sangomas wear. She saw inside my dream world. She knew my pain."
Lockley shakes his head: "I had spent years studying psychology in a bid to find answers - and the person who could help me unlock the key to what was going on was an illiterate Xhosa woman, who lived 5km away."
And so Lockley began training to become a sangoma; a member of the abantu abamhlope (white people). "This is not white people in the black and white sense," he explains. "Sangomas wear white beadwork, paint their faces with white clay and wear white clothes. They are pure and clean spiritually, and are connected to the spirit world.
"A sangoma's job is to heal, to raise people's energy (umoya phezulu), to give people herbs and news (indaba), and to talk to their ancestors. Sangomas help to raise the energy of the community."
According to Lockley, the thwasa began to lift as he took on his sangoma apprenticeship. MaMgwevu named him Ucingolwendaba - the messenger - "because I connect people and spread news".
"I am guided by my ancestral spirits on both sides of my family line, some of whom are Irish and some Xhosa."
Recently he delivered a seminar on the thwasa to Rhodes psychology students.
He explained that because white people have lost touch with their ancestral roots, when a white person starts to go through the thwasa, there is no place for them to go. "Their white culture has no answers," he said.
A Xhosa woman asked: "But how can a white guy enter my culture?"
"We all dream," Lockley replied. "We all have red blood and we all have ancestors. In our new democracy, black people can become medical doctors, lawyers, priests, etc, so to say that white people cannot become sangomas is racist. Being a sangoma is not about the colour of your skin, it's about your connection to the spirit world. If a person regularly has visionary dreams then they have sangoma blood."
Lockley says that although people in the township were initially suspicious of him, he and his teacher gradually won the hearts and minds of the Joza community.
"When the people saw me dance, they knew I had the gift."
Now, he gives people vumisa (psychic consultation). "When people consult with me; I can tell if they are sick and what is wrong. I open up to my umoya (holy spirit). I feel the wind move through me. Images flood my mind. I can sense people's obstacles: what's wrong with them physically, psychologically and spiritually. I can tell people if they are - or aren't - living according to their destiny. If they aren't living according to their destiny, I show people what they should do to improve their luck."
In the meantime, Lockley continues to dream.
"I follow my dreams; they are my roadmap," he says.