Thursday, May 5, 2011

John Lockley: Modern Day Shaman

G. A-D.

John Lockley, or Uncingolwednaba, is a Xhosa sangoma, a Southern African Shaman. At his initiation in 2007, he was widely believed to be the first white man in recent history to have been initiated into Xhosa sangoma-hood (other white sangomas do exist but within different tribes). Non-African people are generally widely accepted in sangoma rituals, often participants in rituals are treated the same way African ‘patients’ would be, however it is exceedingly rare to have white Shamans (Binsbergen, 1991, p. 312).

As is traditional for Shamans, Lockley first received his call in a dream, followed by an extended period of serious illness. This process is a largely universal element in the call to shamanism; shamans of China, the Americas, and Korea, for example, all experience the prophetic dream and then physical illness, until they answer the ‘call’ from their ancestors or deities (Lee, 2009, p. 187; Walsh, 1994, p. 9). Sangomas call this process thwasa. As a white Southern African, when Lockley dreamed a sangoma appeared to him and commanded him to find a Xhosa instructor, he was unequipped to follow it. Growing up during apartheid, he was far removed from his ancestral heritage and so was largely unaware of the world of sangomas, his role within it, and how to respond to his “calling dream” (Lockley, You Cannot Choose to be a Sangoma, 2007).

After Lockley’s dream, he woke with welts and boils on his legs, from a tick bite. He went on, over the next seven years, to contract a number of illnesses and diseases, broken bones, and accidents. One could suggest that the ailments he suffered were situational, and coincidental, for example, tick bites are common, as are all of his sufferings; it is simply a matter of concentrated misfortune experienced by one person, but not interference by ancestors. However, Lockley approached a sangoma in the hope of an end to his issues. The sangoma, MaMgwevu, claimed to have received a dream from God about becoming the mentor to a person from a different culture, identified Lockley as this man, and then proceeding to train him in shamanism, overseeing his apprenticeship over ten years (Lockley, You Cannot Choose to be a Sangoma, 2007).

Uncingolwednaba’s specialty area as a sangoma is dance, or xentsa. Dance is an important aspect of shamanism as it provides a channel through which participants can have an active, satisfying engagement with the ritual. This feeling of involvement encourages a more positive outcome for the ritual, especially considering how the majority of illnesses clients bring to shamans are psychosomatic. To feel that one is physically, tangibly taking action to address a problem can often be a cure in itself, much like the placebo effect (O'Connell, 1983, p. 340).

One of the three areas in which Traditional Southern African healers are trained, xentsa is a dance based on the human heart beat, dancing in tune to it is “centring… brings inner peace, reduces anxiety, and brings about a sense of awareness and meaning” (Lockley, Healing Through Dance, 2005). Drumming, another universal trait of the shaman, is also an important element in sangoma ritual as it mimics the heart beat rhythmically (Jilek, 2005, p. 11). For Lockley, it provides an amplifier of sorts so other participants can dance to the same beat he is as he follows his heartbeat. Xentsa is the way sangomas and participants enter a deep meditative trance, allowing them to communicate with their ancestors within a dream, in a realm called ‘the river world’. Participants will receive a message through a vision which is then to be shared and learned from (Farrand, 1982, p. 68).

As a shaman, Uncingolwednaba also interacts with ancestors through divination, or ‘throwing bones’. It is one of the more common requests of clients, and involves the casting of a handful of objects (not just bones but shell, or various objects with meaning attached for the client like dice or dominoes), onto a mat, and then their configuration is interpreted or “read” by the sangoma. Knowledge of medicinal herbs is also important as sangomas are more often than not village doctors, and so curative brews, or muti, also need to be administered (Thornton, 2009, p. 24). People seek out the services of shamans like Lockley to address a range of physical, environmental and situational issues, from epilepsy, to mental illness, to bad luck; therefore almost anything perceived as negative can drive a person to seek a shaman. Sangoma clients are disproportionately women, senior, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the main precursor to becoming a client is whether or not they have received a disability grant in the past (Nattras, 2005, p. 177).

Trance for Lockley is his conduit to help others through psychic consultation. Once he enters the altered state, he becomes extremely aware of the client’s life; “I can sense people’s obstacles: what’s wrong with them physically, psychologically and spiritually… and if they are or aren’t living according to their destiny (Lockley, You Cannot Choose to be a Sangoma, 2007).” He can also see what people need to do in order to appease their ancestors and live according to their destiny. The physical sensation, for him, is of a wind going through his body, as he is lifted to an ethereal realm where he is communicated with via words, imagery and motif.

Uncingolwednaba lives in Ireland teaching various workshops (as he was directed to do in a dream), but has also taught in greater Europe, the USA, as well as practicing in Xhosa communities. Lockley’s sangoma-hood is seen by some to lose its legitimacy due to his decision to live in Ireland as opposed to living in Xhosa communities of Southern Africa. At the time of writing, not a single black practicing sangoma could be located living outside of Africa. Lockley is also initiated in Zen Buddhism and Yoga, running a yoga centre in Galway. His diverse spirituality appears to be accepted by the Xhosa, however there is not enough empirical research available to discern how respected he is within Xhosa communities or whether he is seen as more of a transient novelty. It is, however, common for sangomas to live in urban areas, which itself is a progression from the traditionally rural communities in which Shamanism was practiced. They still practice and hold the same position in their communities, but their adaptation into the developing areas of their country shows a willingness to embrace the modernisation while integrating their traditional lifestyles successfully (Morgan & Reid, 2010, p. 381).

Lockley also presents a marriage between the traditional and the modern by having a relatively strong online presence. He has a fan generated page on ‘Facebook’, and while at the time of writing it boasts only eight fans, it is still the only page for a Xhosa sangoma (Various, 2011). He also contributes to video sharing site ‘youtube’. There are videos of him being interviewed, performing rituals, such as dancing or throwing the bones, but also of him in casual attire, speaking straight to the camera in a sermon of sorts, on the importance of honouring ancestors (Lockley, John Lockley, Xhosa Sangoma, Speaks About the Importance of Honouring our Ancestors , 2010). While there are also other videos of sangoma ritual (involving sangomas other than Lockley), it is the piece-to-camera videos he posts that are particularly interesting as they reflect his background in Buddhism; it is extremely common for Buddhist spiritualists to post such content, however highly uncommon for sangomas, especially Xhosa sangomas (at the time of writing none could be found).

John Lockley is a significant symbol of the willingness of traditional African spirituality to develop and progress in a rapidly changing world. Aside from the fact that he was even initiated, what Lockley has gone on to achieve in terms of teaching non Africans about shamanism and its universal relevance is to be commended. Traditional healing methods are becoming more and more common in western society, but the realm of alternative therapy is largely dominated by Asian philosophies like Buddhism and Chinese herbalism. Lockley is a major contributor to bringing traditional African healing processes to a global stage as a modern day shaman.

Works Cited

Binsbergen, W. V. (1991). Becoming a Sangoma: Religious Anthropological Field-Work in Francistown, Botswana. Journal of Religion in Africa, 11(4), 309-344.

Farrand, D. M. (1982). Dreams of a Sangoma or Indigenous Healer. Journal of African Studies, 9(2), 68-75.

Jilek, W. G. (2005). Transforming the Shaman: Changing Western Views of Shamanism and Altered States of Consciousness. Articulo de Investigacion, 7(1), 8-15.
Lee, J. (2009). Shamanism and its Emancipatory Power for Korean Women. Affilia, 24(2), 186-198.

Lockley, J. (2005, January 12). Healing Through Dance. (A. King, Interviewer) Galway, Ireland: Galway Independent.

Lockley, J. (2007, March 23). You Cannot Choose to be a Sangoma. (J. Ancer, Interviewer) South Africa: The Star.

Lockley, J. (2010, August 22). John Lockley, Xhosa Sangoma, Speaks About the Importance of Honouring our Ancestors . Retrieved May 1, 2011, from Youtube:

Morgan, R., & Reid, G. (2010). 'I've Got Two Men and One Woman': Ancestors, Sexuality and Identity Among Same-Sex Identified Women Traditional Healers in South Africa',. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 5(5), 375-391.

Nattras, N. (2005). Who Consults Sangomas in Khayelitsha? An Exploratory Quantitative Analysis. Social Dynamics, 31(2), 161-182.

O'Connell, S. (1983). The Placebo Effect and Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 20(3), 337-345.

Thornton, R. (2009). The Transmission of Knowledge in South African Traditional Healing. Africa, 79(1), 17-34.

Various. (2011, May 3). John Lockley. Retrieved May 3, 2011, from Facebook:
Walsh, R. (1994). The Making of a Shaman: Calling, Training, Culmination. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 34(3), 7-30.

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