This is the first interview in a new series that I am starting on this site. I hope to create a space where people who practice traditional medicine or divination can speak their minds, and share their stories.
I met Niall Campbell for the first time in 2001 in Cape Town. At the time he was visiting his brother, Colin Campbell, whom I had recently started seeing due to a prolonged and inexplicable illness. Within two months after meeting Niall, I went to join him at his home in Botswana, where I stayed for the length of my initiation. He has been a teacher, a guide and a friend ever since. Besides for that, he is a wonderful human being. I would like to introduce him to you.
To start with Nial: how did the calling illness of initiation and doctor-hood manifest in your life?
At a certain point in my becoming aware of myself and other people, maybe around the age of six or seven, it became evident that what was visible or audible to me, was not necessarily shared by those around me.
This did not seem to be an occurrence that developed. It simply became clear that I saw and heard people who were not visible or audible to others.
I shared this ability with my maternal grandmother who came to live in our home. We would see or hear the same things, and compare the phenomena.
Just before puberty arrived for me, I had an encounter with a wild animal.
We lived in the bush. Home for me was a farm in a (then) rural part of Botswana. I was walking one day, about five kilometers from the homestead. I was in deep thick bush and was following a game fence which I wanted to cross. At the corner where my plan was to climb the fence, a bush buck was lying in the long grass.
My encounter with the buck put me in hospital for some time. I had a ripped bowel and torn muscles above my groin. I lay flat on my back for weeks.
During this time I had very intense dreams, sometimes while I was awake. These dreams involved spirits and spirit animals.
After this time I began to have very intense visions. I would sometimes find myself in places I did not recognize. Sometimes I would pass out and fall stiff onto the ground.
When and where were you initiated?
My father is very involved with archeology and history in general. This work took him to some very far off and rural places. Often, my brother and I would go with him. We would spend the whole of our school holidays in the most rural and inaccessible places in Botswana.
At one such place, there lived at that time a community of Basarwa (Bushmen) and Hambukushu people. My father was friendly with many people in this community, and we would attend their dances for healing. During one of these dances, I was first told that I would need to be initiated in order to survive my difficulties.
I began to work under the leader of the community. Over years of returning to the place, I was put through processes and taught about nature spirits. After my initial diagnosis and on my return home, I became attached as a student to a Venda Shangaan Mungoma from Zimbabwe. His name was Hoseya Mashudu Tshaoke. We knew him by the name of his son, Chance, and in our neighborhood where he lived at that time he was commonly called RraChansi.
RraChansi came from a line of big doctors in the Venda community of southeast Zimbabwe. His uncle Malaji who had been initiated by his grandfather Malaji Nyamusoro initiated him. Malaji Nymusoro was the doctor to the great Venda chief Mphepu. I trained under RraChansi from 1982 until 1986 and though I went through many initiations with him, I did not complete all as he passed away in 1987.
RraChansi was a highly regarded diviner, and was renowned for his knowledge of the medicine used to initiate sangomas. He was also the doctor who was called on to fortify the men’s initiation schools in our area. After RraCansi passed away, I inherited much of his equipment as his children and brothers had become Christians.
Which lineage are you a part of, and why did you decide to join that specific lineage?
After the death of RraChansi I was apprenticed to his son-in-law, Simon Sibanda. Simon was a church leader in the African independent Apostolic church, and also a well-respected herbalist. I studied under him for three years.
During this time I had a practice as a traditional healer. I would see clients after work in the evenings. I moved overseas in 1997 and though I was working for NGOs, I continued practicing traditional medicine. While overseas I began again to be troubled by dreams and phenomena. It became clear to me that I would need to do the initiation for Mandau spirits that I had not completed during my initial training.
I returned to Botswana in 1999 and started to look for someone who could put me through the Mandau initiation. My search led me to Mr Sekgwane Fryman Kaote. I completed the Mandau initiation in February 2000 and through that became a member of the Vondo branch of the Majoye lineage, one of the biggest in Southern Africa. The founder of this lineage was Nkomoyamalwandle. We are told that he disappeared into the ocean for many years and was trained by water spirits. This happened many years ago.
After I joined the Vondo lineage I began the work of becoming a trainer. This is a long and expensive process. In 2004 my brother and I were initiated as teachers in the Vondo Majoye lineage.
How did becoming a sangoma change you?
I don’t primarily identify myself as a sangoma. I work more as a doctor of traditional ceremonies and institutions, what is called in Botswana a Ngaka ya diKoma (A doctor of the Law). I find that nowadays the word sangoma is associated with many connotations that I prefer not to be part of.
Though I am a qualified traditional diviner, I tend to use divination as a means to guide my treatment rather than as guidance for my clients.
I use far more medicine and in a different way to sangomas.
I am qualified to train and initiate sangomas but prefer to take a few people to the deep end of indigenous metaphysics rather than churn out initiates. I work both as a consultant to individuals and for a number of community/ environmental NGOs.
What do you specialize in? Or, what is the focus of your work?
I see the main emphasis of my work being an attempt to bring forward the immense value of indigenous southern African systems and understandings. I am involved with a number of NGOs who attempt to do this, and I’m involved with a number of traditional institutions that continue to do this.
The majority of individuals who come to see me seek meaningful change in their lives. I tend to work with clients over a long period.
I have been told that I have a reputation for being fearsome! I laugh at this but also am aware of where it comes from. I refuse to make predictions or dish out chicken soup. I have been in the field long enough to know that interventions are seldom successful, that the solution seldom lies in the problem, and that if you are still doing it you are choosing it.
What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions people have about sangomas?
I said before that I would rather not be identified as a sangoma. I find that this word is completely misused and misunderstood.
As far as I know a sangoma is a Zulu diviner. And in that community the proper word is iZangoma. In the Xhosa tradition the correct term for a diviner is iGqwirha, among the Venda and Tsonga, Mungoma, and MoKoma in the Sotho languages.
For me sangoma is a word more often used by the press in connection with ritual murders or pseudo spiritual charlatans. In common colloquialism it’s someone who is likely to do something really bad to you.
So really, what is a sangoma? It’s difficult to say, but I can tell you what a sangoma is not:
A sangoma is not just anyone who follows traditional African spirituality or uses muti (Traditional plant and animal medicines). A sangoma is not just because you want to be one. There is a complete initiation and without it you are not a sangoma. A sangoma is not a witchdoctor (Smelling out witches). That is an iSanusi. A sangoma is not a herbalist. That is an iNyanga. A sangoma is not a Priest.
Why do you think increasing numbers of white people are being drawn to becoming Sangomas?
I once heard a Xhosa woman say that she did not believe that white people could become sangomas. I was troubled by the statement and started asking around. I heard varied responses but most of them made sense.
The majority of the people I asked came from the Nguni language speakers. They were unanimous in saying that a sangoma is called by their own clan ancestors to become an intermediary between the clan members and their ancestors. During the training, the clan ancestors point out the animals that will be slaughtered for the various initiations. These animals, they said, have to come from the kraals of clan members. This kind’a puts whiteys on the spot.
Shangaan\Tsonga and Venda people responded differently. They agreed that one is often sent to become a sangoma by being afflicted by foreign spirits (maNgoni or maNdau). They said that in their experience these spirits were not necessarily confined to black people.
White people becoming sangomas is not a new phenomenon. Our teachers tell us that certain of our lineage elders initiated white people. There are a few white people I know of who were initiated over thirty years ago. During Apartheid, becoming a sangoma as a non black person was far more challenging. Nowadays the system in South Africa is very different and sangomas who train and are willing (or even eager) to train white people are far more accessible.
What advice would you give to someone who has just discovered that they need to be initiated?
Becoming a sangoma involves going through a process called kuThwasa. This process involves a long period of retreat and training, and a number of different initiations. It is only after this process with all its initiations complete that a person is a sangoma.
As I said before, many different things and traditions are now commonly called sangoma. Being called to become a sangoma is not simple. The question that arises is where to go to respond. Who is the right teacher and in which tradition. To anyone seeking to be initiated as a sangoma, I would offer some suggestions:
Find a reputable teacher. Find sangomas who were trained by that teacher and get the low down. Did they qualify? Were they taught all they need to know? Did the affliction of their calling cease?
Be prepared to surrender fully to the process. It is a very deep experience that makes little intellectual sense. Often there are no explanations and this for good reason. It is absolutely pointless to try to make linkages between African spiritual understandings and those of other cultures or worldviews.
Be prepared to pay quite a substantial amount of money, both to the teacher and into your process. Unlike some other indigenous traditions, African ceremonies, treatments and initiations are paid for and often fail if this is insufficient or not done.
[Niall Campbell grew up in Botswana, but currently resides in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. For more information about his work, or to get in touch with him, please visit http://www.raindance.co.za