Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book 59, Swaziland: "Sangoma: My Odyssey into the Spirit World of Africa" by James Hall

Yeah! Starting out on Africa now!

Don't know how genuine this memoir is - it's a personal account of being the first white person to undergo training to be a sangoma, or a Swazi shaman - but it is riveting. Unputdownable. Finished it in a single night.

Hall says he's not an anthropologist - the sangomas who trained him wouldn't have stood for that. His background's actually in Hollywood screenwriting.

He got drawn into the ritualistic business while doing a biography of South African music legend Miriam Makeba. She recognised his psychic talents when he kept finishing her sentences and told him he'd have to get into contact with his ancestral spirits and become a sangoma, or else they'd destroy him. So he somehow got the courage to sell off his vintage Cadillac and say goodbye to his whitebread Chicago family to spend two years in the Swazi homesteads, sharpening his mind through guessing games and medicinal vomiting. (Seriously.)

At this point I'm remembering my brother's accounts of the Tibetan lamas he met while on a student research trip, who'd pander to wide-eyed Westerners by claiming they were monks in previous lives and selling them overpriced amulets. Still, the account rings true. Hall describes his battle with rational sense, the bizarre state of trance as spirits speak through his body, the strangeness of having his miraculously newfound clairvoyance dismissed by Swazi patients who only want to know the cures for their bad luck.

But the multiculturalism of Hall's lidlotis does stretch the bounds of credibility a bit. He's possessed not only by his Italian-American grandmother, but also a Scottish farmer, a Swazi zebra hunter, a miscarried foetus, a 1930s American ad exec named Harry, a Native American shaman called White Feather and a Japanese girl called Winter Blossom (I kid you not).

Sure, he's more globally mobile than the average Swazi sangoma, so he's going to be picking up spirits willy-nilly, but jeezus, Winter Blossom?

Of course, all that mixed-upness is characteristic of Hall's very predicament: he was a white man being initiated into a spiritual craft usually practised by black women, mind you, not men. All this was happening in the late eighties, too, so he'd receive a copy of Time magazine and realise he'd been digging for roots while the Berlin Wall fell, and no-one had told him a thing.

Strange overlaps with another memoir, I've been reading, actually: Beyond the Blue Gate, by Singaporean political prisoner Teo Soh Lung. She was detained for almost the exact same period of time, and also went through a process of spiritual harrowing and struggle.

But pah; ignore all that. This book's much more Hollywoody: the guy even gets the girl (an older woman with a 17 year-old son, but still) and adopts an impoverished African child, and they live happily ever after in their own homestead. The author's even got his own Linkedin profile: no mention of whether he still practises as a sangoma, but he has started a film festival. Bully for him.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

I'd thought this book would be a good introduction to Africa: a rather lightweight contemporary outsider's view of an exotic culture. But it's ended up being a much fuller, more immersive tale of a man who became African. With any luck, this reading stint should have a similarly transformative effect on me.

Representative quote: Gogo Ndwandwe had been predicting it. MaZu and her bones had foreseen it. At night, more and more people were crowding the Indumba in order to witness it. And when it struck, I could not deny that it had happened. The lungs were mine, but not the will that used them, and though the strange howl that erupted from beneath the sheet came from my throat, it was not mine. Those who heard it swore to this fact.

Next book: Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter, from South Africa.

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