Thursday, October 28, 2010

Save Mapungubwe

On 8 April 1933, a remarkable discovery was made in the then Transvaal region of South Africa: a grave of unknown origin, filled with gold-work, was found on the summit of a natural rock stronghold in a wild region. The site was Mapungubwe Hill, Place of the Jackal.

Mapungubwe, which served as the capital of the ancient Mapungubwe Kingdom, situated on the international borders between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Since the site was discovered, the same story of Mapungubwe has been told. It's a story of a flourishing Iron Age metropolis on the Limpopo ruled by an African king almost a thousand years ago. 

The Kingdom comprised a sophisticated state system, with highly developed agriculture, mining and metallurgy industries; and traded with countries as far afield as China. According to the Archaeology Department at the University of the Witwatersrand, Mapungubwe represented 'the most complex society in Southern Africa at the time'.

In July 2003, the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape became South Africa's fifth World Heritage site and was officially announced as Mapungubwe National Park in May 2004. All cultural items that blossomed from the complex, highly developed state and culture found within Mapungubwe; are part of a heritage collection and the remains of this ancient society can be viewed at the Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria.

Now this treasured World Heritage Site is under severe threat. An Australian company, Coal of Africa Limited (CoAL) has been given the go-ahead to begin construction of a mine less than 6km from the borders of the Mapungubwe National Park; and adjacent to the World Heritage Site. This will compromise the environmental integrity of the area as it relates to the natural habitat, ecosystems, cultural heritage and related aspects of the environment.

Several leading non-governmental organisations including the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF), the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists (ASAPA), the Mapungubwe Action Group (MAG), the Wilderness Foundation South Africa (the WFSA), the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (the WWF) and BirdLife South Africa (BLSA), have lodged and appeal against CoAL to mine.

However they cannot stand alone for long. The mining at Mapungubwe is just the start with many more mining projects to follow. Anglo Coal has already bought large tracts of land in the area and intend to prove in court that mining rights supersede environmental legislation. The predatory behavior of the economic elite has never been so nakedly on display. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Guardians of the Gates

Indigenous African culture honors gay men as having a higher vibrational level; which enables them to be guardians of the gateways to the Spirit world. The conventional Western view limits itself by focusing only on their sexual role. Among the Dagara of West Africa, for example, gender has very little to do with anatomy. It is purely energetic. In that context, a male who is physically male can vibrate female energy, and vice versa. That is where the real gender is. Anatomic differences are simply there to determine who contributes what for the continuity of the tribe.

The gay man is looked at primarily as a "gatekeeper." The Earth is looked at, from the tribal perspective, as a very delicate machine or consciousness, with high vibrational points; which certain men must be guardians of in order for the tribe to keep its continuity with the Spirits that dwell there, being Spirits of this world and Spirits of the other worlds. Any person who is at the link between this world and the other world experiences a state of vibrational consciousness which is far higher, and far different, from the one that a normal person would experience. This is really what makes a gay Dagara man gay. So when they are born they begin to vibrate in a way that Elders can detect and, sooner or later, they will follow them to the gateway that they are connected with.

By the same token, gay men often have children; because they’re fertile, just like heterosexual men. To then limit gay men to simple sexual orientation is really the worst harm that can be done to such a person. To decide that all he is, is a sexual being. Precisely because of the fact that the knowledge of indigenous medicine and ritual comes from gatekeepers, it’s its simply incorrect to take the position that gay men are the negative breed of a society. In a society that is profoundly dysfunctional, what happens is that gay men have their life purposes taken away from them; and what is left is this kind of sexual orientation which, in turn, is disturbing to the very society that created it.

Today, Western urbanized society is suffering from a gradual ecological attrition; and it is because the gatekeepers have been prevented from doing their jobs. They have been marginalized and isolated from the mainstream; having been separated from their natural roles. And because they have been fired, we accuse them for not doing anything. If we look at the earth differently, we will find out gradually that the gay men that are bothersome to mainstream society; are going to start taking their posts. They know what their jobs are. They are not of this world. They come from the Otherworld, and they were sent here to keep the gates open to the Otherworld, because if the gates are shut, this is when Mother Earth, will shake - and all of us will be in deep trouble.

Why is it then that, everywhere in the indigenous world, gay men are a blessing; and in the modern Western world they are cursed? Because, whenever a modern society wants to shut down another culture; it will attempt to marginalize the keepers of ritual. They know that this is where the life-pulse of that culture is. That’s pretty much what’s at work in the Third World, and what has happened to indigenous cultures all over the world. And, its not that gay men must be asked for forgiveness; that’s just tokenism. Rather, they serve as an example of the illness that modernity has brought to us; and that we must use that to begin working at healing ourselves. The gatekeepers will find their positions again; if we start to heal ourselves, they will remember.

Quotation Nation

May those from under our feet
breathe the warmth of community unto us
so that the peace we seek
mounts our bodies and sits upon the chairs of our hearts
sprinkling love and joy all around us.
Prayer of the African Medicine Man
Kounbaterzie Dabire Guinian

Friday, October 8, 2010

White Sangoma

The phenomenon of Europeans who have graduated as sangoma - the ancestrally guided spiritual healing system of South Africa - has become a contemporary cause célèbre, a matter for academic and popular debate. In some circles the idea is dismissed as inconceivable. African sangoma optimistically embrace the introduction of Europeans to their ranks as a natural and positive innovation. Biomedicine meanwhile generally dismisses sangoma healing ideas and practice and thus ignores the potential advantages of co-operation with this parallel healing system on which between 60 and 80% of the majority population still depend.

The integrative approach to medicine familiar in Asia and China has yet to be tried in Southern Africa, where efforts at collaboration between traditional and biomedical practice remain few and far between. Arguably cooperation is more problematic in relation to those traditional healers - such as the sangoma of South Africa - who attribute their healing gift to the spiritually defined agency of ancestral authority. Biomedicine appears relatively sanguine about the ‘re-education’ of traditional birth attendants and surgeons, for example - but is noticeably less quiescent, when it comes to the question of interactions with spiritually inspired healers. In South Africa, with a few notable exceptions, biomedical practitioners persist in refusing to take seriously sangoma practitioners and resort to calling them witchdoctors; a rejection which denies to sangoma the respect they willingly give to biomedicine.

This resistance, amongst Western trained practitioners, largely stems from the healing role of sangoma; which is integrally linked to the honing of communications with the potent agency of ancestral spirit. However, some African commentators query the existence of European ancestors. A question which then arises is how European sangoma experience ancestral others; are they, to take a rather obvious examples, African or European, both or other? And how do they communicate? The common answer is trance or semi trance, which is part of the experience of all sangoma and is familiar, idiosyncratic and spiritually personalised to the individual; irrespective of race. Trance gives temporary access to other, ancestral levels of consciousness and knowing, and as such is used by most sangoma in their diagnosis.

Another interesting question is; how do these European sangoma perceive their practice? Preliminary research suggests that most interpret sangoma as a form of healing rather than a religious expression. Some European sangoma interviewed bring to their training a prior religious faith, which they distinguish from sangoma, but find to be either renewed or strengthened by their experience. Whilst several note similarities between the role of sangoma and priest, they appear to have discovered a comfortable independence between their religious beliefs and sangoma practice. This position is generally reflected in the experience of the African sangoma, most of whom retain a powerful Christian faith whilst practicing as sangoma.

Does becoming a European sangoma constitute a hybrid experience? Preliminary conclusions draw on the essential idiosyncrasy which characterizes the ukuthwasa experience, in which each candidate to sangoma invokes the spirits of deceased family members, clan predecessors and a multitude of other, more numinous spiritual entities. This implies that every new sangoma, African or European, is a hybrid; a unique complex of ancestral strains and influences, a product of ancestrally derived hybridism. Finally, the inevitable traces of ancestral agency in the sangoma experience - its ancestral hybridism - renders every sangoma practitioner a hybrid, in the sense of being new, different and authentic.

In a democratic South Africa however, European sangoma have an opportunity to act as a channel or bridge between peoples and cultures; which were previously segregated. European sangoma can be contemporary healers of colonial wounds, and as mediators and translators between biomedicine and traditional medical practice, a function with particular significance in the context of HIV/AIDS interventions. By acting on behalf of their European ancestors (most of whom deliberately undermined and derogated African healing practice), the European sangoma of post-Apartheid may become a conduit for cultural and political acts of healing. Whilst individuals might not go so far as to practice sangoma as an ‘act of atonement’, few are unaware of the potential of a ‘micro-political’ transformation.