For years now I'd been questioning my faith in a Christian God.
In my quest to decolonise and define my identity, a return to the original faith of my people seemed like an integral part of the puzzle.
On Sunday morning I needed to contact a sangoma for advice on how one began the journey of exploring African spirituality. I sent Gogo Ntombi a WhatsApp message informing her I could call at her earliest convenience on Sunday or Monday. A part of me was hoping she would say later, the next day or maybe even never. She texted back with "Thokozani Gogo."
My heart leaped. I stared at her name on my screen where "typing..." appeared for a few seconds that felt like minutes in my racing mind.
"I am available now," she said.
Now my heart started pounding. I quickly downed the coffee I was having at a cafe, and left the newspaper I was reading. I let my boyfriend know I needed to make the call and jumped up. I asked if I could call her in 10 minutes while I made my way from the coffee shop to the apartment. I knew it would take less than five minutes to get inside and grab my notebook but I needed more time. I needed to get my bearings. I breathed in and out like I was taught to do in my yoga class. What felt like a million questions crossed my mind:
"What if I say the wrong thing?"
"What if she thinks I'm ignorant or stupid for not knowing anything?"
'What if I just make an ass of myself and she feels like I've wasted her time?"
I grew up Christian and it's all I know. I was afraid that even though I explained this in my email, perhaps my interest in discovering how to go about connecting with my ancestors wouldn't appear genuine and I would look like a fraud. Somewhere inside me, an image of my Christian grandmother's disappointment lurked. Why was I turning my back on all the values she had firmly passed on?
After 10 minutes became 15, I finally made the call. The line was bad with a slight delay between us and words disappearing into the ether.
I breathed a slight sigh of relief hoping this would be my way out, that she would suddenly have something to do and wouldn't be able to speak to me right this moment and I could walk away thinking I at least tried. That didn't happen. Instead, she gave me her landline number and it worked perfectly.
Her voice was calming. She said she could hear me and gave me an opportunity to explain my situation to her. My thoughts were muddled and so too were the words that came out of my mouth – at least that's what it felt like. What I was trying to get across to her was that I grew up in a Christian home and now I'm curious about my African spirituality because somewhere along the way Christianity became an uncomfortable cloak for me to wear. I expressed my desire to help others like me with steps to finding themselves or at least steps to getting help.
She listened, took a breath and then explained where she drew her strength and perspective from -- the ancestral realm. She then told me the most important thing and the only thing I needed to do was to decide.
"You need to decide what you want. You have to decide if this is what you want, if this is the space you want to go into."
And there it was. The calm her voice had instilled in me in the beginning began to crack and a choking feeling engulfed my throat. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. The more she spoke the more I realised why I had hoped she wouldn't answer my call.
Not the kind of fear I had been taught to embrace when it came to the Christian God and having reverence for him or being in awe of him but the fear of what he would do to me if I walked away from his kingdom to worship other gods or him through anyone but Jesus Christ.
There was also the deep-seated fear of ancestral worship instilled in me from various sources. From early childhood, I thought "sangoma" was a bad word, the equivalent of a witch-doctor, because the two had been used interchangeably for years. It wasn't until I was in early high school and my mother was doing her doctoral studies on traditional healing, that she began to to explain the difference to me. It was her work with marrying western and traditional medicine to advance medicine across that world that sparked my interest and reimagining of what African spirituality is. Even with this interest though, the fear was still there.
As Gogo Ntombi finished her sentence and paused for my next response, I gathered myself, suppressing that choking feeling in my throat and blinked away the tears. I explained to her that my ancestors have never been a part of my life and I had no idea how I would even start to listen out for them. I have no one to guide me, I said to her. I come from a family with a Christian stronghold and the likelihood of being supported on this journey would be slim. It dawned on me that whatever I decided, this would be a long and painful journey and unlike with Christianity where I had always had the comfort of a spiritual home in the form of my family and the Church -– this journey would most likely be lonely.
I told her I was afraid not only of what the God I had known all my life would do to me, but also what this unknown realm would have in store.
She told me the God I believed in now, would need to be accommodating and respectful of the space I'm in and said I needed to explore the journey of my ancestors fully, adding that it would not be about "the guise I put forward".
"We don't know the right answers," she said. "Acknowledge the answers they give you."
Finally, for the first time since we started talking, a peace overcame me. Here she was –- a practicing traditional healer of three years, who grew up in a Catholic home -– acknowledging that none of us would have the answers.
The fear subsided, if only for a few minutes, as I asked her if there were any books I could read -- still hoping I could squeeze a listicle guide to African spirituality out of her.
"Each individual is so different. Every person is so different. The journey is so different," she said.
I sighed and asked her how I would know it was time to begin my journey and all she had to say was that the desire would be there and I would know exactly where I wanted to be.
Once I knew for sure, I would be ready to consult with a sangoma who would help me with the second step of my journey.
First I need to face my fear and decide if this is what I really want.
Gogo Ntombi prefers face to face consultations but can also consult over the phone. To reach her you can e-mail: email@example.com
Ahead of Easter 2017, The Huffington Post South Africa is delving into what faith and spirituality means to South Africans here and now. Against the backdrop of a renewed wave of thought around decolonisation, a new generation are rediscovering their traditional beliefs, while some are reconciling with Christianity. And on another note, we tell South Africa's real good news story: our remarkable and peaceful religious diversity. In a world fractured along religious extremism, we have a large Christian population with significant Muslim and Jewish communities, who often come together peacefully and with purpose, as has been evinced at the memorials for departed struggle stalwart, Ahmed Kathrada. Read the rest of the special report here, or choose from our selection below:
- Decolonising Faith: Here's How Some Africans Are Rediscovering Their Ancestors And Spirituality
- Sipho Hlongwane: I Was Taught Not To Remember My Grandfather. This Is Why I Do.
- South Africa's Untold Success Story: A Christian's Nation's Peaceful History With A Muslim Minority
- It's Nearly Easter: Here's What You Need to Know In The Run Up