I’m standing at the door of a quiet Constantia Hills residence — a suburb in Cape Town, South Africa and an unlikely venue for a healing ceremony with a Khomani Bushman. I wonder if the doorbell is working, as I’ve been standing on the stoep for a while now. There’s a late afternoon hush over the luscious neighborhood, which matches the reverence I feel one ought to bring to such an occasion. I decide the doorbell isn’t working and knock firmly but politely on the door, not wanting any overtones of impatience to taint the encounter before it’s even begun. Somewhere inside, a dog raises the alarm and shortly the door opens.
A small middle-aged woman with long, tired blonde hair greets me. I take it this is Gerri, the one who organized the Facebook event and coordinated the appointments. She gathers me into a warm embrace, suggesting a woman who abides by less formal strictures. I didn’t really expect anything from her or her house, but once I’m inside, I find it matches the average house of a white South African woman her age: dark, old fashioned, and with a housekeeper in the kitchen who greets me timidly on introduction.
“Just take a seat for a moment and I’ll check if they’re ready for you.”
I sit down and keep awkward company with the housekeeper. Among the accumulated decor of bygone days, there are a few hints of Gerri’s spiritual leanings. A large framed poster with tacky fonts outlines “The Ten Native American Commandments” and I wonder if there really is such a thing or if someone — a white someone, perhaps — took the liberty to put them together themselves. A collection of crystals sits on the same table as brass-framed photographs of what must be her children.
“You can come now!” calls Gerri and I get up to follow her lead. “I thought they might need a break. It can be a bit draining, you know, but they say they’re ready for you.”
I follow her through the living room and out into her backyard. There’s a sad-looking swimming pool and a patchy lawn struggling with Cape Town’s intense drought. The spacious and fairly empty garden is framed by a border of tall trees and there’s a large circular fire pit off to one side, framed by brickwork. Sitting on two lawn chairs around the fire are Jan Org, the man I’ve come to meet for a spiritual reading and healing, and his wife, Belinda, who will translate for me. The email I received explained that Jan speaks the three Bushman languages and Afrikaans, but no English.
I hardly notice Gerri leaving and Jan hardly seems to notice my arrival, so I shake Belinda’s hand first. She’s a slender woman with jet black hair, a gentle smile, and crooked teeth. I remember reading that she’s originally from Cape Town, but lives with Jan in Botswana now. I wonder how she came to marry him and live as close to a traditional Bushman life as is still possible. Now doesn’t feel like a time for questions, though, so I turn instead to Jan, who pulls himself away from his quiet preparations to shake my hand. He is very small. His tattooed, leathery hands hold mine in a strong embrace and I bring my free hand up to join the clasp. We hold our hands like this for a stretch of time that feels long, but not awkwardly so. He looks out from a creased face, and watches mine with seeing eyes. We share a silent recognition of what is about to take place.
Belinda checks the direction the breeze is blowing and guides me to a lawn chair she hopes will keep me from the bitter smoke of the fire. I carefully put down my backpack and take a seat. She sits down in the chair to my left and the afternoon light cuts in low through the trees around us and catches in the smoke. Jan is entirely absorbed in selecting a piece of wood to add to the fire. He seems distant. Closed off.
“Don’t worry about Jan,” says Belinda, anticipating my question before it has even fully materialized. “He’s already reading you.”
Already reading me?
Is it because I question whether or not such a thing is even possible, or is it simply the fact that Jan seems to be doing no such thing that makes me pause? I had no qualms about surrendering to Belinda’s guidance on arrival, but I suddenly see myself sitting there in some woman’s backyard in Constantia Hills, lured by a Facebook event to a spiritual healing, in the company of two people who strike me now as old hands at this dance. I fear for a brief instant that I have wandered into the tent of a pair of traveling conmen. After all, I’m just the type that would fall for it; I tend to want to see only the best in people, but, more importantly, I feel broken, and broken people are always searching for salvation.
I once picked up an issue of The National Geographic in the orthodontist’s office. It was titled The Healing Power of Faith. There were dozens of articles and captions to read, but what struck me was a piece that compared the performance involved in traditional healing ceremonies — with their beads and robes and headdresses — to the performance of western medicine – with its scrubs, and monitors and hospital paraphernalia. The one relies on herbs and spirits, the other on pharmaceuticals and science, but both depend on creating a performance in order to produce results in the patient.
I glance up at Jan and notice for the first time the black 007 cap on his head. I see the oversized tan leather jacket. I see his knobkerrie and all his necklaces; there’s one with a giant shell pendant and one with a large root pendant, and lots of colorful beads. A tasseled pouch swings from his neck, too. I see the dramatic care with which he’s selecting wood. I see the fold-out table covered in roots, herbs, and trinkets under a nearby tree. I see the performance, but when Belinda turns to me and in a firm but gentle voice asks, “What has brought you to us today?” I’m faced with a choice: either I embrace this experience or I don’t.
The magazine spoke about the importance of faith in any kind of healing. You have to believe it will work. As an atheist, faith has always struck me as a lack of curiosity, a lack of probing and questioning.
Why should I sit back and accept someone’s word for it?
But recently I’ve begun to understand faith, not as the act of accepting any one scripture unquestioningly, but as the act of accepting the present in the faith that, ultimately, one can survive it. Perhaps what led me to click “Going” and email Gerri and pay in advance and drive through bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic to this backyard healing is a need for faith.
I take a deep breath and begin to explain what has brought me to Jan Org.
“I’m originally from Zimbabwe. My parents are from Zimbabwe. When I was fourteen we moved as a family to France, because of the political and economic collapse of the country. I spent the whole time in Europe thinking about coming back to southern Africa. I was in an eight-year relationship, but when that ended, I moved to Cape Town. That was three years ago. I’ve come here today because I’m suffering from anxiety and fear, and it’s causing trouble in my new relationship. I’ve come here because I need to find my inner ground.”
The words are borrowed from Sue, a clinical psychologist I met with just a week before coming to Jan, who integrates Buddhist meditation and psychotherapy.
“It’s interesting,” she said — “a lot of the people who come to me have changed continents in their lifetime. Something about it deeply alters the psyche. You need to find the grounding inside of yourself. We need to get you operating from here,” she said holding a palm to her heart. On hearing her words, tears began to well up as they always do when someone speaks the truth about me.
Belinda nods, listening keenly. Jan is quietly busy at a distance, and I go on. I’ve had enough therapy to know that you have to open yourself to any kind of healer, otherwise you leave them with nothing to go on, and there’s no point in that.
“I’m in a relationship with a new partner,” I say, choosing the neutral term to avoid having to disclose that she’s a she and that I’m gay. “We have a good love, but I have so much anxiety. I’m a perfectionist. I’m trying to be perfect, and I’m trying to perfect our relationship. I’m not operating from here,” I say, holding a palm to my heart, “I’m in my partner’s head all the time, so I’m awash on someone else’s moods — anticipating, interpreting, problem-solving. I’m thinking for two. Sometimes, my partner goes away — closes off. In my anxiety, I find myself filling up the space between us, because it’s so hard to trust that my partner will come to me. I need to find my inner ground so that I can wait here confidently at the halfway mark.”
“Ah,” says Belinda, satisfied, “And so you’ve come here to connect to the African earth and find healing in the Bushmen,” she says gesturing gently towards Jan.
Her phrasing makes a part of me cringe, but essentially she’s right. Maybe it’s because the Bushmen are a symbol of deep belonging. Maybe it’s because the Bushmen are a displaced people, too. Either way, I have turned to a Khomani Bushman for help because I am desperate to find my internal anchoring. If I don’t, I fear I will continue to lose partner after partner to my own anxious patterns.
Belinda turns to Jan and begins translating slowly and quietly in Afrikaans. I catch words like wortels (roots) and kop (head). I hear enough to feel confident that my story is being accurately communicated to Jan, and I steal the opportunity to look at his shoes: a pair of black knock-off Converse.
Belinda’s translation comes to an end, and Jan sits silently. I wait, and after a long pause he lets out a sudden haggard sigh and gets up.
Is it that bad?
Jan mutters a question to Belinda. She turns to me and asks, “You’re South African, right?”
“No, I’m originally from Zimbabwe,” I reply, wondering whether more was lost in translation than I thought.
Belinda smiles and says, “Yes, but you’re here now.”
It’s more of a statement than a question, and her choice of words is striking. “South African” connotes nationality. Is being “here now” enough to make me South African? It dawns on me that she’s not asking me where I was born, or what passport I hold. She’s asking me if I’m becoming. She’s asking me if I’m making South Africa home.
Belinda nods to Jan. He walks off, absorbed in thought, and hovers at a distance. In the meantime, Belinda makes casual conversation. It comes so naturally that I don’t even realize she’s buying Jan time. Her voice is barely audible and her train of thought is hard to follow, but I catch pieces of a story about how she too struggles with living in other people’s heads and how she was full of caution coming to Cape Town, unsure of people’s intentions coming into these healings.
Before I know it, Jan is holding a small piece of smoking wood. He approaches me, and Belinda, with uncharacteristic urgency, tells me that I must just sit back and let him. Her words trail off, but I understand that I must let him do whatever it is he’s going to do.
“This is a very feminine healing,” she adds in a whisper.
Jan is standing to my right. I notice he’s holding the smoking stick upright and close to his groin. It strikes me as very phallic and I wonder if this position is coincidental or intentionally symbolic. He then holds the smoking stick close to my face. Having not quite shaken the phallic image yet, the gesture feels sudden and unwelcome, but I close my eyes and try my best to relax. Jan slowly walks around me and the earthy smoke swirls and catches in my nose and hair. He walks around my left side and comes to settle in front, carefully placing the smoking stick on the ground between my feet where the white smoke rises up towards my crotch. I lose track of Jan for a moment, but then I feel him up close behind me. He reaches over my right shoulder and places a firm hand on my heart. The collar of my t-shirt is low and his palm is warm and dry on my skin. It moves searchingly, like a stethoscope. We are so close that I can smell clean sweat coming from his suede leather jacket. His palm on my heart feels like a hug I didn’t know I needed — a powerful embrace that acts like a spotlight, and I can feel my emotions rising to meet it.
His hands push and squeeze my shoulders. One travels up my neck. Suddenly, Jan tears a hand away with a small cry and flicks his wrist. The pushing and squeezing and searching starts to feel like grooming, as if he were looking for leeches. He grunts, and pulls something off — a parasitic spirit I can neither see nor knew was there. Finally, a hand returns to my heart. He slips his fingers under the collar of my t-shirt and I feel his fingertips push ever so slightly under the lip of my bra. I’m drawn out of the experience by a fleeting concern that this touch might not be entirely necessary and that in this moment of power over me he might simply be feeling me up. My gut tells me, however, that this is not what is happening, and I close my eyes and focus on the warm dry hand on my chest that can feel things I don’t know are there.
Jan releases me and walks off. He stands at a distance behind me. The smoking stick is gone. I sit and wait, still held by the energy of his searching embrace. Jan lets out a terrible hack and another jagged sigh. Slowly he returns to the fireside and sits down on a lawn chair. I watch him for a moment. He’s deep in thought and I am deep in a patient stupor. He rises again to stand above me, looking deeply into my face. I close my eyes and let him see whatever there is to be seen.
“Jy het ‘n gebroke hart,” he says finally and reaches down to plant three firm fingers on my chest.
“You have a broken heart,” says Belinda.
Tears begin to well up. The great juddering pools of salty tears threaten to flow down my cheeks at a blink.
What is this broken heart of mine?
Jan seems puzzled.
“You said you were in an eight-year relationship?” asks Belinda, inviting me to elaborate.
I can tell that they’re searching, but I know the cause of my broken heart doesn’t lie there. I have found new love in someone with whom I believe I can rewrite the script.
I steel myself and explain, “I was with my first girlfriend for eight years.”
I can see from Belinda’s body language that the word “girlfriend” has registered, but I have no way of knowing how she feels about it, nor whether she’ll censor that detail from my story to smooth things over when translating sentence by sentence to Jan.
“I made my first girlfriend my home instead of building one for myself in Europe. She left me for a guy and broke my heart. I moved to Cape Town after our break up. I took a risk and fell in love with someone new, but she broke my heart, too. I’m with a new girlfriend now and we have a good love.”
Belinda translates my final statement, and a dissatisfied silence settles over us. While I may carry the scars and bruises of past loves, it seems clear to us all that the cause of my broken heart lies elsewhere.
“And your family?”
“My parents and my sister are still in France. My brother is in Scotland.”
I feel a sudden bolt of clarity and add, “My sister has been struggling with mental illness for the last fifteen years — basically since we moved to France.”
“Ah,” says Belinda, satisfied, and she turns to relate the latest information to Jan.
What do the Bushmen think of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia?
I the story-teller, and Jan the healer both understand the powerful symbol of a sister’s mind that starts to unravel as soon as roots are severed.
A lot of the people who come to me have changed continents in their lifetime. Something about it deeply alters the psyche.
Jan moves in and presses a hand into my stomach.
“It hurts here.”
His fingers are pressing right into the tight knot of my stomach that I fear will one day develop into an ulcer. I’m startled by his discovery of my secret pain. The last time I remember really speaking about it was in high school when it first appeared, just after I found out my sister had been raped. I nod my head with tears in my eyes.
“Your broken heart,” he says tapping my chest, “Creates pain here,” he says pushing my belly, “And this pain is making your head crazy.”
90% of the happy chemical serotonin produced in the body is found in the gut.
Jan fetches a small dry root and places its tip in the fire.
“When he comes to you with it, inhale deeply,” says Belinda. “But don’t worry — It’s just to ground you. It won’t make you…” Belinda waves a hand in the air above her head, and I’m reassured that I’m not about to be given a hallucinogenic.
Jan brings the smoking tip of the root up to my nose and cups it. The harsh smoke sears the inside of my nostrils before I even breathe it in. I inhale what I can and Jan takes the root away before taking my pulse — feeling for more than just a heartbeat it seems — and he thumbs marks of charcoal on my wrists and in the crooks of my arms. Finally, Jan stands back, looks at me, and speaks for the first time at length.
“Your cry for help is good. Your anchor is that you haven’t lost who you are. Look at this journey you’ve been on. Look where it’s taken you. But you were called back home.”
Jan returns to his chair where he sinks into a pensive silence.
“When I read about what happened in Zimbabwe, it hurt me too. What happened there with the whites… It hurt me because they are people too. It is also their home.”
There is something so startling and deeply gratifying about hearing the most indigenously African person I’ve ever met validate my African identity, that I find myself struggling between revelling in this moment (in which the themes of my entire life story — themes of belonging, race, displacement, love, and longing — float about in the air between us) and wondering if I’m just indulging in my own Dances with Wolves fantasy.
“You need to let go of your guilt of Zimbabwe.”
I’m startled yet again. I’ve spoken about many things today, but I haven’t spoken about my white guilt. I haven’t spoken about the pain of knowing that no matter what kind of person I am, no matter what decisions my parents made in their lifetimes, our depth flattens out in the context of our home country and we are left with nothing but white faces.
“Be released, so you can go back to who you were, who you really are. Be released, so you can look back and just smile.”
Jan rises up once again and comes in close.
“You are attractive and soft. You’re a punching bag, aren’t you?”
I’m as taken aback by the fact that he sees this in me, as by the fact that it’s true.
Jan hands me a small cube of fire-blackened wood, like the blackened stained teeth in his mouth.
“This is Black Man Root. Keep this in your purse. As long as you have this with you, love and warmth will follow you wherever you go in Africa. But be cautious, not all attention is good. You need to be proud and private — like a lion. Silent and discerning. You’ll know how to react.”
He hands me a small stub of woody root.
“This is White Forget. It will help with this,” he says touching my stomach. “Bite a small piece and chew it. It’s very bitter. Your body will forget its ailment.”
Finally, he gives me Lion Wood — the same root he made me inhale earlier.
“Take this home with you. When you need grounding, light this and inhale the smoke. The first time you do it, after two inhalations, you’ll enter into a brief trance and you’ll have a vision.”
Belinda adds a trinket to my collection of muti and says I should keep this around the mirror in my car for protection and guidance.
“You’ve got a lot of work to do,” says Jan, “but trust and be hopeful.”