School of Movement Medicine - Mindfulness in Motion

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Issue: April 2010
Avatar, African Shamanism, Robert Mugabe and Alice

By Richard Pantlin

(we have run this article before but put the text in the wrong order - apologies to Richard)

Is it a sign of the times that the world’s greatest grossing film extols the virtues of an indigenous people shamanically in touch with the forces of nature and defeating the invading agents of machine culture?  Someone who knows more about that than well-meaning “Avatar” director James Cameron is Malidoma Some.  He is a teacher and healer who offers his African spirituality as a counter-weight to the de-personalising forces of our consumerist society. 

To quote from his book “Ritual”:


“Western technology is being put into the hands of people who have lost touch with the spiritual.  Western Machine technology is the spirit of death made to look like life.  It makes life seem easier, comfortable, cozy but the price we pay includes the dehumanisation of the self.”


Next year I am organising a week-long visit by Malidoma to the UK with talks and divinations, culminating in a residential weekend workshop in the woods in Wiltshire.  In a strange way this is a continuation of last year’s work in Zimbabwe.  I wrote about that in this publication before I went out – and how attendance at Yaa’acov’s workshop in November 2008 had helped give me the courage to pursue my mad plan of cycling across Zimbabwe dressed as a clown.


It was planned during the height of the violence around the elections and when cholera was getting out of hand.  I used the event to raise funds for an orphanage that a Zimbabwean friend is building and we raised enough to complete it.  But a key part of the mission was also to connect personally with President Robert Mugabe.  I hand-delivered a letter narrating some experiences I had on the trip and appealing for him to support the fresh unity government and the rule of law.  This got me some publicity in my local home media in Oxford, but there was another aspect that I did not publicise:


A spiritual and shamanic quest to bring some healing.


Before I went out I connected with a Zimbabwean healer who, with mbira playing and chanting, invoked the ancestors for me through spirit possession and put me through a powerful cleansing ceremony on Brighton beach.


In Harare, I met a former teacher of his and her husband.  They live in a modest bungalow with their children.  Felicity (not her real name given the still dangerous political situation)  is a local spirit healer.  Her husband, Tendai, a former jazz musician, acts as her interpreter when she is in spirit possession.  Over the course of a couple of meetings which included spirit invocations, I expounded my belief that a key reason for the continuing difficulties of sub-Saharan Africa is the spiritual catastrophe that befell indigenous people with the forcible imposition of Christianity.  In particular, I sensed that the President of Zimbabwe, one-time hero of socialist anti-colonial liberation, was personally deeply conflicted between his Africanism and the fiercely devout Catholicism of his mother – at an early age brought into greater intensity by the admiration for his Irish Jesuit father-figure priest who was probably also abusive.  This personal background might explain, but in no way excuses, Mugabe’s own violent abuse of power.


Certainly Jesuits are now having to come to terms with sexual and physical abuse that some of their members imposed on their young charges throughout the world including in Africa. 


Malidoma Some was himself abducted by Jesuit missionaries in the late 1950’s as a four-year-old boy in Burkina Faso, West Africa.  He was forcibly taught French and Catholicism and Western ways with the intent of educating a new black leadership but he ran away at 15 and managed to travel the 100 miles back to his village even though he had forgotten his native language.  The elders initiated him in traditional ways and told him to use his experience to fulfil the name he was given at birth: “Malidoma” meaning “he who befriends the enemy” – in other words to go out into Western civilisation in friendship to spread knowledge of indigenous spiritual ways.


As he puts it in “Ritual”:


“My experience with Christianity in Africa is that its power does not come from Christ but from technology – and its corporate profile.  Missionaries built churches, schools and industries and stirred a vibration, created a disharmony that displaced the indigenous person.  Christianity is a technological Machine that ravaged and continues to ravage the indigenous world in Africa.”


A year ago, neither I nor Felicity and Tendai had read Malidoma but they entirely shared the similar views that I was expressing.  I also explained that I hoped in some shamanic way through my mission to try and bring healing to the head of the country – and I had carried a talisman with me to that effect.  I hoped to take it to the Jesuit Kutama Mission school where Robert Mugabe was educated and himself later taught.


Tendai and Felicity thought it an extraordinary coincidence that I should have arrived at their house at that time with such a similar and unusual interpretation of the troubles of their country.  Indeed, they confided, once trust was established, that they had been commissioned by an aide to the MDC opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, to travel to the four most spiritually significant points of Zimbabwe and invoke the ancestors for peace and the MDC.


At the time of my visit there was much optimism in the country, as the Government of National Unity was young.  Tendai advised me that it would be extremely dangerous to travel to Kutama, the heart of Mugabe territory and that in any case “the work was done” and the President was slowly retiring to fishing and a quieter life and letting Tsvangirai do the running of the country.


I took his advice and contented myself with hand-delivering my personal letter to the President’s office.  Indeed, the next day which was Independence Day, Mr Mugabe probably gave his most conciliatory speech of the last 10 years.  Things have not gone so well since then, including for my friends who had hoped for new prosperity.


After my return to England, I attended a “fun” evening of singing, dancing and chanting with my Zimbabwean spirit healer and a white South African “sangoma” friend.  I had started to think that I needed to go back to Zimbabwe and complete my mission urgently but, to my surprise, that evening, I felt I received a message from spirit that it was still a 5-year enterprise.

The invitation to Malidoma to come to England for talks and a workshop and an opportunity to meet him is part of that project.


My practice of Movement Medicine and 5 Rhythms also nourishes the venture.  Andrew Holmes, my original Oxford teacher, kindly made me a Wave of appropriate music for my trip (see for the playlist).  It was fabulous to listen to as I drove up from Johannesburg through the night to the Beitbridge border crossing.  I also danced a solo session in my room in Harare to help me decide on my actions.   Perhaps another time, I will be able to have others join me in the dance out there.


And, oh yes, have you seen that other latest 3D film, Tim Burton’s “Alice

where we have a girl travelling to the “underworld” to meet talking animals who show her her destiny?  I heartily recommend it and Johnny Depp is brilliant!  One day, I too hope to dance the Mad Hatter’s happy Futterwack dance when the Red Queen is defeated.


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The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Movement Medicine. Roland Wilkinson, Nappers Crossing, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PD, UK Tel & Fax +44 (0)1803 762255 http://www.