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Witch Doctor

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James Hall stares out the window of his mother's office. He's thin and looks almost breakable. He's wearing khakis, an oxford shirt, Top-Siders, and a necklace of thick red beads. They don't go with his clothes, but he fingers them as if they're familiar.

Hall grew up in Winnetka in a large Catholic family. His mother was a two-term mayor of the town and is still a trustee. He's a former Eagle Scout who graduated from the University of Southern California and became a television writer. But then he went native. Hall now lives in Swaziland, where he works as a sangoma, a traditional African healer, practicing medicine in a ceremonial mud hut called an indumba, or spirit house. He says he's the only white person ever to have gone through kutfwasa, the series of secret ceremonies and rituals required to become a sangoma.

He says he's back in the States for a couple of months to help his two cultures understand each other. "There's this tremendous resistance among my sangoma friends toward any Western institution--academia, media, and so on. So I am a sort of communicator. Obviously when I come to the United States I'm not practicing, I'm not working. I'm not hanging up my shingle. I couldn't do it anyway. I can pretty much guess the building codes in Winnetka, and I don't think they would include a mud-and-stick indumba."

In the mid-1980s Hall was making a decent living as a Hollywood writer. His primary contribution to Western culture at that point was a series of specials for NBC called Television's Greatest Commercials. Eventually those shows were folded into a popular prime-time series, TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes, which featured Dick Clark and Ed McMahon. Hall still receives residuals checks.

Hall was living the life of an aimless single, hanging out with what he calls an "international crowd." Some South African friends introduced him to the African singer Miriam Makeba, and Hall eventually agreed to ghostwrite her autobiography.

He traveled to Africa with Makeba, and she told him the story of her mother, who in 1950 had undergone training to become a sangoma. Makeba said her mother was possessed by spirits and could tell what illnesses people had just by looking at them. Makeba told Hall she could sense the same supernatural qualities in him. At first Hall dismissed the idea, but then, he writes in his new book, Sangoma: My Odyssey Into the Spirit World of Africa, "I knew that I occasionally filled in a blank in one of Miriam's stories when her mind wandered while reminiscing. Apparently, and without realizing it, I was doing this often, and with uncanny accuracy."

When he returned to the States he found this sensation heightened. He says he often knew what people would say before they said it, that he knew who it was when the phone would ring, who was knocking at the door. Then streetlights began to extinguish themselves when he walked or drove by. He describes one night in Los Angeles in his book: "The street lamps ahead still shone, until, two by two, they went out as I came close to them. With each outage, I grew more depressed until, four blocks up, I turned onto a side street. I looked back, and every street lamp behind me down to Santa Monica Boulevard was off. All the other lights burned indifferently, but the street lamps seemed to share my dark mood. It was as if I extinguished them."

Hall realized that these incidents didn't add up to his having special powers. "I think everybody's had this stuff happen to them," he says. "Because of that, and because I was brought up to equate psychic phenomena with fraud--a way of separating people from their money--I had no respect for it. Again, this happens to everybody. But when it happens to you several times a night, well, I had a feeling that it was some type of communication." Then one night in 1987 he was in his house in Los Angeles when he heard the crackling of electricity. Suddenly there was smoke, and when he put his hand to his head it was covered with ashes. This was the clincher.

Hall went to Africa in early 1988 to research a book on church leaders in the antiapartheid movement, and he looked up Makeba. She took him to Swaziland to meet with some sangomas, who told him that he possessed the qualities necessary to become an African healer. His training began soon after. He ingested various medicines and began having visions. In one particularly unpleasant-sounding early ritual he drank a four-liter bucket of reddish liquid until he started vomiting. "I felt mentally purged, triumphant," he writes, "as if I had passed a test by overcoming an inhibition I carried from a society that saw vomiting as a sign of illness. Here it was the opposite: a way of taking medicine and cleansing oneself." Other aspects of the kutfwasa were not as appealing. For instance, he had to give up sex for two years. "What would happen if the pressure of bottled-up sexual energies grew too great?" he writes.

Sangomas treat some illnesses with traditional herbal medicines prepared from Swazi roots and vegetation that are similar to herbal treatments in the United States. But sangomas are also called upon to give nonphysical cures: "Things that have to do with people's fortune and their mental processes." These cures, he says, are performed with the help of lidlotis, or ancestral spirits. Sangomas help people recognize their lidlotis and call upon other lidlotis for advice or cures. "We don't flatter ourselves into thinking we're psychic. We don't have any power. We're mediums. We ourselves aren't even possessed by a lidloti. The lidlotis attach themselves to us. We petition them, and they effect the cures. We have an ability to see, but it is a given talent, a gift. In all honesty, I would not call myself a psychic healer. That would be giving myself a power I don't think I possess."

During his kutfwasa, Hall identified his own lidlotis through a series of visions. When possessed by a lidloti, he says, sangomas speak in their voices. He has tape recordings of him as his various lidlotis. "I'm there, but I'm deep inside my head, a virtual-reality kind of thing." His multicultural list of lidlotis would please any college sociology major. They include his grandmother; John MacDonald, a Scottish farmer; White Feather, a Native American medicine man; Harry, a "white American advertising executive" from the 1920s; Juan, a "Spanish settler from colonial California"; Winter Blossom, a "beautiful and tragic Japanese woman"; and Lidvuba, an "ancient African zebra hunter."

Another lidloti Hall encountered was an unborn fetus. The sangoma elders said that a vision of an unborn fetus meant that he needed to have a child. "I responded very, very strongly toward this. I had a huge desire for this," he says. They introduced him to a Swazi woman, Evah, who eventually became his wife. "It was sort of like an arranged marriage by the spirits," he says. "I don't say that much in the book, but that's what it turned out to be." They now have a little girl. Hall also took under his wing Vusi, a preteen orphan boy.

Hall and Evah rented a house in the town of Manzini, and as he delved deeper into his training, he realized that he was going to leave behind his past and become a healer. "I was in the company of good people who were unlike any I had met in the developed world, as it called itself," he writes. "In my previous life I met on university campuses and writers' conferences many brilliant and intellectual people. I had met noted scientists, theologians, journalists, and technocrats, and to be in their presence was to experience hard, sharp intellects as intense and focused as laser beams. But before entering the Indumba I had never before met a wise man or woman."

The Swazis were, he writes, "involved with other life--people with people, people with nature, people with the spirits, the old and the young together, the sick and the well together, humankind living with the knowledge that in the end we were all we had as support against powerful nature and indifferent time...always aware that they were part of a whole that added dignity and significance to their personal lives, and who did not act like frightened interest groups in a zero-sum game where one person prospered only if another perished."

This is his first extended visit with his parents since he went through kutfwasa. He says any misgivings his parents felt have evaporated. "This is really beyond their experience, and we don't talk about it. They don't ask about healing and the lidlotis. They know what I do there is very private, and so cut off from here. We had to really free open the lines of communication. Once we did that, it was like I'd never been away. It didn't matter that I was a sangoma now. I was still my mother's son, still 12 years old in her eyes."

Hall is worried that he's found redemption in a disappearing culture. He has ideas about setting up a nonprofit trust fund for Swazi sangomas, so they can gather the medicine they need before the plants become extinct. He's also finishing a novel about the effect of television and Western media on native African cultures. "I think that Swazi culture is dying. It is moving toward consumer culture, and there's nothing that's more important to the younger generation than acquiring things that they see advertised on television. Everything associated with the old ways is being discredited, and that includes sangomas."

Part of the problem, he says, is a reactionary attitude among his fellow sangomas toward all things Western, which stems back to the legacy of the British colonial period, when indumbas were burned down and sangomas were persecuted as witches.

"There's a habit among sangomas of speaking to a visiting anthropologist and saying any story that they feel like saying, because they feel they are unaccountable. They feel anthropologists are just going to write lies about us--they just see academics as imperialistic tools."

But Hall knows that Western financial support is important to the sangomas. "I think the evidence is all around us that scholars and museums are taking a more enlightened view toward what was previously referred to as 'primitive cultures.' I also know that for our own self-preservation we've got to connect with the outside world. Otherwise we're just going to disappear. I think that's going to happen anyway, but we can at least go down with some type of respect."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.

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