Leopard Warrior: A Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct, and Dreams
John Lockley is an extraordinary looking man. He has, surrounding his eyes, what appears to be a white mask. He calls it ‘white birth skin’. When she first saw him, his Dublin-born mother, exclaimed, ‘he looks like an abo!’ According to the family story ‘the white doctor frowned, my dad laughed, and the black Xhosa nurses ululated’.
Lockley’s mother was Catholic, and his Rhodesian father Protestant. Born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1971 he talks about growing up in the context of conflict. His homeland was burdened by apartheid whilst, what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe, was in the midst of a civil war. Back on the island of Ireland in Europe the Troubles raged.
However, city-bred Lockley dreamed, during his childhood, of ‘the African bushveldt, animals, and plants, about illness and healing’. Unbeknownst to him or his parents these dreams were preparing him for his calling, that of sangoma, or traditional African healer.
Once adult, Lockley became a ‘living pilgrim’, travelling ‘the world working with healers, mystics, psychics, Zen masters, and shamans’. He learnt Buddhism in South Korea, sangoma medicine in South Africa and ‘laughter and music – a living story that never ends’ in Ireland.
Lockley calls his practice ‘The Way of the Leopard’ and teaches his pupils to become ‘spiritual soldiers’ who, if their numbers become sufficient, should be able to lessen the amount of war in the world. It’s an admirable aim. Lockley uses the word ‘soldier’ for monks and young men who, like himself, eschew violence.
One of the striking sections in this book describes the period in which Lockley aged 18, having been drafted into the South African forces, worked as a medic in a rehabilitation hospital catering mainly for black special forces. He says these soldiers arrived ‘in tatters, their bodies and minds ravaged’. They came to the military hospital in Pretoria from the war in Angola.
African patients, whilst they were recovering, moisturised their bodies – from top to toe – with vitamin creams. The emollients, ordered by the racist but skilful white doctor, Colonel Gordon, were shunned by injured whites as ‘sissy’. But apparently and much to Gordon’s mystification the blacks got better more quickly. Lockley, although white, took to rubbing the creams on himself causing his father to accuse him of being a ‘woman’.
Lockley describes how one mortally injured 22-year-old soldier, named Emmanuel, died slowly over six weeks. As his nurse Lockley felt unable to help him but saw that the comatose soldier literally was gnashing his teeth. Lockley thought this was because Emmanuel was cogniscent deep inside and was frustrated and frightened by pain and helplessness. A sangoma would have been more use than the young orderly who had nothing at his fingertips other than conventional medicine.
Under apartheid it was only because of his work in the hospital that Lockley was able to spend intimate time with black Africans. There he befriended a Zulu sergeant, Ndlovu, who was himself an apprentice sangoma. Without that encounter it might well be that Lockley would never have found his vocation.
Needing relief from the trauma of the ward Lockley travelled to a Buddhist retreat in Tzaneen Forest, Northern Transvaal. His work there was to ‘just be’ and, having attained this state, Lockley was visited by his ‘calling dream’: an epic hallucination which sent him out on a ‘journey filled with magic and danger’.
It was also the beginning of his Thwasa, an illness he needed in order to prepare for his life as a sangoma. The first symptoms were boils on his legs – later diagnosed as tick-bite fever. The dreams and the sickness, which involved ‘high temperature, stomach cramps, back pain, weight loss, insomnia, night sweats, lowered immune system, nightmares, anxiety, and depression’ threatened to swamp Lockley.
Because Apartheid kept him separated from black Africans and their traditional culture he was unable to find a teacher and start his apprenticeship. Instead Lockley pursued his university studies in psychology as well as those in Zen Buddhism. At all times he was ill with, for example, Hepatitis A and painful knees.
After a three month retreat in South Korea Lockley was invited to join an army of Buddhist monks but on reflection he realised that he must return to his home country, witness the end of apartheid, and find a mentor. By the end of 1994 the racist political system had been legally destroyed and as a white South African Lockley had used his vote to help elect Nelson Mandela as president.
Back at university Lockley was working with his professor on ways of integrating traditional African herbalism with Western approaches to AIDs. Losing faith in his lecturer’s adherence to his own ‘dominant culture’, Lockley understood that he must travel into the townships to fulfil his vocation.
Thandisizwe, a translator, ntroduced him to MaMngwevu, a senior sangoma. Mama, as everyone called her, had dreamt that a white man would come and she would train him to be a great sangoma. During their first Divination meeting it became apparent that MaMngwevu knew all about Lockley’s life and sickness. She gave thanks that, because of the end of apartheid, she was at last able to see him as, because of his sickness, he had almost been lost to the world. She told him that now he would be able to recover and help others. She said his gift of healing came from his Irish mother’s side – from Mammy Kelly, his grandmother.
MaMngwevu predicted that Lockley would become a great trance dancer and he knew her words were true: deep down he understood that he ‘would soar with eagles as the drums rolled’. In this way Lockley began an apprenticeship which lasted until he was 35.
During this period, in 1998, Lockley went to live in Ireland for seven years. He was mainly based in Galway where his task was to ‘marry his African and Irish spirits’. He writes about the ‘little people’ and compares them with the South African tikoloshe and West African gontomble. He seems to have spent much of his time busking in Galway City – using his African drum – and making friends with musicians, circus people and the ‘drunken and homeless’.
Lockley worked on his integration project to become an Afro-Celt healer. He pilgrimed to Croagh Patrick and, on the summit, burnt the South African magic herb, impepho. Eventually, overwhelmed by homesickness, Lockley went returned to South Africa.
It would be difficult not to wonder what Lockley’s parents thought of their son’s journey through life. They attended the seven day celebration of Lockley’s Umgoduso (final initiation) and his father, called to speak, stood six foot four, towering over ‘a sea of black faces’. He gave thanks, with ‘emotion and humility’, to all those who loved and supported his son.
A moving incident occurs a few years later when Lockley, now a senior sangoma, is teaching in Donegal. He is asked by a mother to help her son, Conor, who was paralysed in a recent accident. Now, the former army medic has the skills to help the young man, and, in doing so, he remembers Emmanuel, the black soldier who died alone without a sangoma’s healing touch.
Lockley, J. Leopard Warrior: A Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct, and Dreams.Sounds True. 2018.
A version of this review was published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section in the Irish Examiner on 14th July 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.