SSP Board President Jaime Meyer interviews 2019 Eagle Feather Award recipient Gogo Ekhaya Esima, a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist in the mental health field, a trauma survivor, a Spiritual Coach, and initiated healer in the South African Sangoma tradition.
SSP’s mission is to help people learn about and practice shamanism with integrity and depth. One way we accomplish our mission is through the annual Eagle Feather Award. Anyone practicing shamanism at any level owes a tremendous debt to the rare, true shamans who serve their communities by healing the sick, providing leadership, protection, teaching and spiritual guidance. All of us owe a debt to the shamans who have carried ancient teachings forward and who have, many times, rescued and preserved ancient lineages from extinction. The Eagle-Feather award is one small way we can express gratitude and support to the world’s shamans. To help fund this program please click here.
Traditional healers of Southern Africa fulfill different social and political roles in the community, including divination, healing physical, emotional and spiritual illnesses, directing birth or death rituals, and a host of other traditional shamanic services. There are two main types of traditional healers: the diviner (sangoma), and the herbalist (inyanga). It is estimated that there are as many as 200,000 Indigenous traditional healers in South Africa compared to 25,000 Western-trained doctors.
Gogo Ekhaya Esima’s journey to become a Sangoma healer began when she started having experiences that are often seen as characteristics of psychosis or mental illness. She was in and out of hospital psychiatric units and heavily medicated. Eventually, she began to look for spiritual answers and perspectives, which lead her back to the traditional roots which provided her with the medicine that she says literally saved her life.
JM: What are the biggest challenges you face when presenting Sangoma teachings and practices to Western audiences?
Gogo: I feel fortunate that the number of Westerners interested in Indigenous and shamanic teachings has increased over the past several years. They are seeking authentic awareness and connection to spiritual power. However, their search can entail a level of “mesmerizing enthusiasm” that could lead to dangerous and disappointing outcomes.
What I mean by dangerous is that I see so many people that have come across healers that took advantage or were abusive to their fellow community members. It’s important to not look toward a shaman or healer as someone greater than you. Or something that you must attain or become for the sake of ego or status. There will be many waiting to take full advantage.
Truthfully, I haven’t run into many challenges in presenting Sangoma teachings. What I have witnessed is culture shock when people enter into initiations. Even with preparation and sound guidance, the path of Sangoma is a challenging one.
First, we in Western culture have the luxury of going about in the world in whatever way we create for ourselves. We get to wear whatever we want, look into each other’s eyes and stand upright while communicating, we eat what we choose, and eat with utensils. We can choose whether we want to hit the snooze button 3 times before we actually get up in the morning. We perhaps walk around with no knowledge or concern of our invisible relatives watching over our shoulders.
When we enter the world of ancestral initiation, we must train our Western mind to quiet down and get used to no longer being in the driver’s seat. We accept and trust our wise ancestors to guide our way. We must accept the unlearning of the Western mind and become a baby again, leaning into the connection with our ancestral guides until we have strong enough limbs and spirit to stand and walk, to make wise choices on how to be in this world as a healer. The quieting of the Western mind is a feat in itself; it can be loud, obnoxious, misleading, and disrespectful to the Indigenous way. We have to unlearn and lead with our hearts and our spirits – and that humbling takes time. It takes full surrender and trust in your calling.
JM: As you trained, what were the hardest things for you to comprehend or enter into? For example, I’ve worked with various plants in Peru for a few years, doing week-long fasting diets and ingesting a single plant. One of the hardest things was to truly let go of my Western mind’s need for logical explanation, and let the plants work on me in completely non-rational ways. It is very much the challenge of letting go of my cultural presuppositions.
Gogo: Oh wow! I think I was just getting to this point in the last question. I can definitely agree with the need for logical explanation. In my process, not everything was discussed or explained. You were taught to sit quietly and observe. There was not a lot of time for Q&A!
In the Western world, we are conditioned to ask, dissect and chase the answers. But the Indigenous way is to watch your elders and be patient. Follow their guidance and be shown the answers through your own experiences and divine guidance. The ways of your dreams and ancestral communication open up with the rituals and plant spirits. Initiates must sacrifice simple pleasures of the mind and body in order to connect to the spirits of the ancestors, medicines and ancient secrets.
The hardest part for me was more physical, having to be on my knees constantly throughout the day to eat, pray, or to simply speak to a person. Being on my knees reminded me that I had to choose the state of egoless surrender in every moment. It also taught me a lot about being in the body in a more conscious way and aligning what was out of sync. During my journey I realized the traumatic impact of years of disassociating with the body.
JM: Can you comment on how you work with younger people that are experiencing extreme challenges during these times of great awakening? Especially those that are “different” than their peers.
Gogo: The younger generations are so incredibly gifted. There are so many more healers being birthed into our world in order to support the collective awakening happening on this planet. I’ve noticed that their gifts show up in the form of ultra-sensitivities like seeing the unseen, hearing voices, and feeling the spirit world. These experiences are generally misunderstood and misdiagnosed and the body-mind response is anxiety, fear and paranoia, and mental health imbalances. I assist by re-igniting the ancient memory within as to why they are here, often times there is a great sense of confusion and purposelessness and it’s vital to awaken the memory. We work on changing the narrative of the stories that have been created to acclimatize us to fit into a spiritually asleep environment and dissuade us from knowing our truth. This support and guidance through extreme awakening always involves ritual, elemental forces of nature, and healing ceremonies taught and remembered by the ways of elders and ancient family.
JM: Many shamanic practitioners operate from a belief that we are in a great awakening of consciousness. Do you see it that way? How does your training and work contribute to your view of the future?
Gogo: Yes, I affirm this collective awakening whole-heartedly. Simply because I witness this miraculous shift almost daily amongst my peers, community and universal family.
I feel that what we have been missing in this society is spiritual rites of passage. Rites of passage in traditional African culture are ceremonial processes that all in the tribe agree to accept. Here, we miss this opportunity to be held in sacred space during times of transition. Which means some of us get dragged, pushed, and thrown into states of spiritual emergence, completely unaware of their significance to our life’s purpose. Thus, I’ve been led by the divine spirits to create a way for us to bring balance to our spiritual journeys. We do this by intentionally embracing our healing through nature and shamanic practices. Then a beautiful thing happens: our spiritual gifts are free and able to shine through.
JM: The majority of people in the urban world learning and practicing shamanism are white. This brings up issues around cultural appropriation, and the seeming lack of African Americans drawn to shamanism. I’d love to hear your comments on this sticky area of shamanism.
Gogo: As healers, it is our responsibility to be respectful and acknowledge the Indigenous lineage holders and cultures of the shamanic traditions we practice. It makes my heart sing to see people of African descent embracing ancestral practices from Africa and other regions.
There are many stories of African Americans desiring to get closer to shamanism and I have witnessed two common reservations. One reservation is not feeling safe to express themselves fully in majority white circles There is a need for acknowledgement and expression of our historical traumas, this is true with the native ancestors and also for Africans. How many times have we been able to discuss and grieve our once enslaved African ancestors in shamanic circles? Have we asked our gods and goddesses to help us with forgiveness and reconciliation for what our ancestors may have done to contribute to America’s troubled past? Have we acknowledged how our past has contributed to the disparities, privilege, and separation in today’s society? We should dedicate some time to heal the past woundings of our lineages. I strongly believe that facing this truth from a spiritual place is the seat of true reconciliation and oneness.
The other common reservation is that African American culture has long been influenced by Christianity. This has a huge impact on our participation with shamanism. We have to overcome major fear-based ideologies that stigmatize anything to do with ancestral reverence or shamanism as evil.
JM: Do you have a story that illustrates the power of Sangoma to you personally – how it changed you? Can you tell us any stories about your teacher(s) that illustrate the power of the teachings?
Gogo: The first time that I went to the Sangoma’s ndumba (house of the ancestors) was for a healing session. I walked in and saw initiates kneeling on the floor, eyes focused towards the ground. They all wore similar clothing. They smudged me with the smoke of ancestral medicine and offered me water. The Sangoma came into the room, full of grace and warm smiles. She welcomed me and asked if I’d sit in the living room to wait while they prepared a few things.
As I sat there, I could feel a crowd of spirits around me. Drumming and strange sounds were coming from the other room. One of the initiates led me into the sacred shrine. A veil of smoke danced around the darkly-lit room from the burning of herbs. I was told to kneel and present my offerings to the ancestors. Then the drumming began and the room filled with beautiful Zulu songs that penetrated my heart with a deep resonance.
I began to feel really heavy, as if some unseen being was sitting on top of me. Soon my face was on the floor, my legs stretched out. I no longer had any control over my body. A movement of fiery energy began to make its way from the depths of my belly up to my throat. My mouth opened wide to spew an unknown archaic ritual language. The drum became louder, the sounds of the sacred rattle sweeping against my eardrums. I could not think, only surrender.
The night was long. When I came out of trance, the Sangoma had deciphered the message from the Ancestors: I had an ancestor with me from long ago calling me to take the path of Sangoma. From that profound experience I knew that from that moment, I would be leaving the life of suffering I had painfully clung to for the past 15 years, and step into trusting the guidance of my ancestral tribe and their voices. I decided to say “yes” to this calling. That was the day, Yeye Gogo Nana Iyalode, became my teacher.
JM: Thank you, Gogo.
Gogo: Thank you! Siyabonga!