I was born with an itch on the soles of my feet. To some it’s a curse but I see it as a gift from my maker(s).
Thankfully, Bren and I both share that same tug that restless wanderlust brings. I guess some would say we’re just naturally inquisitive. When that leads us off the path well-travelled it can turn into a real voyage of discovery – and we’ve had plenty of those that delivered hugely rewarding and joyful experiences.
A wise old sage with many miles of adventure behind him once told me that the best course to adopt if ever faced with a challenge that might seem potentially tricky or cause others to feel pangs of apprehension – the unknown – was to proceed with eyes, ears, mind and heart all wide open. That was sound advice that has been heeded, and resulted in immense experiences.
I have learned to follow gut instinct and “signs” that get thrown up from time to time as if to test if you are paying attention.
A few examples to illustrate the point:
While on a press trip with a group of other writers to KwaZulu-Natal, as we drove around with the windows of our mini bus open to let a breeze drift through, everywhere we went, we would catch wafts of the gorgeously evocative aroma of Imphepho. This is the dried herb, Helichrysm, which is used by the Zulu people to purify and cleanse their homes, and occasionally employed by the Sangoma of the tribe to chase off evil spirits just as Asian Shamans or Native Americans might use Sage.
I wanted to see if I could buy some to take back home, but it’s not the kind of product that’s available through any conventional High Street outlets.
On my last day in Durban, I went to the reference room of the main library to do some research and print off something to produce in case any awkward questions were asked when I arrived back in the UK; something to support my indignant defence of “No, officer, this is not weed!”
It transpired that the only place I could source any was at the Asian Market, a sprawling bazaar that had been in existence for close on eighty years where shoppers went to find everything under the sun from exotic to the bizarre and “very unusual.”
It was here that the “witch doctors” would go, said a concerned concierge when I enquired at our plush hotel reception area for advice on how best to get there.
He cautioned me not to venture anywhere near it as to do so might place me in some danger. “There are pickpockets,” he warned, “please, sir, do not go.”
If my mind was made up before I even approached the front desk, I now became resolute. These safe, twee hotel refuges where the rich and famous are mollycoddled and shielded from reality are not where I’d choose to hang out.
Sangoma Michael Duma who is now passing on his skills to another young Nyanga (apprentice)
I asked our German guide who was fluent in Zulu, if he would accompany me to help out as my translator, and he agreed to drive me there and stay close by.
This is the kind of place where those who make magic potions from the selected roots, berries and leaves of plants with special properties, maybe elephant toenail clippings or the spleen of a snake, would seek out the ingredients they need. “Eye of a newt and toe of a frog times ten,” ran through my head on arrival. It was a full-on assault on all of the senses.
Straight away, I saw a Sangoma standing by the open tailgate of an estate car with the back seat folded flat and a cloth laid out over the surface. As in juju traditions he was “throwing the bones” – a collection of small precious objects including talismans, luck stones and charms that he employed to give a personal reading, and there was a long queue of customers eager to take advantage of his skills.
I waited on the sidelines and, engrossed, watched him at work and wondered…
Making sure not to intrude, I waited until he had served his last customer then asked my companion if he would shoot some questions his way and explain that I was a journalist from the UK who was intrigued, almost mesmerised by what I had been witnessing.
Did he learn his craft from an elder or was this a gift he had inherited from an earlier generation, passed down through his genes?
His response completely floored me and confirmed, yet again, that the advice I had been given all those years before had once more served me well.
His name was Michael Duma, and he had quite a tale to tell!
He said that as a young boy, he worked on a farm that was owned by people with British connections and that one of the foremen was “a Scottish gentleman” with red hair and a beard to match. He was kind and so well liked by all of the Zulu people who worked the land with him that he was able to befriend them and had learn their language and ways.
This well-liked Scot took a shine to young Michael and when he was old enough to take on greater responsibilities, gave him enough money to start up a little business selling ice cream from a trolley on the street.
It worked out well and gave him a good start in life and when he became a young man, he helped him out again, this time sending him on the path that he was still on to this day.
One of the Zulu community that the Scot had befriended was a Sangoma, and over the years, this ginger-haired benefactor had shown so much interest in his practices and traditions, that he learned all of his secrets which were willingly shared.
“He taught me all I know, and here I am today,” he said, smiling so broadly that the teeth he still had to call his own sparkled in the sunlight.
I shook his hand firmly, shook my head too, and turning to my guide, said: “they tried to hold me prisoner in that hotel, and look what I would have missed had I not come here. One of my countrymen taught a Zulu how to become a Sangoma!”
Up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, I took another chance when strongly advised against it.
In the late 1950s I was intrigued by the story of Tom Dooley and knew all the words of the song that became a hit single for The Kingston Trio. When we visited NC in 2006, I spoke to the editor of the local newspaper, The Record, and learned about a recent “Tom Dula (his real name) Is Innocent” campaign that had hit the headlines and been set up by people who were keen to clear his name.
I thought it would make a good story for the folks back home, so became determined to find Dooley’s grave, despite being advised it would be almost impossible to locate as it had not been tended for many years, was overgrown by nettles and bramble bushes AND was on private property with “Trespassers Will Be Shot” signs posted in the trees to deter snoopers.
I weighed up the ifs and buts, decided to press ahead with the quest regardless, and reminded myself that as just about