Monday 14 October 2019

Meet the South African medicine man with Irish roots

John Lockley inherited his gift from his Irish mother - now he has made it his life's mission to spread the word about sangoma spirituality

'Stereotypes are a part of being human,' says John Lockley. Photo: Boris Conte
'Stereotypes are a part of being human,' says John Lockley. Photo: Boris Conte
John Lockley says he experienced a vision when he was four years old

Julia Molony

An airport hotel seems an unlikely place to meet an African medicine man of the ancient tradition. And yet it is here where I find John Lockley, amongst the polyester upholstery, the coffees and the layover passengers, the only hint of the mysticism and magic in which he trades showing in the tendrils of wild blond hair escaping from his neat bun, and the long strings of sacred beads around his neck.

Lockley, who is internationally known in alternative spirituality circles for his work as a sangoma priest, a shaman or healer from the Xhosa tradition of southern Africa, spends much of his life in transit.

His Xhosa name means "messenger or bridge between people". And it sums up what he now feels is his sense of purpose: to spread sangoma wisdom around the globe, as an antidote to what his elder, Malidoma Some, describes as "the profound hunger in the Western world for meaning and a sense of rootedness".

Everything about him confounds expectations. What, you might wonder, possesses a young, white middle class South African to wear traditional African dress and become a representative of a culture that, on the surface, appears plainly not his own.

John Lockley says he experienced a vision when he was four years old
John Lockley says he experienced a vision when he was four years old

Or as Malidoma Some put it when he first came across this "extremely white man dressed like an exotic sangoma priest... what kind of turbulent journey could have possibly marooned him into this mess?".

Lockley was born in Cape Town into an affluent family. His father, a Protestant from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) worked in marketing and advertising for multinationals. His mother was brought up in Ireland in an Irish-speaking family, but now found herself living far away from home in South Africa.

According to John, it was destiny, not chance, that took her from Dublin to Cape Town in the 1960s. She'd been working in London, but on a visit home had a vision of a herd of elephants while walking on Dun Laoghaire pier. It sparked the idea to put in a request for a transfer to her office in Rhodesia and at the welcome party the local office threw for her, she met John's father. "I was born in Cape Town," says John, "but the birth of my spirit began in Dun Laoghaire one cold auspicious day whilst my mother, Anastasia Kelly was out walking."

Though settling in Africa allowed Anastasia to explore the wildlife she'd dreamed about, it was a difficult transition.

"It was very painful for her," he says. "Because she was a long, long way from home. It's not easy for a person on their own, coming from an extended family back on an island, to be so far away from her family."

As a little boy, John was unsettled and sensitive. "My mother always said that I was a very demanding child," he says, explaining that he cried a lot and "needed a lot of reassurance".

Lockley's maternal grandmother 'Mammy Kelly' had a touch of the Irish mystic about her - and it is through her that Lockley believes he has inherited his gift. Though he doesn't have any Xhosa ancestry, it is his Irish side through which, he says, he connects with the divine. "My grandmother used to say to my mother. "Sure, he's got the sparkle in his eyes. You just need to listen to him. He's not demanding, he's just got lots of energy."

"The spirit of Ireland is still very indigenous," says John, who spent seven years living in Galway and connecting to his Irish ancestry during his 20s. "Which is why it wasn't difficult for me to get inculturated to the Xhosa... Because my mother is similar to my teacher. My grandmother is very similar to my teacher. The only difference was just the colour of my skin. Old Ireland is very, very similar to the Xhosa.

"Part of my intention for writing my book and doing book launches in Ireland is to honour my mother and her courage in leaving Ireland, so that I could be educated in the old ways of Africa," he says. "Now I'm bringing this medicine back home to the beginning of her journey, Dublin."

When he was four years old, he experienced his first vision; in Cape Town he pointed out of a window at night to show his mother a line of people in 18th-Century clothing walking in a processional, ceremonial way towards a hut, but she couldn't see what he was talking about. It was, he later learned from his sangoma teacher MaMngwevu, the first indication of his "calling".

As he got into adolescence, the "heightened sensitivity" that characterised him as a child became more difficult to bear. "Because I started to see apartheid and the cruelty."

He was deeply affected by the injustice he saw all around him. "I knew it was wrong," he says. "I knew it in my bones. My mum brought me up like that to treat everyone with respect so I could see there was something deeply, deeply wrong."

He was 14 when he witnessed something that was to have a profound effect on the direction his life would take.

"I was sitting on the couch and I saw the news and I saw the townships in flames," he said. Just 50km from where he was sitting were "all these children around my age and mothers dancing in front of the tanks and singing freedom songs. Some of them had no shoes on their feet, and they were singing and dancing, and I felt such shame for being white. But I also felt very proud to be South African - because some of these guys were the same age as me, 14, and they feared nothing. They were not afraid of the soldiers with rifles. They were not afraid of the tanks. They had no weapons. The only weapons they had were their spirit and their songs. And at that moment I thought, 'I want to learn those songs. I want to learn those rhythms'. Because they are fearless. They are afraid of nothing. And they are connected to their human spirit. I want to learn that."

Plenty of people, no doubt, have questioned Lockley's motivation and his choices - but it has to be said that, in person, there's not a trace of cynicism about him. In assuming the role of a sangoma priest, he has invited accusations of cultural appropriation, and his worry and hurt over this seems sincere. From his account of his early life in his book, he comes across as a deeply earnest young man, who from his earliest days has been searching for an answer to the spiritual longing within him.

At the age of 18, during the South African civil war, he joined the army and volunteered to work as a medic in a military hospital. "The majority of my patients were black special forces soldiers," he writes in his book, Leopard Warrior, A Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct and Dreams. "It was from them that I first learned about traditional African culture and the meaning of Ubuntu; humanity."

Working as a medic and witnessing the dignity and courage of his patients inspired Lockley to enter a caring profession.

"I hungered to learn more about medicine and do more intensive nursing, to work with people who were dying or at death's door," he said. First, however, came a year studying Buddhism in a monastery in South Korea. And then a degree in psychology, which he says has informed and given structure to his work as a healer. Some of the clients he encounters in Ireland, he says, have spent years consulting fortune tellers and card readers, and he feels sometimes, "what they really need is counselling".

His aim was, initially, to become a psychologist. "South Africa is a very competitive culture," he says. "Especially if you are white middle class. You get a good job, you go to university and you become a professional. Businessman, psychologist, whatever, I was primed for that."

But that trajectory was interrupted when Lockley became beset by his own debilitating health problems. He broke out in sores on his body, he experienced shakes and weight loss. Doctors diagnosed him with tick-bite fever, hepatitis and various other ailments. But this, he says, was the onset of what is known in sangoma culture as his "calling sickness" a punishing physiological process launched in the body in someone chosen by the Xhosa ancestors to become a healer.

It was during this time that he started to visit the townships, driven by a curiosity to explore communities that had been cut off from him because of apartheid. The search eventually led him to his sangoma teacher, MaMngwevu, the woman who would shape his path from that point on, and train him to the highest levels in the seven key principles of Xhosa mysticism; Ubuntu (humanity), ubunzulu bobuntu (depth of humanity), umsebenzi (spiritual work), izinyanya (silent hidden ones) isidima (dignity), umoya wezilo (animal spirits) and amathambo (bones).

His extended family and friends "were a little bit surprised", he says when he announced he was going to train as a sangoma healer. "And they just didn't understand what was going on with me. Because my family background is very solid and very middle class." But he always had the full support of his mother who intuited what was going on with her son.

"I was very sick and I was having all these dreams," he says. "And I looked like I was a heroin addict. I was very thin, and I had very dark rings under my eyes and I looked like I was a drug addict to be honest with you. But I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, I didn't take any substances. The only thing that happened to me was that at night I had these incredible dreams, and sometimes nightmares. And I would see the future and things that were going to happen. And then I'd come back from that, I'd be shaking having breakfast. And not in a good way.

"I wasn't thinking of sex, drugs and rock and roll. And friends of mine used to say 'why don't you come out and we'll go to a pub' and I couldn't. My family and friends were very worried and they were putting pressure on my mum to do something about me. And she just used to say, 'You have the same look as my mother, Mammy Kelly. He is my son, and he has the gift'."

Recognising the obstacle that his skin colour presented, he was initially circumspect about starting his apprenticeship to be a sangoma.

"I asked my teacher, what is a sangoma? And she said, 'a sangoma is someone that has been called by the ancestors to become a healer'. And when you accept the calling to become a sangoma, you're going to stop being so sick. And the ancestors are going to be able to work through you in different ways, the spirits are going to work through you in different ways and you are going to be able to heal people in all sorts of different ways." This healing relates, not just to the spiritual and physical suffering of the clients he treats, but is also about "healing Africa" and the scars of its colonial past.

"The missionaries did a lot, in terms of healthcare, but they also did lots of damage - and the biggest damage they did was taking people's dignity in terms of telling them that the culture and their spiritual practices were wrong, and that they didn't know God," he says.

"The missionaries demonised the sangoma - the traditional shaman. It became so bad that as soon as someone wanted to become middle class, they couldn't be seen to be connected to their traditional culture. They would wear a suit, they would go to church, and they would not mention anything to do with ancestors and traditional culture."

In the book, he writes even now he treats "middle-class clients who are Xhosa and they would come to me at night, when the sun had set", so that they wouldn't be seen.

"So part of my mission is also to educate people internationally about African traditional culture," he says.

The physical suffering that marked his transition from middle-class white boy to sangoma is over, but being a traditional shaman is painful, he admits. "I'm a warrior, you know. And, I'll always be a warrior, because we are living in a world that is unequal. There's lots of inequality. And where I come alive is where I see the distress. I see the distress in someone else and I feel compassion, and I'm moved to help them."

John Lockley's teaching memoir 'Leopard Warrior' is on sale in major bookshops now. On June 9, he will host the Way of the Leopard Workshop in Dublin. Booking details of other events around Ireland and private healing sessions can be found at

A cure for what ails you... four famous spiritual healers


Popularly known as the "hugging guru" Mata Amritanandamayi (pictured below) was born 64 years ago into poverty in a fishing village in Kerala, India. She has made it her life's mission to comfort all of humanity and this work has brought her across the globe where she employs the healing power of a compassionate embrace. She has hugged more than 33 million around the world.


Thich Nhat Hanh

The Rev Martin Luther King described the Buddhist priest, poet and peace advocate as "an apostle of peace and non-violence". The 91-year-old has written bestsellers on mindfulness, has appeared on Oprah and, from his base in Plum Village near Bordeaux in France, he runs workshops and retreats in mindfulness that attract acolytes from all over the world.

John of God

Also a former alumni of The Oprah Winfrey Show, John of God is a 75-year-old controversial South American healer who bases himself in a remote corner of Brazil, where he was born into poverty and where he has now established his spiritual healing centre that has been visited by millions of people. The 'psychic surgeon' has however also been accused of running the operation for personal profit.

Eckhart Tolle

German-Canadian Tolle is a 70-year-old spiritual teacher and author of The New York Times number one bestseller The Power of Now. He remains unaffiliated with any religion, instead his teachings are based on his own odyssey of spiritual discovery and the "inner transformation" which sparked his recovery from the depression which plagued him throughout his early life.

Sunday Indo Living

Editors Choice

Also in Life