Friday, January 27, 2006


Sacred Illness

The initiation of a healer in Africa is about being
stripped to the bone so presence can shine, so that one can begin
to rely on its intelligence. For myself, the path that led to
initiation was curiously direct. The unrest following the Rodney
King verdict in 1992 led me to ask hard questions about racism
and interracial reconciliation. I began exploring the dreams
blacks and whites have about one another and was intrigued to
note that African-Americans carried the same core images of
whites that Bantu people have borne since the Portuguese arrived
in Central Africa in the late 17th Century. Further studies
showed me how important the water spirit tradition was among
those who were taken as slaves. Eventually I went to Africa to
talk to a native dream teller about the patterns I was seeing.

Augustine Kandemwa, a healer who works with the water spirits,
understood my intent from our first meeting in 1996. A child of
apartheid Rhodesia, my questions touched his own longings. "The
water spirits are peacemakers," he explained. That very night he
began my first initiation into the way of the ancestors.
Stripped them to the bone and stripped again and again: My
apprenticeship continues.

Much of my training the past few years has involved
assisting Augustine in the healing of sacred illness -- those
diseases caused by the ancestors themselves so that the afflicted
might be a vehicle for spirit's efforts to serve the living. A
young healer such as myself had to learn how to bridge the world
of the invisibles with the village, for only the invisibles are
able to heal sacred illness and their way is initiation.

At first one might think nothing could be further from
the ambience of a modern American hospital than a little African
community wrestling with spirits, but once I started seeing UCLA
Medical Center as a village, the differences became less and less

An anthropological oddity I face whenever I return to
work is that in Western medicine, doctors and patients
live indistinctly different cultures. Matters of the sacred haven't
been a medical concern in the West since the Renaissance, but the
majority of my patients and their families see healing as
intrinsically tied up with spirit. I don't expect "sacred
disease" to enter into the Western lexicon any time soon, but
there is no doubt that for many the ordeal of illness and the
possibility of healing call up the deepest questions of faith. I
see the hospital as a hive of initiatory dramas that I meet as
well as I can.

A few milligrams of morphine sulfate to take the edge
off the pain; a little conversation to take the edge off the
fear; coffee for sister, or father at the bedside -- these
ritual acts in a different key are familiar from Africa:
circling the sacred grove to protect the heart of vulnerability
in which the soul is transformed. Sometimes I'm asked to pray,
sometimes merely pose the pregnant questions. "How do you make
sense out of all this?" or "You've been through hell. What is it
that sustains you?"

This last question is almost always answered in the
same way: "My faith keeps me going," and "My kin or community
hold me up." If I had to name the essence of the rite of
initiation that happens in a thousand ways in the hospital, it's
about being undone by fate and reimagining one's life within a
web of human interconnection which is in turn sustained by an
unseen source. Again, this is familiar from Africa -- but
Americans bring their own wild poetry to it.

Mike DePonce, for example. At 29, Mike was diagnosed
with a rare form of bone cancer. Months of chemotherapy and
radiation, bleeding gums, nausea, unit after unit of blood, the
loss of a third of his femur, he and his wife Sheba finally
entered that mysterious country called "remission" where they
lingered for two years.

There is something unsinkable about Mike and Sheba
which I can only describe as the appetite of life for life. Together for only nine months before Mike's diagnosis, when I askwhat keeps them going, it seems to boil down to loving each other
passionately, wanting to bring a child into the world, faith,
prayer and a rather astonishing community of support.

Mike is a firefighter by profession. He explained,"When there's
a problem, firefighters just go in and fix it. But
when I got sick, it's the first time nobody knew what to do. My
hair was all gone from chemotherapy, and a buddy came up with an
idea for a fundraiser -- The Great American Shave Off. For a
$20.00 donation, folks had their heads shaved. They also sold
baseball caps with my badge number on them.
Guys on duty would drive up in the truck, jump off and in
five minutes drive away bald."

Firefighters, some of their sons, friends from high school --
all together about 170 bald heads became a public event
on the streets of Santa Barbara. In addition, for well over a
year, Mike's buddies have been working his shifts, protecting his
medical benefits.

I confess I've known Sheba since she was a girl. A
"daughter-once-removed," I've watched her become a woman of great
presence and integrity. When things get dark, the prayer she has
come to rely on is, "Teach me what I need to know."

"What we are going through is so life changing. The
prayer is not about a cure exactly. Of course we want that. But
the prayer is deeper. It's about faith, about listening, paying
attention to what God might want."

There are very few tribal rites that equal the
intensity and risk of a bone marrow transplant -- the
obliteration of the immune system and the razing of the body's
capacity to produce its own red blood cells -- and then, the
regeneration of this fluid world that makes life possible. Many
don't survive. When I heard that Mike and Sheba had made the
choice, I knew we were at the threshold of what Augustine calls
"proper initiation."

Every night at work I would gaze stolidly at the
computer, watching Mike's lab values crumble as intended. When
his already low white blood cell count dropped to a twentieth of
what it had been the previous morning, he was in danger. I knew
it was time to sing.

The threshold songs are songs of support and
protection, the invisibles in a circle around the bed. They are
also songs that the spirits might reveal what God intends so the
soul is fed by the mysteries. Mike had been asleep much of the
day, but when I sang, he roused, soft and lucid. I took a drop
of blood from Sheba's finger, mixed it in water with Mike's fever
sweat and called the ancestors -- a traditional offering in a
styrofoam cup. I called also the spirit of fire to this man who
knows something of fire. An incomparable ally, that one, a
fierce warrior. Finally Mike and Sheba cast the oracle to
discern the path through: challenging but ultimately benevolent.
When the clock said 7:00, I saw I must step back into time. Down
the hall, my night shift was starting.

As Mike prepared for his bone marrow transplant, his
community once again came to the fore, eagerly donating more than
enough blood and platelets to carry Mike through his descent. At
this writing I leave an orange, a little honey, sweet wild lilac
at a creek and sing her a song on Mike's behalf. The blood of
Mike's community will soon be his life's blood. Such is the
mystery that his life has delivered him to.

In traditional societies initiation is never a private
matter: It renews the culture itself. When Sheba quoted a poem
by one of Mike's friends, "Stand together we stand tall/We will
not let a brother fall," I hear the vigor of a loving community
but also an echo of the Yoruba proverb: "If we stand tall, it is
because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors." And I
imagine the young men fresh from the forest, their heads shaved
and the ritual white clay washed from their bodies. They have
returned to the village, these ones, and now they are men and
greeted with drumming and song. The elders smile because they
know the world will continue.

All proceeds from the publication of this essay go to the Nganga Project.
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Michael Ortiz Hill is a registered nurse and tribal healer among the Bantu people in South Central Africa. His books include Gathering in the Names
(Co-authored with Augustine Kandemwa), Spring Audio and Journal, 2003,
and the soon to be reissued Dreaming the End of the World
(Spring Publications, 2004).
Both are available at
Read more about Michael’s work and writings at

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