REACHING ACROSS WORLDS
Michael Ortiz Hill
We were at Great Zimbabwe in Central Africa. For an archeologist Great Zimbabwe is the most extensive ruin in Africa south of the pyramids. The center of the Shona empire: shards of porcelain in the Queen’s chamber from China, connected as it was to the Muslim trading routes that opened on the far coast. Walking between workers buttressing a wall a distance from the fallen tower, Augustine reminded me again that during the War of Independence, the apartheid forces placed land mines all around the ruin so the ngangas, the medicine people, couldn’t come here to draw strength from their ancestors.
Augustine Kandemwa is such a nganga. He works with the water spirits for Shona and Ndebele people and has extended his generosity the last few years by initiating my wife Deena Metzger and myself into his tribal tradition. The way of the water spirits is the Central African tradition of healing and peacemaking. On this particular day, the three of us were initiating a group of Westerners. "Great Zimbabwe is where the Mambokadzi and the Mambo live, the Queen and the King. This kingdom we are in is a kingdom of spirits," Augustine explains.
The essence of African traditions, as I see it, is the offering one makes to the spirits, to God. It could be offering one’s body to the drumbeat in a possession ceremony or leaving a flower on a stone in a creek — every offering is in reality the full offering of oneself. That is how we reach across worlds, extend ourselves towards the spirits so that they can meet us. In the tradition it is also the quintessential act of peacmaking: the reach across worlds.
Robin Wilds accompanied me up the holy mountain, past the cave where the King was buried. "The Queen has two faces," I told her. "One looks towards the welfare of the village. The other looks toward the forest and the wild things." Passing between boulders, I said, "Now it is time for you to dance an offering to the Mother of the Animals.
"Turn your back," she said, and I understood this offering was for the Mother’s eyes only. But facing outward to the forest, I saw her offering received — seven or eight baboons, stately and enthralled, gathering at a nearby cliffside, watching her. The offering, given freely, was fully accepted, and two separated worlds came together. Peacemaking.
I can say now that this was September 11, 2001. Two hours previous, in the country I would soon return to, a swift act of mass murder altered the territory of the world. Our little community huddled before CNN in a tourist hotel adjacent to the Ruins of the Empire, watching the redundant images, the redundant comparisons to Pearl Harbor: lacking a language for the incomprehensible but nonetheless calling on the metaphors of war, those old invocations that make it all seem so necessary, inevitable and righteous. We knew we had been well prepared to meet this moment and that now, as we were about to return to a country far different than the one we left, our true initiation was beginning. "The time of offering had arrived: offering the life itself to those who reach across worlds, the spirits of peacemaking."
Everyone in America remembers the moment when they learned what happened. Each of us are passionately involved in the story because it was a moment in which our world was punctured and we were delivered into a shapeless place by fear, grief, outrage, astonishment. As a nganga, I have to say that this is the blade of initiation, dividing who we were from who we are called to be. Tell the story, chew on it though it is indigestible, then carry with compassion its wild range of feeling and meaning and then step forth and make your offering. Your whole life has prepared you to meet this moment. The world is endangered.
In some Central African cultures, the initiates learn hundreds of proverbs. This is not to have a proverb to apply to every situation; rather, one is taken into the field of reflections the ancestors themselves carry when they sit in council with one another. My meditation now returns again and again to the proverb "One’s relationship with God is best measured by one’s relationship with one’s enemy."
The enemy, the aggrieved one who would happily kill us given the chance, whose wound we refuse to know, who we will always approach fully armed: this one the measure of my relation with God.
This week, spinning with disorientation, trying to find my way in the New America, to discern the path to reaching across worlds to the enemy, two threads presented themselves: one unbearably dark, the other sweet and filled with light.
The end of a long night shift at the hospital, where I work as a nurse: breakfast and the L.A.Times. On the second day of bombing an unstable nuclearized part of the world, the business section has an upbeat little article with three glossy photos of missile systems. Investors are "bidding up," we are told. And I think in what way am I/are we invested in apocalypse? Eager to invest or deeply invested but lying about it? What does the life we live in America cost the world? In what exactly do we invest our lives? Do we truly wonder why fanatics like the Taliban see us as both dangerous and spiritually deranged, why much of the world sees us as a rogue superpower? It is a dreadful thing when the enemy sees us more clearly than we see ourselves, but for that at least, we can be thankful. Since World War II, American policy in the Arab world has been brutal. In African medicine the offering that reaches across worlds is the simple acknowledgement of our actions and a recognition of their consequences. Until then, one is left in the predictably bloody hallucination of us versus them.
The next day, quite raw from this glimpse of seeing America through the enemy’s eyes, I was meditating in the hospital chapel when a very small man, a midget perhaps three and a half feet tall, walked up to the bookshelf. With much effort he took down the Koran and sat in the chair in front of me. While he was lost in reading, a Latina sat beside him who was soon equally lost in prayer. "I can’t ask her to move," he whispered to me. "She’s praying for all of us."
She smiled and moved out of his way. When he bagan drawing a chair so he could reach the drawer with the prayer rug in it, I stood up and got the rug for him. He laid it out, exquisitely raised his cupped hands to both sides of his head and silently sang the first sura of the Koran: "Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds; Most Gracious, Most Merciful," The prostrations done, the offering fully made.
When he finished, I helped him put away the rug. "Lately," I said,"I find myself praying only for peace between Muslims and non-Muslims. I come here every day to meditate before I’m with my patients, and every day I watch Muslim people lay out the rug and pray. May I ask you to teach me how to pray in the Muslim way?"
In an English that was both broken and lyrical, he said, "We want our forehead to be right in the dirt." Then he smiled mischievously and said, "We do this because we want to be very small before God, very, very small."
And having returned to America, I learn the Arabic prayer and prepare the offering, not as a Muslim but because peace requires that we get very, very small and reach across worlds to each other in "the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful…