Michael Ortiz Hill

The moments that open and deepen the story of giving one’s life to the sacred always involve the breaking of the heart. I think of Saint Francis of Assisi, who gave his life to seeing Christ in the shattered, the mad, the hopeless, the afflicted when he first met a leper and felt disgust. Or the young Prince Siddhartha, who would become the Buddha wandering beyond the palace walls and, overwhelmed by the dreadful anguish of the streets, committing his life to the realization of compassion. These stories move us because they are archetypal, commonplace: the stuff of our aspirations, the naked truth of the world we live in and what is asked of us to meet it.

For myself, three moments come to mind.

April, 1992. My wife Deena Metzger and I at the bedside of our friend Hella Hammid who is dying of cancer. This last night of her life, I am her nurse – her pulse slowing, her breathing first jagged, then soft and then the final gasp when she shot upright and collapsed in her son’s arms. Meanwhile, Los Angeles burned: four white police officers acquitted of beating Rodney King, and rage filled the streets. Hella’s room was filled with the tranquility a good death leaves in its wake; yet there was smoke in the air. Helicopters flew over. I wept for the world my young daughter was born to.

The spirits take note when one weeps for the world, when in terror and hope, one can say, "Make use of me." I began writing a book that required that I understand the tribal world African Americans originated from – tracing, for example, the origins of the full immersion baptism that swept Christianized slaves in America in the 18th Century across the Atlantic to its original form among Bantu speaking people; the ngoma of the water spirits.

Four years after the Rodney King verdict, I found myself in Africa at the doorstep of Augustine Kandemwa, a healer or nganga in the water spirit tradition. He recognized me from a dream as did his wife Simakuhle. That very evening, he began initiating me into the way of the ancestors and continues to do so.

At the beginning of my second initiation, I awoke from a terrifying racial dream: late night in the San Fernando Valley facing off against a huge black man in the employ of a white gangster, both of us armed with crow bars and covered with blood.

When I told Augustine the dream, he laughed. "That was a good workout," he said in his Britishized English. "I know that spirit well. He is a slave that your ancestors kept. When I was being initiated, I faced many such spirits. Remember, my ancestors were kings, and they also had slaves. I know just what to do. Follow me."

At the side of a pool of water, he put a little herbal snuff in the palm of my hand and said, "This will send that spirit home." As I inhaled, he dipped a fly whisk in the water and flicked it across my back. For perhaps three seconds, I was that black slave, enraged, humiliated and absolutely powerless beneath the master’s whip. And then – gone.

"That one will soon be back in his village, and he will be greeted with a feast because a warrior has returned and will protect the people. Now climb in the water and pray thanks. Now your spirits can be free."

The third moment…

The third moment took place two years later in another world altogether: 10th floor, UCLA Medical Center, bone marrow transplant, oncology. By now in Africa, I healed alongside Augustine and initiated others, but returning to America was always more than a little confusing. What could African medicine possibly mean in the high tech world I work in?

It was a busy shift when a call was transferred to my portable phone. A patient’s wife, crying, telling me her husband’s story. Mr. Blanchard was sixty-two, with few symptoms whatsoever, when a CT scan found extensive and effectively terminal metastatic cancer. Given high dose chemotherapy two weeks previous, he was suddenly comatose and in kidney failure. The bottom had fallen out of his family’s life, and his wife expressed confusion and rage.

"Would you like me to pray for him?" I asked. She said she would.

Mr. Blanchard lay pale and flaccid, an IV dripping, a face mask delivering oxygen. As I checked his vital signs and changed his diaper, I sang a song to the spirit of the crossroads, the one they say carries messages between worlds. Then I sat on his bed and directly addressed his prone body.

"Listen, Mr. Blanchard. Forgive me for bothering you, but I just talked to your wife, and she is very upset. Your teenage boy and your daughter are suffering. I think they are afraid that you will die without coming back first to be with them. I know it’s a lot to ask, but could you possibly return?"

Unresponsive, of course, but I knew somehow I was heard, that he would try. When I went home at the end of a long night, I was surprised by my confidence.

When I returned later in the day, he was sitting up, his wife feeding him. Two days later, he walked out of the hospital, had even begun to stutter.

A healer without a village is not a healer. Mr. Blanchard was one patient who showed me the hospital is my village, mending a life split between Africa and America.

The education of a healer begins with heartbreak and returns to it again and again. My training in the ngoma tradition has moved between the heartbreak of ritual initiation and that of everyday life and, by way of both, the blessed disenchantment from that narrow fantasy that my life belongs to me. The way of the nganga demands that one’s life belongs first and foremost to the village, to the numberless beings that suffer, to the world itself. In Africa when I pour the sacred maize beer into the earth as an offering to the ancestors, I am actually pouring my very self to those spirits that uphold and mend the world. And the prayer, quiet and tender, is always the same: "Make use of me."