Learning from African Cosmology

Abstract from a talk by Colin Campbell at the Gaia Foundation. Written by Stephen Frank.

Colin Campbell was born in Zimbabwe but grew up in rural Botswana where he was steeped in Tswana culture and spiritual practices from a very early age. Today he is a sangoma (spirit medium), herbalist and traditional doctor. With his brother, Colin founded a training school and initiation centre for traditional doctors and sangomas, Ngwenyama, in Botswana which has become intrumental in reviving indigenous culture and practices over a wide area there. He has a private practice consulting individual clients in Cape Town and also runs programs on Southern African indigenous knowledge and practices.

There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in. - Leonard Cohen

Colin Campbell grew up in a Botswana full of wild animals and with traditional people living in traditional ways. In the last five years all of this has changed. The animals have vanished and the traditions have disappeared. He is shocked by this, as are the people who consult him in his role as a traditional practitioner. They ask: What has happened? What are we doing? Why is this happening?

The traditional people of Southern Africa understand the world through story. These stories give meaning to life and its processes and show us who we are. Colin talks about the machine as the deity of our time and suggests that our association with machines leads us to see and judge ourselves as we see and judge machines - that is, in terms of what we do and what we produce, rather than who we are.

According to the elders with whom Colin works, this is one of our fundamental problems. Understanding ourselves through machines that produce effectively does not work for us. When we go into the natural world, we can see the folly of this. He asks, 'Does the sparrow evaluate itself on how many nests it builds each year, or the lemon tree on how many lemons it produces?'

Our relationship with nature and with the land is so important because our fundamental nature is reflected in nature itself. Pre-industrial cultures in Southern Africa had inextricable relationships with land. It was the ground around which the story of the culture coalesced and described itself. The land is the spirit and the spirit moves from the land through the community, through individual people. Our present crisis has to do with the fact that we have separated ourselves from land. In so doing we have separated ourselves from our own basic natures - from our own spirit, because there is no division between these two facets.

We cannot change anything out there in the world until we ourselves fundamentally change who we have become. However, we are entranced by who we have become. In order to begin to re-vision ourselves into a more satisfying story, we must find ways to see through the one we are living now. But how do we begin to discover the story that will reconnect us with our basic natures again? In the last few hundred years, since the advent of the industrial age, we seem to have lost most of the knowledge that connects us directly to the natural world. Colin suggests that in order to re-find our relationship with our basic natures through the natural world, we need to reconnect with our primal cultural roots. We need to connect with the pre-industrial cultures that still exist here on earth - those peoples who still live as we did for the greater part of our history. He is not saying that we must go back to a pre-industrial way of living, but that our pre-industrial roots contain the key to re-dreaming our way forwards as human beings.

Colin believes we are living in an extremely potent time. He suggests we are in the process of an evolutionary shift. This shift requires, in a sense, a rite of passage. It is well understood within traditional cultures that a rite of passage requires that something has to die in order to make room for that which is being born. During the transition, there is an empty period - a limbo - when the old has died but the new has not yet been born. Because there is a fundamental resonance between the nature of the wilderness and our own fundamental nature, this time in limbo is usually best spent in the wilderness. Time in the wilderness takes us back to our own true basic nature, to our own truth. Exposing ourselves to nature during this time is not just important, it is vital.

Many things appear to be falling apart around us. The seamlessness of the trance that has held us is beginning to disintegrate. The universe that we have created, the universe of the machine and us as machines within it, is developing cracks. There is a death occurring. The way things were cannot be any longer, but what will be has not yet shown itself. In this limbo, many people can be heard saying, 'I don't know who I am, I don't know where I'm going, I don't know what's important anymore. Everything seems to be in a state of flux.' Our tendency is to want to try and patch it all up and re-create the sense of seamlessness again. However, Colin believes that the force of what is happening will, to some extent, foil our attempts to do that. Something else is beginning to seep in through the cracks.

In the tradition within which Colin works, one of the four interacting components of the spirit is understood to be made up of ukhanya - light, the animating force. Colin holds that the entire universe is made of light. Early on, plants developed the capacity to take photons of light and convert them into the edible substances on which we live. In effect we live off light. Light is the animating force that flows through everything. This is the principle of ukhanya. It is not the electric light that we create, but the Sun's animating light. Ukhanya is most strongly found in plants and we receive most of our ukhanya as physical human beings from plants. Where there is a deficit of plants, there is a deficit of ukhanya. Where there is a deficit of ukhanya there is inyama, darkness. Where there is darkness, things die. In the industrial age, one of the things we have done in response to our fear of our own basic nature is to get rid of nature as far as we can. We have concreted over the earth, we have mown down the trees and put buildings in their place. And even though this has many benefits and represents a lot of power, the problem is that it takes ukhanya away from us - the ukhanya that exists in nature and nourishes us. Sickness occurs - from a traditional African perspective - wherever ukhanya is low. This lack of ukhanya plunges us into darkness and the darkness begins to reflect itself as a kind of depressing sensation within the self, a loss of a sense of vitality, a loss of a sense of purpose, a loss of belonging, a loss of a sense of context - all of which describe the sickness of the modern age.

Colin suggests that the purpose of sickness is to bring our attention to the possibility and the need for change. Wanting to live and be alive is implicit in the nature of who we are. However, to do this we need to remember how to augment ukhanya again because forgetting is costing us dearly. It is plunging us into a severe crisis, a terrible sickness, manifesting in our bodies and in our world. We need to relearn how to generate ukhanya, light, within ourselves and within our world. The traditional cultures that still exist still have this knowledge.

When people come to Colin for healing he no longer tells them what to cut out from their diets, but rather gives them a list of healthy things to include. In time, his patients quite naturally begin to exclude the foods that are bad for them. Similarly, he suggests, we do not concentrate on dismantling the things that are wrong in our world, but begin to incorporate ways of life that are generative. In time, he believes, as they reach levels of so-called critical mass, they will displace those aspects that need dismantling.

Colin also suggests that in order to begin healing ourselves we need to go back to the places out there in nature where ukhanya is manifesting strongly. These are the fundamental portals - known as sacred places - through which light comes into being in this physical world. Usually these places are where a lot grows, or where there is water with a lot growing around it. There are, for instance, many spots like this on Hampstead Heath. We need to learn from these places how to resonate with the ukhanya there in order for it to happen in ourselves and in our culture and in our world as human beings again. We are faced with this task now, to reconnect with our deep nature, so that spirit can manifest once more. According to African tradition, when ukhanya is not able to manifest within us because it cannot find a place in us, we begin to die. The wind, umoya - the vehicle on which the spirit travels - then blows into us and blows out again because it cannot find a place to rest.