An African Writer’s shamanism

1. My father’s mysterious death when I was eleven taught me – like nothing would ever have done –that everything, including people, is unreal. That, like Carlos Casteneda’s [shaman master], don Juan, I had to weave my own descriptions of reality into the available fantasy we call the world. I describe and live my descriptions. This, in African lore, is akin to witchcraft. My people could never again see me as anything but “strange”. It hurt, for the strangeness was not of my own making; I was desperately cynical for the descriptions were the only weird things I cared to name “truth”. They were the heart of my writing and I did not want to explain my descriptions because they had become my soul, fluid and flowing with the phantom universe in which our planet is but a speck among gigantic galaxies.

p 123, Dambudzo MarecheraMindblast

2. A traumatic and hence, mind-expanding shamanistic vision:

Out of the black sunlight, a mother gorges herself on the foetus screaming out of her. It silenced the light, froze it hard and black until its sharp bright edges cut deep into his heart. Human eyes had the same hard and dark glittering, the same refrigerated look. Which never quite looks anyone in the eye.
Susan’s single hypnotic eye. Excavating into me.
The excretion.

“What has not been done in the name of some straitjacket?’
My soul a neat shirtfront; these star-studded galaxies. Ashtrays on the desk overflow with stubbed inventions. Night and sky are refuges on a quay; the world debris piled at the edge of neat memoranda. White pebbles on a white beach dazzle the eye towards the lighthouse; a spurt of flame is the whiteman shooting grouse. Orion smiles at cracked tiles on Brixton roofs. The mirror flinches. Torn commandments of clouds shroud the sky from me*. Time and space enclose me in their fetid rooms.
Dambudzo Marechera, Black Sunlight


**Superego loses its intellectually constricting power to make us see everything in terms of “is” and “ought”. Temporarily losing these binds,  one sees reality, for the first time — that is as a series of attempts, material constriction and/or failures.

To reduce knowledge to material reality, as some might try to do, is altogether unnecessary and unreasonable. It is enough to know that there is a kind of morally indifferent material reality that does not correspond to our needs and wishes all the time, but can be made to do so sometimes.This form of knowledge is magical in a very inspiring sense, since it makes out that reality is both inside of us and outside of us at the same time. This viewpoint is ecstatic, exciting, and interactive

Typical Western thinking, by contrast, static and binary — nearly always an either-or proposition: either we believe that our destinies are totally in our hands or we deny we have any power and accept victimhood.  Intellectual shamanism is different:  according to intellectual shamanism, we take part in a reality larger than us, which sometimes we can influence and other times not, but in any case we realize that the participation itself is ecstatic.


Intellectual shamanism uses experiences of psychological trauma to free one’s self and one’s perspective from hidden forces of control. The most decisive trauma for triggering transformation is retrospectively termed “initiation”.  Seeing oneself from the outside, from a dissociated state, is seeing oneself from outside of time and space, and realizing the limitations on living one has unconsciously accepted.

People may say that they didn’t realize how much life had been passing them by until they had a near death experience. After that, they realized how they had been living their life effectively in a coma by following conventions and routines without actually living.

by Ernst Schade


Intellectual shamanism strategically takes advantage of existing experiences of trauma in order to make individuals free from invisible systems of control.


Shamans also play a role of psychopomp, to heal their communities.

Minds of every hue intermingle with matter
Only of concern of the Censor; Athena
And Malcolm X are the hosts, dealing
Out dagga and kachasu to freedom veterans. — from “Throne of Bayonets”

As for me, I enjoy a precarious dance between the traditional ideas about the shaman and a more abstract idea of the modern, 20th century shaman. Marechera has both sides.  In CEMETERY OF MIND, he revels in shamanistic disorder.

Also, it should be said that when Marechera’s writing “heals”, it does so violently — in the same sense that a surgeon is violent. This may not be the soothing impression that most would want to maintain about a “healer”, but this healing that takes place through an encounter with violence and disruption. The disruption, the chaos-making may be Dionysian, but so is the shamanic “ecstasy” of his poetic writing. Healing and wounding cannot be separated, either in the poetry, or in the ordinary surgeon’s work.

Ah, why does Marechera as one who confers with the dead (in “Throne of Bayonets”, quoted from above) offer kachasu to the spirits of the dead freedom fighters? Doesn’t he know that it is made of hedge clippings, rotten fruit, and other things found on the rubbish tip? I have this from an authoritative Zimbabwean source!

The verbal chaos and disturbing contents are precisely what the writer offers up for his nation’s healing. He is the psychopomp who supplies spiritual nourishment for war-battered heroes.


More:  Psychological tropes of shamanism in Marechera’s work


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s