Continued from Page One
A CURIOUS TALE OF DISAPPROVAL, FLYING, CRASHING AND CONNECTION.
The day began sunny and clear. I gazed toward the mountains and ridges as I had coffee on the porch, spotting two black eagles soaring. They dipped and dived, only to float back up on the currents of air rolling up the ridge. At the time, I was an avid but relatively new paraglider pilot, I was envious and eager to join the eagles.
I had grabbed my paragliding gear and hiked up, bathed in the scent of sagebrush and wild herbs. I found a launch spot. A flat, clear space, shortly after I had crested the ridge, seven or eight hundred feet above the valley floor. The wind was smooth and steady. The eagles were no longer in view.
I launched and felt exhilarated as I became airborne. I soared out over the valley, lifted a few hundred feet more and glided around over it for a while. After flying a bit and feeling satisfied, I made a gentle landing on the valley floor. Perfect!
I hiked back to my friends’ farm and, as I approached, I encountered the sangoma for the first time. He had a stern demeanor. He accosted me and scolded me for flying in the domain of the ancestors and the eagles. He had told me that I did not understand the forces and spirits that were present and that I should not be flying with the eagles, doing something that I knew nothing about. He was adamant.
Of course, he was right. I did not understand his perspective. Flying like an eagle was an adventure. It was fun. It was not his private property. And, I was going fly again.
Soon after, on the back porch, eating my lunch of zadza (cornmeal porridge) and tea, the flying conditions had looked great, again, although there were no eagles aloft. I decided to have another go. As I hiked up the mountain for the second time I noticed that the sun had gone behind some clouds which were beginning to form. I went to my previous launch area, set up my gear, and launched.
The wind had more punch in it than in the morning, I soared back and forth along the ridge-line with ease, surfing the gusty wind currents. The wind grew in strength providing exhilarating updrafts which I rode well above the ridge-line – two thousand feet above – enjoying the freedom. As I tried to turn back into the wind to fly out over the valley to land, I realized that I could make no headway into the wind. Suddenly, this was not fun. I had to figure out how to get down and do it safely. There was no way forward into the wind. I was tracking backwards over the ground, while my glider faced into the wind. I would have to try to lose some altitude by flying behind the ridge, over a large plateau and beyond a deep canyon. The wind became stronger and turbulent. I was fearful. The paraglider’s canopy kept collapsing and then re-inflating.
I fought my way out over the plateau and over the canyon, terrified, where I managed to wrestle my way to the ground in a small, rocky meadow filled with grazing deer. I landed hard, scraping my elbows and knees and bruising my thighs and butt. I was shaken, sore, and out of breath, but grateful to have survived. I had a long trek back to the farm. Fortunately, I was able to get a ride in a truck that was passing when I got to the road. The truck dropped me at the front gate. Limping, along the path, trying not to look injured, I encountered the sangoma for the second time that day…
He didn’t seem angry. He looked more exasperated. He did have words for me. “I told you that you should not try to soar with the eagles in the zone of our ancestors. We do not belong there! You did it anyway. You are lucky to be alive.”
I was embarrassed. He was right.
He continued, “Too much flying.. Too much going up there and coming back. Too much time in their world. You could become one of them. You might never come back!” He pointed to the mountain where the pair of black eagles had returned and were soaring magnificently in the currents over the ridge from which I had barely escaped.
I was humbled and forced to see things from his perspective. In truth, men do not fly with the ancestors and the eagles and return. There is but one passage to that state. My passages between the two states which were life-changing events were too many. He looked at me and laughed aloud. “Maybe, you are one of them. I give you a new name, Nomekwezana,” he said proudly. And that’s what the chief and tribespeople called me from that moment on. I felt a certain acceptance and I was proud, although, strangely, I was uncertain just what he thought I was and why he had changed from hostile disapproval to acceptance and approval.
I’ve been thinking about this experience over the years since it occurred and it has informed my approach to my clients, my analytical framework, my creativity, and my drive for practical solutions.
I went flying, was soundly rebuked by a witch doctor for doing so, defied him by taking to the air a second time, survived a rough flight and a rougher landing, had a tribal name conferred upon me in recognition of my feat, and gained the respect of the tribe. The sangoma watched a young white kid fly like an eagle, defying his orders in doing so, survive the flight and the landing, and reconsidered his appraisal of humans flying with the eagles. Pretty unique experience for each of us and a salutary outcome.
I did not share, or even understand, the sangoma’s culture and worldview. The sangoma had surely never seen a man fly like an eagle, before, and was unlikely to have understood my drives and values. Yet, we both learned and there was a good outcome. In trying to understand his perspective, it occurred to me that he was actually able to communicate with the spirit-world of the ancestors, embodied, perhaps, by the eagles. The eagles had stopped flying when I first launched and only reappeared in the sky after I had crashed and returned to the farm. Was this the sangoma’s doing? The second flight might well have severely injured or killed me. Was the quick change in the conditions evoked by the sangoma in concert with the ancestors? Had I gained his respect and won my tribal name by surviving a struggle with the spirit of the ancestors?
Awkward as our initial interaction had been, I could only understand events and the outcome by trying to understand his worldview, his role and suspend disbelief to account for his possible powers.
The sangoma existed in a type of pre bronze-age mode. “Pre-Axial” is the term the erudite use. His existence, cultural position and philosophy ruled by repetition over generations and the tribal, willful, practiced subservience to the ancestors. Glorification of the ancestors and swift justice for non-compliance.
My existence and culture oozed with freedom, individual expression, transformation and transcendence. We came from two very different ways of creating and identifying meaning. Yet we were able to connect, communicate and express mutual appreciation.
This event facilitated an unexpected and profound insight into the possible bridges between individuals and cultures. The fruitful exercise of exploring shared yet different approaches to reality. The event then becoming much more meaningful, life-giving and inspirational than its lurking downside and obvious brush with death.
In the years since, as I engage with clients, I bring my experience, philosophy and bag of tricks. But I also remain open to understanding and working with and within my clients’ worlds and the possibilities of unimagined experiences. This builds a better foundation as I work. It stimulates creativity in designing elegant solutions and pragmatic implementations for my clients.
Nomekwezana or Verreaux’s Eagle (Aquila verreauxii)
Verreaux’s Eagle is a large African bird of prey. It is also called the Black Eagle.
(Photography of eagles on this page by Derek Keats. Photo of Sangoma on this page by by Attila Jandi (Dreamstime). Sketch of Black Eagle from Lesson, R. P. (1830). Centurie zoologique, ou, Choix d’animaux rares, nouveaux ou imparfaitement connus par R.P. Lesson. Chez F.G. Levrault, Paris. pp. 104–106.)