Nicola Robins is a Yale trained scientist, university and business lecturer and leading consultant; she is also an African sangoma (diviner and healer). A difficult journey through strange and frightening experiences was resolved through her openness to African beliefs and the spiritual training she underwent in rural Botswana.
I first made contact with Nicola Robins when planning a trip to Botswana. I eagerly wanted to attend a gathering of sangomas (traditional healers) celebrating the first fruits of the season, which I knew she was planning to be a part of. The dates didn’t work out, but I got to know Nicola, one of relatively few white people fully initiated into this African tradition.Sangomas divine the causes of illness, conflict and misfortune in a state of light trance, at times using bones or other instruments; many are also trained in the use of medicinal plants. Trance connects a sangoma with the spirits of relatives or others who have passed away, known as the ‘ancestors’. Sangomas bridge the spiritual, physical and social realms to bring healing, harmony and balance.
Nicola is a scientist, consultant and sangoma
Healing through altered states has been practiced for millennia and all over the world, from Celts and Gauls to Tibetans and Bushmen. But the inquisition and rationalism in Europe literally burned out these traditions and smothered their practice. Colonialism and modernity carried this hostile attitude around the world stamping out trance as ‘primitive’.
Nicola upsets all one’s pre-conceptions of what a sangoma would be like. She is a Yale-trained scientist and business consultant. The company she co-founded, Incite, works with many of South Africa’s financial institutions and major companies developing sustainability strategies with senior management. She also lectures at Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.
Sangoma in South Africa
Yet there was a time, much earlier in her career, that she had had to stop working. Following a business trip to a diamond mine in the remote Kimberely Mountains of western Australia, she had begun to experience altered states of consciousness that she could not control: in the middle of a business presentation she might suddenly hear strange voices or see people’s words as light instead of sound as one might in a trance. It was unpredictable, frightening and made her work exceedingly difficult.
Only during high adrenalin sport could she switch off her mind to such experiences, otherwise they could occur at any time. For three years she saw every kind of practitioner and searched for explanations in medicine, quantum physics, philosophy and poetry. Her psychologist warned that, unless she was prepared to take medication, she was likely to end up in a psychiatric ward.
Strange experiences broke into Nicola's life
Only one practitioner seemed unfazed by her condition. She described her experiences to a Sangoma who laughed and said it was "ukuthwasa” - the traditional call to be a sangoma. The only healing was to undertake the training as a sangoma and learn how to enter more skilfully, and leave, a state of trance. Faced with the choice between drugs for psychosis and becoming a sangoma, Nicola ended up in a hut in Botswana obediently doing chores, learning about healing plants and divination, kneeling and dancing for hours.
It is a training designed not only to develop spiritual knowledge, but a character with a more balanced ego: sangomas must not take themselves too seriously, they are traditionally trained to exemplify laughter, kindness and maturity. This intense and sometimes unpleasant process included some extraordinary spiritual experiences, and by the end Nicola emerged from it with "buthle”, a sense of inner harmony and confidence that has remained with her and is evident to all who meet her.
Nicola’s training as a scientist told her that there had to be a cause to her "psychotic” experiences. She knew that she was not mentally ill: the visions and voices provided useful data that were simply not available in more rational form. Embracing African traditions, which have been maligned since colonial times, explained and resolved her disturbing experiences.
It gave her a new world view, more integrated, which acknowledges the need for harmony within society and with nature: in the language of business, she refers to these as ‘social capital’ and ‘natural capital’. Her vision for business sustainability is rooted in the values of interdependence and connection that she learned from Africa.
Nicola was willing to experience and learn from African traditions
Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 12 Aug 2012
Location: Southern Africa | South Africa, Botswana
Themes: living life, society | emotions, belief and spirituality, mind and body