WATCH | US-born sangoma cites encounter with Tutu as catalyst for her new life
Fateful Tutu encounter leads American woman on ‘journey home’ to traditional healing
What can life’s outcomes be when we look beyond the realms of what we imagine to be possible?
This question burned in my mind above all others while in the company of the incredible American-born, Christa Gumede Buthelezi, who now lives in Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal, and among other practices has been given the title of traditional healer or sangoma in SA.
Christa was born the eldest of four children in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the 1960s.
She describes her early life as a toxic period, having to assist in raising her siblings from an early age — while abuse of every kind was a constant theme, inside and outside the house.
“We were not protected from it and so that had a lot to do with the way I was wired and am still wired to some degree. Despite decades of working on it.”
Despite coming from a family that she describes as being filled with deep-seated racism and “a fear of the unknown”, Christa says she always felt drawn to people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultural heritages.
A gentle smile tugs on her lips as she remembers leaving Cape Cod for a summer babysitting gig in Atlanta — she ended up staying for a year, before forging a new path for herself. She ended up working in a small Montessori school, where she befriended a warm-hearted African-American woman named Annie Jefferson.
“She was the first person, as an adult, who took me under her wing and taught me a lot about her culture and how she saw me bridging between the two cultures,” she says.
In January, after weeks of failed attempts, I found myself nestled across the couch from Christa as heavy mists and tropical growth extended as far as the eye could see from the lounge of the healer’s Hillcrest home.
Her eyes easily lit up during her lengthy honouring of all those who moulded her life along the way.
Continuing to search for happiness and purpose in the US, Christa says she had always dreamt of visiting SA. In 2015 she was living with her husband and daughter in Washington. She had tried various times to visit the country she felt unconsciously connected to, but it took a chance encounter with a SA icon at a White House event with her lawyer husband to convince her to finally take the trip home.
After some time off I’d returned to duty days before global peace icon Desmond Tutu passed away. Like many South Africans I felt an uneasy sense of loss. From a young age “the Arch” was a name weighted with the utmost respect in my family home.
I’d spent four days in Cape Town, covering the final farewells for a man whom many viewed as the country’s sharpest moral compass. Little did I know the dejection I felt, would be shared so intently by Christa.
One would imagine there would be no shortage of fascinating guests at the White House, but Christa only hoped to meet one specific guest, Desmond Tutu — a man she had long revered.
“Tutu was standing at one end and there was a photographer and people were lining up to take pictures with him. I remember thinking I would give anything to talk to him, I don’t care about a photo.”
The healer’s face lights up as she draws on her memory of a person approaching. Seconds later she had her hands grasped out in front of her by Tutu, greeting her as if she was an old friend.
“He asked me about my life and asked me what I was doing and then asked me whether I’d been to his country, SA.
“I thought to myself, I know where you live, dude, I’ve tried, got cancer, this happened. And he said, no shame, it will all work out, but you must come home now.”
The surreal experience was epitomised for Christa when the archbishop leant in and asked her: “The last time we were together, do you remember, I was not able to bless you. Can I bless you in this here White House?”
She remembers how she felt and how that single event was the catalyst in finding her way home.
I think all traditional African practices are much closer to filling our basic human needs, and in the white world, we have sanitised life to the point where we are missing these practices.Christa Gumede Buthelezi
Christa went from scouring National Geographic magazines for pictures of SA as a child, to flying to the country as an adult in October 2015. She spent a month in the country, living in top-end reserves, travelling through many of the country’s provinces and experiencing many of the land’s diverse cultures.
After a month in SA, she returned to her family in the US with a heavy heart. She felt unfulfilled, and by her own admission could only speak about her trip or cry for days on end.
“My husband and I were not sleeping in the same room at that point — we hadn’t been in a long time — and I went in one morning and was watching him sleep as I often would, and he woke up and said to me, ‘you’re going back aren’t you?’ and I said yeah.”
Christa returned to SA to work with volunteer groups in early 2016. Due to visa requirements, she would leave the country every three months briefly to renew her visa.
During one of her frequent trips to Phindi, a lodge in KwaZulu-Natal, Christa convinced one of her local guide friends to take her to see a “real” sangoma. Having always explored different paths of healing, Christa sought a visit with a traditional healer that wasn’t part of the usual tourist spiel.
“We walked into this roundhouse that was kind of dark and filled with gourds, coffee cans, formula cans, bottles, beaded things and animal skins. We sat on mats and waited, and Baba Gumede shuffled in at some point,” Christa laughs as she describes the somewhat dishevelled look of the man who would become her father upon their first meeting.
She says she immediately felt a connection with Baba, despite him not being able to speak any English other than the word “light” for “right”. After some general discussion, Christa asked the sangoma if he had any insights on her remaining in SA as she felt her heart was here.
Gumede said the two would talk some more upon their next encounter, knowing Christa would return.
“There was that recognition, and I was aware that he also felt it. It was not anything I was used to or could explain in words but it was just a knowing,” Christa says.
As her visits continued, he consistently spoke to her about ubizo, or the calling, asking her about her dreams, if she’d lost children and so forth. The answers were mostly yes. It became apparent he could see a traditional healer’s path for her.
“He started calling me his daughter after a couple of months and I didn’t think much of it at first, but then realised that he meant more, like his actual daughter,” she says.
Months later Gumede sat Christa down and told her a story of how after his first child was born, he was in discussion with his own Mkhulu, his grandfather, who said this may not be his first child. He then proceeded to tell Gumede that his firstborn child would come to him later in life, fully grown. Gumede began to train Christa in traditional healing.
In 2018, while Christa was on one of her visa-required trips, Baba fell ill and passed away. She immediately went home and led the funeral preparations as the eldest daughter — a clear indication that the family had been as prepared for the prophecy as Baba was.
Traditional practices are not the only place Christa finds her healing. She also finds solace in creative outlets such as writing and creating multi-medium artworks. The walls of her home are bejewelled with artworks of complex, colourful layers. She draws from dreams and experiences, and the paintings around the house reflect a life brimming with colourful moments.
After Baba’s death, Christa continued her path in helping others heal using his teachings. She’s had to adapt her practice during the coronavirus pandemic. Sceptical at first to stray from traditional practices, Christa had an increasing number of clients requesting virtual consultations.
The healer lights a candle before starting the consultation, where she communicates with the spirits or ancestors and relays and interprets the information with her client. A complete sense of trust hangs in the air and the lengthy discussion is littered with inexplicable coincidence.
“I think all traditional African practices are much closer to filling our basic human needs, and in the white world, we have sanitised life to the point where we are missing these basic practices. I personally, and my father agreed with me, think that accounts for a lot of the world’s ills.”
Shaped by trauma, she now dedicates her life to helping others. After a year filled with trauma, I felt drawn to Christa and the simple humanity her complex journey bears.
In a world of juxtapositions, her gentle nature and vivid passion for matters of all things culture, creative and conducive to living as colourful a life as possible, left me equally compelled and inspired.
In later discussions, I admitted that my time with her may just have been enough to restore my hopes for humanity. She left me with a simple response: “Then my work is done.”
Christa has published her first book UBIZO: A Story of Coming Home and is writing her first novel and planning a series of children’s novels honouring traditional Zulu stories and myths.
UBIZO: A Story of Coming Home is available internationally in paperback and hardcover via Amazon, Barnes&Noble and by order through independent booksellers. The e-book is on Kindle. Paperback edition is available in SA — email firstname.lastname@example.org