I'm in an upstairs room in a damp travellers' lodge in Muizenberg, all wood and creaky steps. Mbali Creazzo, a traditional diviner, is seated on the floor in front of me, a hand-painted sheet laid out between us with five colours painted in a circle to represent five elements: fire, water, minerals, nature and earth.
There's a heap of little stones and shells in the centre of the sheet. Her many necklaces of white beads and cowrie shells clatter. She asks me to sit, clasp a R2 coin in one hand, close my eyes and spread the stones around the cloth with my other hand. I squeeze my eyelids shut and spread out the stones.
We're doing a divination, consulting my ancestors about my destiny. Through Creazzo, the stones begin to speak. My ancestors are not happy. They think I'm hiding my real self from the world. "They want you to come out," she says, twisting her mouth reprovingly.
I've come to Creazzo in a search for the divine. I've always felt there's some holiness contained in things and events beyond what science and logic perceive. But how to access it? Culturally, I'm a happy Jew, but when it comes to God, Judaism's singular and tempestuous personality racing around the deserts as a pillar of fire smiting everybody who rubs him up the wrong way doesn't do it for me.
By my lights, the supernatural is bound to be more universal and exotic. On some level, belief systems that locate God in nature ought to appeal to me, but so often these also seem to demand performing odd and arbitrary rituals, wearing capes and moaning in ancient tongues – it's all very alienating.
As a young person, I once called 1-800 DRUIDRY, the American hotline for the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. The beginning of the introductory voicemail was fine – a voice soothingly outlined the love of nature and the arts inspiring the order – but then the voice started exhorting me in Gaelic, and it sounded so funny I couldn't stop laughing.
Then I met Creazzo, the diviner. She sublet my Johannesburg cottage for a month in 2013 before she relocated to the Western Cape. A radiant woman of 62 with snowy hair, an ageless face the colour of burnt sugar and a peaceful aura, she was born in the 1950s to a pair of coloured schoolteachers in Port Elizabeth and then taken at age three to London for a better life.
There she participated in the free love and flower power movements, and became a bodywork healer with a master's in integrative medicine. She soon found she was able to "see" her clients' interior emotional landscapes; her healing work began to take on a more psychological and spiritual tone.
She also became an alcoholic.
"In London I was beginning to feel more and more disconnected," she told me recently. "I felt disconnected from nature, from a God, from a source. It was like I had no soul."
At a low point in her life, she moved to the United States and met a famous diviner named Malidoma Patrice Somé, who hails from the mystical Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso. He sat her in front of the sheet painted with the Dagara elemental wheel, the same sheet I sat in front of, and called her ancestors to advise her.
"I started to shake, physically, and I started to cry," she remembers. "'And I said: 'I feel like I'm home.' And that was it. I never looked back."
She went on to study to become a diviner in communicating with the ancestors in the Dagara tradition.
In a few conversations I had with Creazzo as I handed over my cottage, I had an eerie feeling she could perceive my emotions, ones I was trying hard to cover up; I had an inexplicable sense she knew more about my life and future than I did. Beyond her Dagara training, she had also schooled with Credo Mutwa, the hoary South African sangoma who famously warned Hendrik Verwoerd he would die by the knife, and I wondered about her methods.
There's a long history of Westerners seeking alternative spirituality to shine a light on to mysteries our own traditions seem unable to unveil. A high-powered friend living in New York recently confided to me that she had visited a psychic – it was one of the most exceptional experiences of her life.
Many United Nations diplomats, she said, consult the same mystic. I wanted some alternative insight myself. I booked a divination.
The moment I sat down, the sense she could see my invisible soul intensified. The stones correctly divined that my "medicine," or the gift I'm meant to bring to the world, is to communicate – and "to help others bring their own messages into the world", Creazzo added. That was interesting because I'd been thinking lately that I wanted to mentor young writers. She pinpointed exactly the sense of homelessness and longing in love I'd been feeling, too.
I must admit, though, that it was a challenge to get hip to the idea that my dead ancestors are still around and influencing my life. Peering at the stones, Creazzo divined that a friend of mine who died in college – "ancestors" can be taken loosely – still felt attached to me, and we were both dragging each other down. I had to release her. Creazzo gave me a ritual: drop a memento of my friend into an ocean, relinquishing her aching spirit into the enveloping sea.
Unfortunately, I wasn't scheduled to be near an ocean any time soon. So instead I crumpled a sheet of song lyrics that reminded me of her into a ball and tossed it into a marsh near my house. The ball floated to join an iceberg of other litter, including sweet wrappers and a pair of men's underpants. I wondered whether the ancestors would accept the spirit of the law, instead of the letter.
Later, at home, I fretted that the stagnant marsh wouldn't give my friend's spirit the sense of passage the tides would have offered, so I tied the same song lyrics into a little cloth bundle and tossed it into the toilet, reckoning it would thus join some kind of figurative stream to the sea. But when I flushed, it didn't sink. It just whirled forlornly atop the froth generated by the toilet-bowl freshener.
Somewhere in the other world an ancestor is screaming.
But I left the session itself with an overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquillity, greater than I'd felt in years.
Somé, Creazzo's teacher, says on his website that divination "is a process by which your epic story is reflected back to you, giving you greater clarity about your gift to the world".
That was what I experienced.
As she finished reading my stones, Creazzo told me incredibly resonant things about the aims of my writing. I'd been weighing whether to take my work in a more personal direction, striking out from the straight journalistic tradition, and without my asking she confirmed – via the ancestors – that I should do just this.
It gave me a resolute and lasting sense of purpose that the Western method of decision-making, with all its weighing of options, totally precludes.
And perhaps that's what spirituality always offers in the end: some sense of direction you don't have to generate within your perpetually conflicted self. A sense of being led. We look down on followers in this take-charge era but, more deeply, we still yearn to follow guides.
I left my divination unsure whether ancestral powers or a simpler psychological perspicacity had given Creazzo her guiding wisdom – but I was ready to follow it.
Eve Fairbanks, an American-born writer, is working on a book on change in South Africa.