Copeland, a tall, raw-boned Nyasa tribesman and witch doctor, poked the fire with a stick, sending a cloud of sparks spiraling into the night sky above South Africa.

John Ormsby Lawder, 12, was the only white person in the midst of the black tribesmen squatting around the bright fire watching and listening to the incantations of the fearsome-looking, bone-rattling Copeland.

Born in Durban, a seaport city on the Indian Ocean, the youngster spoke fluent Zulu, hunted in the bush with a catapulp, palled with black kids and never could figure why they got to herd the cows while he had to go to school.

Since his father, Edward, was called into the British Royal Navy in 1939, serving as a commander until the end of World War II, his mother, Therese, whom he called “mum,” was left to raise three feisty sons and operate a 600-acre sugar farm where the only workers were black tribes people.

John, who became a physician specializing in nutrition and preventive medicine, readily admitted that the witch doctor “made a greater impact on my life than anyone else. He was like a surrogate father. I was a wild little devil. I didn’t like school. My mother relied on Copeland to discipline me and my brothers. We not only respected him, we feared him.” He laughed.

“Copeland would squat at that fire, staring into it with those blood red eyes. He wore a necklace ringed with animal teeth and bones. In a pouch, he carried a set of bones, which he’d toss on the ground. He marked his patients with charcoal. He was some sight, he was. A very important man, highly respected by different tribes.”

From the time he was a boy until he reached manhood, John watched Copeland work his tribal witchcraft, using herbs, symbols and influencing thoughts.

“He appeared to cure people,” John said. “Even as a boy, he made me more conscious that perhaps there’s another area of healing that reaches beyond the strict science of medicine as we understand it.”

Copeland, who called John “Baas John,” also impressed him with his clairvoyant abilities. “During the war, he’d toss those bones and never failed to predict when my father was coming home from convoy duty.”

John remembered many occasions when Copeland told him that “Bass John” would die in a foreign land. “He said that some day I would become a medical doctor … like he was a witch doctor. Here I was with a grade-10 education, destined to be a sugar farmer like my father. It didn’t make any sense.”

But all of the above came to pass. John arrived in Canada in 1956, got his medical degree from the University of British Columbia, had a successful practice going in Torrance, California, where, as Copeland predicted, he died  “in a foreign land.”

 John Lawder was my friend and doctor.  Sorry to say, I never met Copeland, a fearsome witch doctor who’d give some religious scholars a run for their faith.  I would have loved to have interviewed old Copeland.

     — Boots LeBaron–

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