Photo: African Photography Blog
In north-west Gauteng lies the sleepy town of Magaliesburg. The only visitors are tourists moving through to the various hotels that lie in prettier parts of the mountain and truck drivers going towards Botswana.
And then there are the people who come from all over the country, and the world, to seek advice from Salvatore Serio.
Driving down a potholed road just past the city centre, there are weather-battered petrol stations with glaring attendants, resentful to be standing outside on the rare occasion of snow in the province. After a cluster of shops advertising fairy ornaments and hot coffee, the winding road to Serio’s Healing Sanctuary begins. The trees running up the driveway look abnormally green compared to the dry cold surroundings.
This morning, Serio sits outside his consulting room, hot air rising from his mouth into the cold air as he pats the collection of dogs surrounding him.
A father-like figure
At the age of 75, Serio’s energy is that of a much younger man. His physicality is father-like, a large strong presence that fills the small rooms and offices that lead to his consultation room.
Although he has been in South Africa for more than six decades, his strong Italian accent and expressive hand gestures belie his heritage.
Serio holds intense eye-contact while he speaks and punctuates his speech with “You understand, hm?” and light jabs on your shoulder. He’s comfortable with placing his hand over your heart when talking about love, or running a finger across your head when explaining your thoughts.
His physicality is unusual in a world where touch between strangers has been made taboo, however it is not invasive or uncomfortable in any way. His frequent repetition of that overused phrase “I love you” seems so genuinely heart-felt that it is difficult not to smile and squeeze his hand back.
But the work Serio does in this quiet, peaceful place appears to be a lot more powerful than hugs and smiles. Serio’s reputation as a healer and psychic of sorts has kept him busy for the last 42 years, and he has consequently built a hospice in neighbouring Krugersdorp, an old age home, and this healing sanctuary to advance his work.
He rejects attempts to define what he does as psychic, clairvoyant or fortune-telling.
“To me, it’s nature, you understand? I want to feel you, you have an aura. So I must enter your aura, your energy. When I have your energy, I know everything. Not psychic, or you feel vibrations, because we are one people, we remove the body and we love each other so much, you understand?”
How this bubbly Italian man ended up in Africa, let alone the small town of Magaliesburg is a tale in itself.
“When I was ten, I told my mother, my wife, she is in Africa. I did come to Africa, I did meet my wife. I had never had a girl before. At the same age, hm, my wife told her friends at school that her husband was coming over from Italy.”
“We are like this, joo!” He brings his hands together and links his fingers. “You go to the right place, you meet the right person. We are 52 years married, and we are still like this,” he says, holding up his interlocked fingers.
“I remember how good it is to get some food”
Serio grew up in war-torn Italy. As the only boy in his family Serio was unable to finish his schooling as he began to work to help support his family.
“It was the best time of my life, because I remember how good it is to get some food, and now I get joy in giving other poor people food because I remember how good it is. I needed that to know.”
A turning point came when a hobo came in to his town, in need of assistance. Serio, his sister and his cousins helped wash the man with hot water. Whilst doing this, Serio saw a growth on the man’s neck.
“He had a growth here, on his neck, and I cut it off with a blade. All the rubbish came out, but then it started bleeding and the skin was hanging”
His sister and cousin told him that the old man would die and Serio would go to jail for killing the man. Serio spent the night praying that the man would be okay, and discovered in the morning that the man’s wound had completely healed.
“When I showed my mother she said ‘You have the devil inside you’. From there I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know why when people were sick I wanted to help them, and I could help them.”
Off to Africa
It was soon after this incident that Serio was given an opportunity to come to South Africa to work on the mines. Serio proved a successful builder, a skill he had never studied formally.
Marisa Serio, his daughter, grew up with her Catholic father and Afrikaans orthodox mother. She remembers stories from when her dad ran a construction business, where he could pick up faults and problems before the quantity surveyors could work out what was wrong.
“My dad has developed a wonderful mind, where he can tap into the resources of the universe. He knows what he needs to know and applies it to what he does.”
It was this intuitive understanding of the world around it, and his ability to heal that led to him opening up the sanctuary.
Like any skill, Serio explains that what he does has taken years of practice and hard work.
His consulting room is the definition of cosy, with warm arm chairs lining the sides of the room, and a seat not unlike a doctor’s chair to lie down on when he performs Reiki. While Reiki traditionally is the manipulation of energy without touching the body, Serio moves his hands up and down your body, pushing and squeezing different parts as he goes. Like his affectionate jabs while he talks, it does not feel like an invasion of personal space. When he placed his large, soft hands over my forehead and eyes, I felt incredibly peaceful.
While describing the many portraits of spirit guides on his walls, Serio tells of an experiences that shows the very powerful work he does at the sanctuary.
A desperate mother brought her eight-year-old son, Antonio Gras, to Serio. He had cancer of the stomach.
“He was green. The doctors had told the mother, maybe one month, but they can’t help him.” He placed his hand over a scar from the treatment, and when he lifted his hand the mark had transferred onto it. He asked them to come back the next week to try to do more healing.
Serio points to a dark portrait of a pale, sombre man with dark eyes. He explains that the man’s name is Peter Angelou, and he is a spirit guide of Serio’s.
When the mother returned, her son walked into the room. “The mother tells me, that one, he came. He came in the night and said ‘I want to take the goggo out of your stomach.” Serio has a beaming smile when he tells of Antonio’s four grown children.
While extreme illness and depression are some of the more serious reasons people seek out Serio’s guidance, the everyday burdens of love, loss and hope for the future is the more common guidance people are seeking. Such personal and emotional information is shared with ease as Serio pick up issues.
Serio is against giving negative messages to people about their past or future, but prefers to tell the people to “pull yourself together” and “think right, be positive.”
“I must see the good in you, I must see the love. I mustn’t tell you bad things, because it gets more power,” says Serio sternly.
Serio’s work naturally draws criticism , especially in a town so long dominated spiritually by the Afrikaans Orthodox church, the NGK. Marissa describes growing up in such a small town where her family’s spirituality was not accepted by some parts.
“People are better now, and are more open-minded. In the beginning years, it was tough. Especially the Christian churches, and very rigid philosophies, they were very afraid of what my dad was doing. And judged it a lot without really exploring it properly. We were often rejected and judged.”
Marisa helped run the family hospice, where she came against resistance from people who were scared of her “different connection to God”.
“Our family philosophy was that this is not something we fight about, or try convince someone about. This is a way of life you find for yourself. We’d rather try to see the divinity in every body, and try to speak to that divine part.”
Marisa even quietly mentions that people from the church do come and visit Serio, and ask him to keep their visits a secret.
Up the road from the sanctuary, I meet a woman named Tracey McMahone, whose own life has been changed by Serio and the healing sanctuary.
McMahone described her harsh divorce and loss of self that drew her to Serio in search of healing. Her eyes are bright and energised, and between them lies a Hindu bindi that covers a permanent bindi that McMahone tattoed on herself.
“He taught me that Tracey needs to be fed, Tracey needs to be clothed, Tracey needs to walk around with tattoos and shaved head if she wants to, and as long as she’s happy, she’s happy.”
Tracey embodies the mixed spirituality of many of the residents of this town who have come to Serio; Christianity mixed with unconventional spirituality.
Marisa explained the phenomenon as changing time in history where people were changing their conventional understandings of what it means to have a relationship with a higher power.
“There’s an awakening in humanity to realise, hey, wait a minute, this box is too small to fit God in.”
All about love
Back in Serio’s warm, cosy room, it seems that all his stories and conversations always come back to one point; love.
“My sweetheart, the reality is I have a feeling. I work for this gift. I want to touch you, I want to know what you need. But not always for a cure. You have the right to enjoy life, you have the right to be happy, you have the right to cry, you have the right to be poor, you have the right to be sick.”
“But you can change everything you want, by, you see,” he pulls my ribcage up with one hand my chest and one on my back, “you understand, hm”, he smiles, “Breathe life.”
As he waves me goodbye I notice that his middle finger on his right hand is missing from the second knuckle down.
It seems such a strangely human disfigurement on such a spiritually complete person.