A shaman in Sussex: Rain Queen weathers a drug storm

Karmaya Ayamama is a shaman who has a practice in the unlikely rural setting of Ticehurst. She is in the spotlight for offering a psychoactive drug ‘treatment’. Oscar Quine went to investigate

A 20-minute drive south out of Tunbridge Wells lies Ticehurst. A quintessential East Sussex village of clapboard and quarry tile, it is home to a 14th century church, five pubs, a store – and a shaman.

Karmaya Ayamama Rain Queen Mother isn’t quite sure how she ended up here. “It must be the most aspiritual village in England,” she admits, sat in the quiet of the ceremonial room of the Herbal Wellbeing & Sanctuary Centre.

Smoke from a smouldering clump of sage wafts over an altar piled high with ceremonial gifts: eagle feathers, a bottle of Aspalls organic apple cider, Meet Joe Black and Freaky Friday on DVD.

It’s easy to forget where we are. But while it seems unthreatening this is the sanctuary that came into the spotlight last month for offering ayahuasca – the drug ingested by 19-year-old British gap year student Henry Miller prior to his death in Colombia.

Mr Miller, from Bristol, was in a remote area of the Amazon rainforest with other tourists in April when he took the drug in the company of a local tribe. A friend who was with him later said that “he started making weird animal noises, pig sounds and at one point he tried to fly. He kept saying, ‘What’s going on, oh my God’ and holding his face”. Police found his body by a road.

Should we therefore be concerned at the drug being used back in East Sussex, or has the recent tragedy given such practices an unfair reputation? Rain Queen says she last conducted an ayahuasca ceremony last December. Over the years, customers have included advertising execs, healthcare professionals and teachers. Each parted with between £550-£2,100 for therapies offered for ailments ranging from anxiety to chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. “One guy worked at the Home Office. He was very straitlaced, totally the last person you’d think would get it.”

Rain Queen attended boarding school nearby in West Sussex. After working in the music industry, she spent time in Zimbabwe – where she discovered she was related to a shaman – before returning, drawn to Ticehurst by what she terms “the Sussex connection”.

She set up shop between Cheryl’s Dry Cleaning and C Leach the greengrocer. Now, she says, wearing seashells entwined around her head and a turquoise silk gown, “people look at me like, ‘what’s this woman doing here?’” Francesca Nowne, the Parish clerk, says Rain Queen tends to keep herself to herself, adding she has never responded to the parish’s annual questionnaire.

“It’s been controversial that the people who visit the sanctuary arrive at night; from time to time it causes an unwelcome disturbance. It’s a traditional village so it did cause some surprise. It’s an unusual service that’s being offered.” But claims Barry Clarke, 44, an agricultural worker and president of the village club, there’s little animosity from Ticehurstians. “It’s interesting. To be honest, I don’t know much about it. It’s not the avenue I’d go down for medical treatment: I’m NHS through and through,” he says.

In most ayahuasca, the active ingredient is DMT, a chemical said to be released by the brain during death. It is a Class A drug, and Rain Queen stresses the brew which they offered, brought pre-made from South America, contains none.

Sussex Police visited the sanctuary in 2011. A spokesperson said yesterday: “It is not for Sussex Police to ‘approve’ the use of any substance and we have not done so in the case of the Ticehurst centre. If a company uses any products that contain controlled drugs they must do so within the law. Sussex Police may investigate reports of breaches of the Misuse of Drugs Act but there are no investigations currently being carried out by the force.”

There is also some criticism on online forums that Rain Queen is a “new-age fraud”, while psychological professionals strongly advise anyone with a history of mental health issues to avoid all psychoactive drugs. Ayahuasca has been linked to suicides, bad trips and debilitating flashbacks.

But, one client, a civil servant who asked to be referred to as Richard, told The Independent that experiences with ayahuasca – and iboga, another psychoactive natural derivative – at the centre have changed his life. “I wanted to do to a detox retreat and didn’t really read the blurb. Then I met Rain Queen Mother and she asked if I’d like to participate in this ceremony and thought I’d give it a go.”

He has taken part in four or five ceremonies over the past three years – experiencing visions of “hell and suffering” and, he says, temporarily developing the telekinetic power to switch off a DVD. He claims the ceremonies allowed him to give up smoking, drinking and antidepressants, all without withdrawal symptoms. “They [ayahuasca and iboga] are not drugs, they’re better seen as plant medicine... I’m lighter and more joyful since the ceremonies,” he says.

Rain Queen believes the spirits led her here to help people like Richard, but adds it has been a tough posting. “There’s so much repressed in England and so many scary vampires. It can be a very scary place.” Who knew even the spirits of Tunbridge Wells are disgruntled?

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