Introduction

Thokozani! Dancing with the Ancestors

September 24, 1993

I

t was a matter of no surprise to me a few evenings ago when my young friend Aldrin told me of the existence of the cave of the ancestors, adding that he would like to take me there one day. We were having a braai (barbecue) at Bra Oupa’s place in Saulsville, and several of the young people in our group were stunned for a moment – particularly the men. After all, they told me, it was well-known that some who visit the cave do not come back.

The “ancestors” had been intriguing me for some time, as in the course of my activities promoting music in the townships, I had had occasion to observe that traditional groupings of one sort or another were an integral, vibrant part of community life. On any given weekend, from Friday evening through to Sunday afternoon, traditional wear, the sound of drums, dancing, chanting, and other indications of traditional celebration could be heard emanating from one house or another anywhere in the township.

On this particular Sunday we went for a walk: Aldrin, Thabo, Peter, Lawrence, and Oupa were with me. Aldrin had been encouraging me to visit the cave with him, and although Oupa and Thabo were initially inclined not to join us, after a few minutes they agreed to come along. Lawrence went home.

We stopped at the home of an herbalist named Stiga, who lived at the southern edge of town, just below the ridge over towards the sprawling new squatter settlement, Mshongoville. He had been to the cave before, and he agreed to lead us, for today, only up to the mouth of the cave, about three hundred metres outside the edge of town, up the hill. We climbed up through a cornfield, approached a copse of small trees growing amid a clump of boulders, and Stiga stopped, pointing to the entrance of the cave in amongst the rocks.

The entrance was about large enough for three or four men to stand or kneel comfortably, except for the one large boulder directly at the mouth of the cave, which posed some problems of balance to stand on. He clambered down and beckoned to us. Oupa suddenly leapt up and did likewise (for the first time in his life, as he later admitted, and with some trepidation). Stiga then beckoned to me. Thabo and Aldrin chose to remain outside, on top.

I asked Stiga if it was alright with the ancestors if I came down to join him, to which he vividly and laughingly replied that we were not nearly close enough to them at this point to worry about it. Climbing down about three metres along the rocks surrounding the opening to the cave, one eventually had to take a small leap, landing on the underside of an overturned metal washbasin which had obviously been lying there for some time. It was the only relatively flat surface a person could stand on before climbing further down to squat in front of the mouth of the cave. When I did this, the hollow sound of my boots landing on the washbasin careened around the mouth of the cave, echoing inside, and it occurred to me that this was the perfect “doorbell”, as the sound could obviously be heard well within the confines of the caverns and tunnels which could be dimly perceived from where we knelt.

There was no question of us entering the cave, as it was already quite late, but we talked about what was inside for a while. I learned that the right-hand tunnel leads to an underground river, where it is very dangerous, as that is where the big snakes were to be found. Stiga said that it was imperative to go in very early in the morning, and return out of the cave by midday, as afterwards there is much danger. The left-hand tunnel leads to a place where much light comes in from above. He described how the tunnel winds its way across the ridge and out the hills on the other side, about ten kilometres distant. There had been cases known of cattle and goats having been found there, alive as well as dead, and also human remains. The people speak of the cave as a place which captures children, and in which they disappear, never to return. Along the center tunnel, Stiga said, if one goes far enough, one meets an old man with long hair. It is this old man’s task, he said, to say to the visitor: “You have seen enough, now turn back.” Beyond him are the ancestors. I felt the hair on my arms stand bolt upright.

We sat at the entrance to the cave for another twenty minutes or so, and then we clambered up and left. Stiga offered to take me into the cave and out safely, at least as far down the central tunnel as we could get. I agreed to think on this for a while, knowing that I would eventually not be able to resist the chance to see what was inside.

This was my first encounter.

I was full of wonderings