The Cave of the Ancestors

Thokozani! Dancing with the Ancestors

April 17, 1994


t had taken some time to return to the idea of visiting the cave of the ancestors, but we finally met with Stiga yesterday afternoon at his home in Atteridgeville, and he agreed to take me down inside. Returning from Atteridgeville to Bryanston in the evening along the rural road, Thabo and I had seen two serious accidents within a short distance of one another, and we surmised that they had been related. Police and ambulance personnel were gathered around a woman’s body in the middle of the road by the country market. She was obviously dead. I shuddered at the sight. Down the road apiece, by the freeway entrance, a collision had drawn police and ambulance as well. We supposed that the driver, having hit the woman, had lost control of his car, thus causing the second accident. The next day, I left Joburg at about 6:30 am, intending to arrive at Stiga’s at the appointed time of 7:00. The morning was bright and warm. At the spot where the accidents had occurred the evening before, I noticed a sneaker, a blouse, and a large red spot on the road. I shuddered again. On a little mound beside the road, I noticed a flock of guinea fowl standing stock still. This seemed odd, as guinea fowl were not a common sight along the road, and if you did see them, they were usually running helter-skelter in every direction.

I arrived at Stiga’s punctually. Atteridgeville at this time of the morning was just waking up: only a car or two on the streets, a few children playing along the roadside, few pedestrians or taxis. Stiga was sitting in the doorway of his house. We had a short acknowledgment of each other, and I started to close up the car carefully, removing all the necessary gear I had brought along for the passage we were about to undertake – two torches (flashlights), a box of matches, an extra lighter, some fruit, and my walking stick. I had procured my stick from a roadside vendor in Johannesburg just prior to this visit. Having purchased quite a number of bead- and woodworks, the vendor had presented me with the stick as a present, saying it would bring me luck. Among my Atteridgeville friends, the stick had rapidly acquired the label as my “cultural weapon”.

When I finished closing up the car, Stiga approached, and we finally had a warm personal welcome. I was relieved that none of the others were coming, as it was with a mixture of apprehension, excitement, resolve, and curiosity that I awaited Stiga’s guidance and instruction. Remembering the rocks and crevasses I had seen earlier, peering into the depths of the cave, I suddenly doubted the efficacy of bringing my stick along, and I was preparing to open the car and put it away when Stiga caught my arm and said, “No, Robert, please take the stick. It might be useful. Put the fruit back”.

We entered his yard. Some of the women and children of the house scurried away, but two or three greeted me quietly. I later discovered that everyone knew what we were about to do that morning, and they were afraid for us. Stiga knelt in front of his Madlosi (ancestors’) tree, pouring out a pinch of snuff and chanting softly, clapping his hands together in the traditional manner of greeting. I clapped along with him and fell in with the rhythmic chanting after a few repeated phrases. He was praying for safe guidance in the cave. Then he got up quickly and said, “We go now.”

Walking down the street which skirted the southern edge of town, below the cornfields and the ridge, Stiga confessed to me that he had been celebrating at a traditional society the night before, and that he had drunk quite a bit of African beer. He indicated that he would have to take some special precautions as a result, otherwise he would be in danger in the cave. If one has drunk beer, or if one has been with a woman the night before, it might go badly. To be perfectly sure, Stiga said that we would just be getting acquainted with the cave, not going too far into its depths. This was perfectly alright with me.

We followed the path through the cornfields and up the hill. Stiga was surprised that I remembered the way to the cave from so long ago, and let me lead. I walked forcefully with strong strides, trying to loosen up the muscles that I knew would be sorely tested inside. At the entrance to the cave, Stiga once more strewed snuff and chanted. He explained that he was informing the ancestors of our intention to enter the cave, and he was pleading with them to protect and cover us. He made a special point of introducing his “friend”, adding that he sought special favour for me. We entered.

Descending to the very mouth of the cave, we activated the “doorbell”, and once more I felt and heard the hollow echo of the washbasin as I landed, reverberating down into the cave. We descended another three or four meters into the first cavern, where we sat on a rock for a minute, turned on the torches, and had a look around. There were many objects there, at first glance a typical compendium of township rubble: cans, sticks, old rusted springs, and so forth. The roof of the cavern was about two meters high, and I could perceive three different passageways branching off from this, the main cavern, which in area was about the size of a small house. The passageway to the right went upwards rather steeply, and Stiga said we would go here first, as it was a short way. The ground underfoot was a fine, brown sand, not unlike a coarse beach sand. At first, the passageway was large enough for us to walk upright, but it rapidly closed in on all sides, and it became necessary to crouch, then kneel, and then crawl. All the while we kept the torches lighting the way from side to side, to have an accurate idea of the jagged rock walls and ceiling. After about fifty meters, Stiga stopped and pointed to a small crevice, indicating that if we wanted to follow that passageway, we would have to ascend first through this small chimney of rock, from whence the passage went down again and onwards. He insisted that I stay up in the small niche we had found, long enough until I felt comfortable that I had seen, noticed, and understood my surroundings. I felt sure that I was seeing and noticing, but hopelessly inadequate as to understanding in any way. After a while, we descended again to our original starting point. Sitting once more on the rock, Stiga indicated the center passageway. Walking upright, and just crouching gently under a low ceiling rock overhang, we descended a further twenty or thirty meters. We entered an even larger cavern, perhaps four to five meters high in spots, and twelve to fifteen meters from back to front. There were many small passageways leading several meters to nowhere in various directions. In the center of the cavern, dividing it as it were into two relatively separate “rooms”, was a large pillar of rock, thick at the base, tapering off as it rose, and then thickening again at the roof of the cavern.

There were several small niches at the openings of which had been placed smaller rocks in regular rows, delineating a hearth-like area, and in which severally, were burnt stacks of paper, tin plates, and metal and earthenware jugs. Loose rocks and debris were strewn about everywhere, but it was easily possible to navigate around these in the torchlight. To the left of the pillar of rock, a small alcove led a short way down and around, becoming a dead end. Stiga asked me if I thought I might like to sit in there for a while, but for the moment I declined.

We proceeded forward into the larger space to the right of the pillar, where a few steps brought us into an area which was arrayed like a meeting place. Some larger rocks were arranged in a rough circle. On the somewhat flattened surface of these rocks were some objects which to my chagrin I only noticed in detail much later. For now, I was looking for a place to sit close to Stiga, who indicated that we would not be going further just yet. We sat, and he was quiet for a few moments, looking around. As keeping still was becoming difficult for me, I stood up and roamed around a bit. Stiga asked me to find the passageway which led downwards from this cavern, if we were eventually to go further this way, and this proved to be more difficult than it seemed.

Everywhere I looked and shone the torch, it seemed like there was a dead end of rock. Around the pillar to the left, I thought I noticed an opening, and inquired of Stiga, who came over to where I was, leaning face first over a rock, and casting the light of the torch into the depths. “Yes, that is the way!” and he also shone his torch downwards. I could make out that the rock ceiling did not in fact extend all the way to the floor of the passage. He explained that we would have to crawl on our bellies for about fifty meters if we wanted to come through on the other side, but that we would not be doing that today. Rather, he went back to his seat on the rock, shone his torch around, and calmly asked me if I had seen all that I wanted to see.

I knew immediately that he wanted something in particular from me, so I asked if there was something special I should be looking for. He just continued shining his torch around, and with an ironic smile muttered, “Oh, nothing in particular, just the stones, or the bones, or anything you feel might belong to you.” This aroused my curiosity, and I asked him to explain. He said that one must take something from every powerful place one visited, something which meant that you had been there and returned. This “something” then belonged to you, as did also the spirit which you had found there within. So he sat, and I sat, and we looked.

He shone his torch to the ceiling, where I noticed a vague pattern of lines. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the rock which constituted the low ceiling looked very much like the roots of the trees I knew were only several meters directly above us. I mentioned this to Stiga, who confirmed my impression. However, these roots seemed to be of stone, and as I examined them with my torch and with my hand, it appeared that they could be broken off the ceiling with one’s bare hands. Stiga reached up and broke off a piece. It broke into several smaller pieces under the pressure of his hand. I had never encountered such a substance, and I held a few of the pieces in my hands. Some of the smaller pieces simply crumbled to dry dust. The veins of the roots were clearly recognizable, and the rock was light and porous.

Stiga said I must take my rocks to the museum, to learn more about them, but that the rock we had been examining was his, since he had broken it off. Wouldn’t I like to look for something, as he was sure there was an object in the room destined to belong to me? I shivered, then went exploring a short way down the crevice which was the way onwards, though not too far. Giving me a hint, Stiga shone his torch into a small space, where a pale blue object lay in the sand. I couldn’t get too close to it for the overhanging rock, but managed a closer look with the torch from about two meters away. It looked like a strip of burnt paper at first, but on closer inspection revealed itself as a dried snakeskin. It could not be reached; the opening was too small.

I was prevented from further reflection however, by another object which caught my eye, somewhat closer to hand. It was an animal’s bone, which I quickly picked up and returned to Stiga, crawling backwards out of the niche. He examined it, smiled, and said, “You have found something important, Robert. What is it, guess?” “Guinea fowl?” “Exactly!” I remembered the drive from Joburg that morning, and shuddered again.

Stiga encouraged me to break off a piece of stone for myself, which I did. He smiled enigmatically again, remarking that I had not seen nearly enough yet. The fact that I had found the bone meant that there were other things waiting for me. I looked again. While he sat, I knelt and crawled, searching. After about five minutes of combing the nooks and crannies within reach of my torch, I noticed something shiny lying on a miniscule ledge of rock, about eight inches from the sandy floor, behind a veil of gossamer, silvery spider webs. I had to crawl on my stomach full length to reach in and get it, but since I couldn’t also drag my torch into this small space, I asked Stiga to light me the way, which he did.

The shadows of the torch and the cramped space made it difficult to get a bearing on the object, but finally he managed to shine the light directly on it, and I reached out and grasped it. Standing upright on this little ledge, in a small bed of sand, was a perfectly-shaped, conical shell, perhaps one-half inch in length, half that in width. Stiga was overjoyed, and as I crawled backwards out of the space, he started to dance. He placed the shell in his shirt pocket, and said we must now place our objects at the entrance to the cave, so we would not forget them on the way out. We trekked up the thirty meters or so to our original sitting rock, found a small flat surface, and laid out the objects carefully: the stones, the bone, and the shell.

Stiga said that we were now going to investigate the third passageway, to the left of us, but that I ought to know this was the dangerous way. It involved us crawling on our bellies for about 100 meters or so until the other side, where the passageway first turned down, then ascending once more in the direction of town on the other side of the ridge to the south. Last night, when Stiga had told his mother that we were going to the cave today, she had warned him not to go too far along this passage to the left.

Stiga admitted to me that his spirit was not up to going all the way through the passageway, but that we were quite all right at any point before it. We crawled through a short low space on our bellies for about 50 meters, arriving at a small chamber where we could kneel upright, but not stand. As soon as we entered this chamber, Stiga’s demeanour changed markedly.

He explained that he was taking his mother’s admonishment very seriously. As he was “impure” this day, he could go no further, and he very much desired to be left alone to commune with his ancestors for a while. If we did attempt to proceed any further, he might go into trance. This would be all right if he were fully prepared, but conceivably deadly if he were not. Also, he would not be fully able to protect me, and as his spirit was not large for this task, this day, he encouraged me to leave him there. If I felt that I could proceed alone back to the central chamber, he was sure I had not discovered all I was destined to discover for myself back there.

At certain times during our excursion thus far, I had taken several minutes to pause and consider the import of various aspects of this unique experience. I now sat quietly and pondered, and my awe of the situation increased dramatically, as Stiga was encouraging a momentary parting of our ways, his communing, and my exploring. I assured Stiga that I felt confident about going back into the central chamber, and as I crawled back through the overhang, I heard Stiga exclaim, “…don’t forget me, Robert.”

“No Stiga, I won’t.” “I am sure you will bring back something important again.” As I proceeded, he fell into a long, low chant, which I heard reverberating through the chamber in varying tone and timbre, first as a real voice, then an echo, and then it disappeared. Back in the central chamber again, I first took stock of what I had missed earlier. It did not seem as though anything had changed, except for the plethora of objects which were now “visible”. I admitted to myself that I had not really seen very much the first time. On the flat surfaces of the rocks at the “meeting place”, there were numerous stubs of white candles. I lit two of them. White wax droppings had flowed into some of the rock’s indentations, smoothing them over. There was a Sotho bible, many years old, the fringes of its pages singed by fire. A blanket lay spread out behind the central boulder, on the sand under a ledge. The blanket was as brown as the sand.

Scouring the roof of the chamber for more of that “root stone”, I discovered that there were places where I could reach straight upwards, gingerly, as the edges were quite jagged, and in which I felt objects around which my hand could grasp. I tried one or two without success, then found what I was looking for, a protruding piece of rock attached by a slim connection to the roof above. I placed my hand around it, twisted short and sharp, and it came off in my hand. Shining my torch upwards, I noticed a whitish, almost chalk-like mark at the place of attachment, a similar one on the piece in my hand.

I now had my stone, and I reflected that I also had my bone. There was something else, and Stiga’s admonishment “not to forget him” suddenly aroused an uneasy feeling that my time for this particular task was limited. I determined to find this “something else”. My determination turned to embarrassment when I returned to the place where I had originally found the bone, for to my astonishment, there was the object, lying in full view on top of the very rock I had been sprawled out upon when Stiga and I had been there before. It was a piece of cane, about six inches long, hollow and light. I grasped it excitedly and turned to leave for Stiga’s chamber, but stopped abruptly after a few steps, returned to the rock, and blew out the one candle stub which was still burning faintly.

Returning towards the left passageway, I could hear that Stiga was still chanting. As I approached, he broke off chanting and came to greet me halfway, asking if I had found what I was looking for. As I pulled out the objects I had nestled in my shirt pocket, he chuckled. He touched the stone all over, and pronounced it good. At the sight of the cane he smiled broadly, merely saying, “Yes, this is it.” He was silent for a minute or two, and then a quizzical look came over his face. “Show me where you found this, Robert, please.”

We returned to the central chamber, having once more left the objects by the entrance. He had found a small, circular white rock, which he pronounced just the thing he was needing. As we approached the central pillar again, I swung my torch from side to side as usual. Of a sudden I became riveted to the spot, apparently having jumped a meter or so backwards, as Stiga caught me and exclaimed quickly under his breath: “Robert, what?” I trained my light into the left corner, about two meters from where we were standing, and whispered back: “Snake!”

“Give me your stick. I need that snake!” I handed him my stick, took his torch so that I had both of them, and Stiga started to stalk the snake, now writhing in and out among the rocks of the alcove. I had earlier declined to sit and rest there, and I had twice returned to within a meter of the spot where the snake was now curled up, in the sand, against a rock. I focused both lights on the snake as directly as possible, considering the shadows, and Stiga started singing to it.

The snake raised its head and Stiga struck, plunging the stick as a spear towards the head of the snake. He impaled the head in the sand and twisted mightily. “Robert, this is very important. I need this snake for my mother and for my surgery (his medicinal practice).”

The body of the snake writher convulsively as it tried to escape the vicelike grip of the stick. Twice it escaped, and twice Stiga stalked and struck again. He did not miss. Each time he struck the head cleanly, driving it into the sand and twisting. I could make out that the snake’s neck had broken open just below the head. Nevertheless, it kept up its struggle. Then the struggle ceased, and Stiga draped the snake over my stick, and tossed it onto the sand in the center of the chamber.

“Take care, Robert.” We both watched from a safe distance. “Is this a poisonous snake, Stiga?” “Yes.” I thought of the “big snakes” my young friends had spoken about. This one was about 80 centimetres long, the thickness of my thumb, and had a shimmering green-yellow skin.

The snake lay motionless. Stiga prodded with the stick, then cautiously with his finger. We balanced the snake on my stick, and Stiga said we must now leave the cave. Carrying the stick gingerly, he dropped the snake next to the pile of objects we had collected earlier, and looked around for a snare. A piece of old, thick wire served excellently, and a loop was made around the body of the snake. Stiga picked up the objects, saying, “Robert, you found it, you carry the snake.” I took my stick, then the wire with the snake, and we made our way out into the daylight.

Coming out of the cave, I glanced at my watch. To my astonishment, we had been inside for just over an hour, though it had seemed oh, so much longer. I was exhausted, and asked Stiga if we could rest on the rocks for a few moments. He readily agreed. I wanted to take a few deep breaths of fresh air and ponder on the events inside the cave. Stiga instinctively knew the answer to my first question, and assured me that I had not displeased the ancestors. He asked me to expound on my thoughts. They were a whirlwind.

The sun was brilliant in the clear blue sky above, and the heat was intense. I examined the “root stones” in the light. They seemed lifeless and full of life simultaneously, and we talked of this. They no longer participated in life processes, but it was evident that they had indeed lived.

“Robert, you also have your bone, and this cane. Now you must do something with them. They are your first spirit objects, and there shall be many more. You must always be careful to remember exactly where and when you found them, so as always to have the memory of the encounter with the ancestors fresh in your mind.”

The snake was lying lifeless in front of us.

Stiga inquired if I wished to return to town, but I wished to continue our conversation. He suggested that we move to other rocks, as ants had begun to gather around us, converging on the snake. We assembled our things, and Stiga now picked up the snare. We went a few steps, then Stiga jumped and dropped the snare. The snake had wriggled free of the wire, and was stalking Stiga, mouth open, tongue flashing. Stiga was thunderstruck, and kept repeating “Robert, this is unbelievable!”

He grasped my stick and jumped out of the way, stalking the snake in return. It was wriggling across the rock and into the grasses at a mean pace. Every time Stiga touched the snake with my stick, he emitted a loud, long belch. It occurred to me that he had also done so while stalking the snake in the cave, though I had not remarked on it before. I asked him what this was about, since he had not belched at any other juncture during our excursion. He explained that this was evidence of the danger we had faced, as this was a direct encounter with the ancestors in the form of the snake.

Stiga then went on to describe what he would do with the snake once it was dead. He would cut off the head – there – and use many parts of the snake for medicinal and other purposes, i.e. making muti. Muti is a generic term which applies to just about anything which is rubbed on, bathed in, inhaled, drunk, or otherwise introduced into or on the body. At this point Stiga had pinned down the head of the snake again, and he asked me to hold my stick while he searched for a sharp stick for himself. This I did. The writhing was becoming difficult to handle. As I grasped the stick, it turned fiery hot with the energy and vibrations emanating from the snake below. While I held the head down, Stiga found his sharp implement and stabbed it home, crushing the head anew. I was violently sick to my stomach, but just managed to hold it down in the end.

We were once more exhausted as the writhing ceased. We remarked to each other almost simultaneously how strange it was that I had been sitting so close to the snake on our first rest outside of the cave. He added that I was probably not attacked because I had had nothing to do with the original encounter, which was totally his own choice. But as it was I who had first found the snake, it was therefore mine to carry back into town. I knew this would be difficult. For one thing, looking down the hill into town, I had already seen that people were aware of our visit to the cave. It was not readily recognizable if their gestures were approving or not, but they were in any case well-defined and in our direction. Stiga wrapped the wire twice around the snake this time, and as we started on down the hill, the snake writhed once more on the snare, and finally took its tail into its mouth. Coming out of the cornfield directly onto the street, I walked rapidly with long strides towards Stiga’s house. I did not want to encounter gazes at the moment. In Stiga’s yard, all the women were gathered, and they bustled inside at our approach. Stiga went inside, emerging with his mother after a moment or so.

When his mother saw the snake, she started chanting and clapping her hands together in the traditional manner. Stiga placed the snake under the Madlosi tree, and we knelt around it together for a few minutes, chanting. Stiga explained that we were thanking the ancestors for their communication and their generosity, and his mother, in particular, was thanking them for bringing us safely home through danger. As we arose, the other women and children of the house gathered around in astonishment.

Stiga and I retired to a grassy place under a large tree on his neighbour’s front lawn, spread a blanket, and refreshed ourselves. A girl brought us water in a basin to wash our hands and faces, which were covered in dust and sweat, and brought us also something cool to drink. We were then served tea and biscuits by Stiga’s sister.

His mother came and sat with us for a while, then went back to the Madlosi tree and continued chanting to the snake. Stiga remarked that I must take my time to think about what I had just witnessed. He thought I would eventually understand very well what had happened. I was not so sure, but was too drained to voice any concrete objections. We relaxed, chatted some more, and decided that we would get together again soon for another, different experience. I had much to learn, but as he assured me, also much to teach.

We parted warmly, and I drove home, arriving at about 10:30 am. I dropped straight into bed, fell asleep immediately, and awoke at about 6 pm. That evening I received a phone call from Peter Mashego. He thought we were going in the afternoon, so he had dropped by Stiga’s place at around 2 pm. He said that when he arrived, Stiga was still killing the snake. It didn’t surprise me in the least.