At Canny’s Place

Thokozani! Dancing with the Ancestors

 June 5, 1994


had met Bra Canny on the corner of Sekhu and Ramokgopa Streets in Atteridgeville a few days ago. Thabo and Fanie were with me in the car, when Fanie asked if we might stop, as he wanted to speak with “this certain gentleman”. This gentleman was Canny. I got out of the car and we were introduced, striking up a conversation. He invited me to his place for the weekend, to observe a celebration at which two of his students would be subject to ritual examination in the course of their study with him. Canny is a sangoma, a traditional healer, and he also trains others in all aspects of the art and rituals of his calling. He was of robust build, perhaps five-foot-six, mid- to late thirties, with ample limbs, thick neck, and an open face with fiery, quick eyes and a broad enveloping smile. I accepted the intriguing proposal.

Sunday morning, therefore, at about 8:00 am, I arrived at Canny’s place, 5 Chiloane Street, just in time as preparations were in progress for the morning ritual to begin. I should describe the layout of Canny’s place, not only as indicative of the nature of township dwellings, but also to assist in the better understanding of the events which unfolded. The plot itself is about 300-350 square meters in a longish, thin rectangle from the street to the back. The house is at front right, with a bordering strip of ground at front of about 4-5 meters. It is a typical township “matchbox” house of four rooms, living, dining, bed, and kitchen, with a small porch and the front corner. The passageway toward the back is on the left, bordered by the brick wall separating his place from the neighbouring plot. This passageway is about three meters wide, leading to a small open space which is the main area used for dance and ritual.

Around this space were clustered the additional rooms: a small pen with corrugated iron roof against the back of the house, in which are kept the chickens, goats, and cold drinks, Canny’s “surgery”, in which all his medicines and ritual paraphernalia are stored, Canny’s bedroom, and another small room. This enclosure is the hub of all activity at the place. At the very back are the water tap and basin, the outhouse, the fire “places”, and the heap of wood, metal and plastic which form the basic supply of fuel and construction material for work to be done around the place. The house is mortared and painted, but the additional rooms are only brick, and there are other various connections and walls of wood, corrugated iron, wire, etc.

Along the passageway to the back, ten or twelve ladies are sitting on the benches, warming themselves in the winter sun. Most of them are colourfully and amply bedecked in Shangaan dress, jewelry, and makeup. Further to the back, two older women are washing out the entrails of the recently slaughtered goats in a large basin, and two young men are busily occupied carving up the meat at a table. Underneath the table, four severed goats’ heads bear silent witness to the slaughter. There are as yet no flies bussing around the heads or the meat, so it is obviously quite fresh. Some of the larger pieces of as yet uncut meat still carry hide and hair, but the large sections of goatskin are hanging at the back wall, drying in the low morning sun.

Slowly the place begins to come alive. Thirty to forty people have arrived. From surgery, three women come out, two initiates and a novice, greeting everyone in the same humble traditional manner: they throw themselves prostrate on their sides, facing the guest, snapping their fingers twice or thrice, then pressing their palms together. They remain so until acknowledged in return by the communicant, fingers snapped and hands clapped in a similar manner. They are barefoot, wearing thin, colourful cloths around their midriffs, anklets, white t-shirts, red and white beadwork crossed over the shoulder and around the back, and a cowrie shell woven into their hair. The novice has in addition red ochre smeared throughout her hair and upon her face and neck.

Canny emerged from surgery and came over to greet me: “Thokoza!” – with rounded hands clapped twice together. I returned the greeting. He was dressed in sandals, a flowing cloth around his waist, and a simple t-shirt, carrying several objects made of goatskin. He now formally introduced himself to me as Hlathswayo, one of his (four) spirit names, and explained what was to occur this morning. The whole procedure would take about an hour.

The two initiates had reached a certain milestone in their course of study with him, at the end of which they would be qualified traditional healers, herbalist or sangoma. They would be given muti (medicine and herbs) in surgery, and proceed from there to the pit which I could hear being dug at the front of the house. The chickens would be slaughtered over them, the first blood poured over their bodies. Muti would again be administered, this time through a slight razor cut in the tongue.

This was the first part of the ceremony, at which Canny would preside. Later on they would be subjected to an examination by another sangoma, who would be “femba”. But this description will be given in detail in due course. I was encouraged to take a few pictures. Once people had seen that Hlathswayo and I were comfortable with one another, there was a rapid warming of personal contact. Needless to say, I was the only white person present, in fact the first to appear at any of Canny’s ceremonies. I was served rooibos tea and dry, vaguely sweet biscuits for refreshment.

One of the older ladies started up an animated conversation with me in Shangaan, indicating unmistakably that I should take a picture of her later, when she would be dressed up. At the moment, she is wearing several large rags and towels wrapped more or less around her ample body, busying back and forth with basins full of water between the kitchen and the water basin at back. Canny’s mother Susan completely fills the open kitchen doorway, surveying and commenting.

The sound of knives sharpening and axes hacking fills the air at back. The meat is nearing completion for the kettle and the feast later on. Two large kettles are being brought to a boil, and the smell of the coal-and-wood fire permeates the air. When the wind shifts suddenly, acrid smoke fills the place, only to vanish after a few seconds. The sun gradually rises over the rooftops, and the inner courtyard warms up.

From the backmost room the drums and sticks are brought out. There are three large metal cylinders with hides stretched over one end, open at the bottom. Then numerous smaller, tambourine-sized drums with metal ring pairs, strung with natural skin, and with a crossed pattern of goatskin strands at the back, with which it is held in the hands. This smaller drum is called a Mantshomane. I tested a couple of these gingerly with small sticks, and I quickly established that there was a multiplicity of sound and pitch potential. The skins “speak” quickly and eloquently. There are about twenty-five Mantshomane, and also several gourds filled with seeds have been brought out as well.

Out front Shimane, a slight young man who is also a sangoma and two young boys are digging a pit into which the initiates will be placed later. Shimane has two remarkable distinguishing marks, one shining gold tooth blessing his ready smile, and a small flash of pure white hair on his otherwise jet black head. With pick and shovel, they hew out a circular area about two meters in diameter and perhaps 40-60 cm deep, with neat edges. The earth they dig is brittle, hard clay. I notice that a large tub of water has been placed beside the pit.

The initiates are making a round once more, prostrating themselves in front of the guests. This time, however, they are each carrying a small basket, which they extend to the guests, receiving in turn some small coins from each as offering. I do likewise, once more snapping and clapping my greetings. I soon discover that the act of greeting occupies a fundamental position in traditional relationships and ritual. There are a multiplicity of variants which are demonstrated among the rapidly swelling numbers of people milling about. “Thokozani!” is heard at every turn.

Conversation with the ladies is warming up, with the few who speak passable English dominating. This is not as self-evident as it might seem, as the blacks of the greater Pretoria area speak mainly the SeSotho family of languages (including SePedi and SeTshwana), plus Afrikaans, in contrast to the Johannesburg area, where Zulu and the other Nguni languages predominate, along with English. My skills in Afrikaans were as yet halting at best, but still we managed to communicate passably. The conversation centered around South Africa’s newfound democracy (the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela was not yet a month past), notions of world brotherhood, and the feelings of hope they had at the official end to their years of struggle under apartheid. Their stories are intriguing, their faces alight with hope as they speak about the new South Africa, where everyone can be brother and sister. There is an overwhelming surge of optimism in their voices and in their lined, yet surprisingly youthful faces. Carpets and grass mats are brought and laid out in the courtyard. More and more people are settling into their seats, on the few benches and chairs, on the stoops at the back of the house, or simply on the grass mats and carpets. More than 100 people have now gathered there.

Hlathswayo and two others (Shimane and Elisabeth) give instructions to the initiates in surgery. From inside, chants and the rhythmic shaking of gourds begin. From the door to his surgery, Hlathswayo beckons to me, encouraging me to have a look. The initiates are kneeling on the floor, bare-breasted, and clad in full red skirts from the waist downwards. They are writhing in rhythmic pulsation, covered over with a lighter purple cloth. Hlathswayo, Shimane, and Elisabeth are wearing the same cloth around their midriffs. Now, however, Hlathswayo is transformed into his ritual garb: two red and white beadwork belts are crossed over his chest, into which are also fastened small horns and pouches containing various forms of muti. On his head he sports a wig and a cowrie shell and beaded cap, around his neck are several bead necklaces of varying colour. I regretted particularly not having more time to observe the contents of the room, as the procession emerged from surgery, and promised myself I would make more detailed observations later. Chanting and swaying, Hlathswayo, Shimane, and Elisabeth (her small son at her side) are joined by some of the women elders, then the initiates on their hands and knees, making slow, bobbing progress towards the front. From the kitchen stoop and all around the courtyard, the onlookers are vociferous in their comments of encouragement of the initiates.

Four chickens are brought out of the pen, held fast by the wings by two women. Gradually, everyone makes his or her way to the front as well, taking places as comfortably as possible in the crush of bodies. I find a seat against the brick wall at the entryway, sandwiched closely among several others. Everyone has followed the procession and is now watching from the small space in front of the house, from the street outside, or gathered closely around the pit.

In rapid succession the ritual unfolds. The initiates kneel in the pit, continually bobbing their heads as before, while the chanting continues. Hlathswayo quickly makes a small incision on their tongues with a razor blade, dips his finger into one of the horns of muti he is carrying, and applies some onto the small wound. One after another the chickens are handed over to Elisabeth, who stretches them out over the pit and the initiates. Hlathswayo leans over with a knife and quickly severs the head of each chicken in turn. The first blood is allowed to spray over the initiates’ bodies, and the headless chickens are then cast aside in the yard. It is but a minute or so, and their lives ebb away. Meanwhile muti is applied to the tongues again, and the initiates are doused with bucket upon bucket of water, filling the pit. Their bobbing continues unabated, becoming more agitated. On the porch, several chairs had been drawn up, and I notice that a stately gentleman wearing a blue cap and a simple white jersey has been accorded the place of honour, directly overlooking the pit from behind the low porch wall. I inquire of my neighbour, and I am told this is Johannes Mashimbi, a major sangoma, head of the “New Era Ngaka” (Ngaka=surgery) from Mabopane, a large township about 40 km northwest of Pretoria. Under the protection of the women elders, the procession returns to surgery as it had come, leaving a trail of dripping water the way along. Hlathswayo, Shimane, and Elisabeth are now joined by Johannes Mashimbi and several others. Music in the back courtyard greets the procession at its return: the large drums are awakening, many small drums are beaten, gourds shaken, and chanting fills the air. Gradually everyone gravitates once more to their respective places at the back, and for several minutes there is a spatial free-for-all, vibrantly “organized” by one woman elder or another in succession.

Canny emerges from surgery. I call him Canny at this point, as he has assumed normal dress again and left Hlathswayo, apparently, behind in surgery. He takes his place at one of the three large drums and begins beating insistently. The chants and the beat rise in intensity. I notice Johannes Mashimbi has taken a seat in the corner directly by the door to surgery, confirming his place of honour. Two straw mats have been spread out at the center of the open space, directly facing surgery and, as I now notice for the first time, Canny’s Madlosi tree, nestling within a small, low brick enclosure against the wall. Elisabeth and Shimane stand against the wall of the backmost rooms. The two initiates come out of surgery, clad once more only around their midriffs in clean towels and cloth, but carrying their normal clothing bundled up in a pile in their hands. This bundle is placed on the straw mat of each in turn, and they sit there patiently, hands together in their laps, legs outstretched. From surgery is heard the sound of low chanting and gourds shaking, then a loud scream shatters the air, a long guttural utterance, and out of surgery bursts Femba.

A female being, clad in red and white, wearing a wig, a beaded headband, necklaces, anklets and bracelets, white t-shirt, and red midriff cloth, prostrates herself along the ground in front of the first “candidate”. Femba carries a letshoba in her hand, a horsehair whisk with beaded handle. She writhes snakelike along the ground around the candidate, gradually making her way over to the Madlosi tree. There sits a small, frail old woman holding a small, shallow bowl with liquid inside. Femba dips the letshoba in the bowl, shakes some loose drops off, and assiduously draws the letshoba across her nose, sniffing. Again, suddenly, the loud scream: I perceive this as what I have come to call the “ancestral voice” – the announcement of the presence of the ancestral spirit dwelling inside the body of the sangoma.

Approaching the candidate, Femba begins speaking vociferously, stalking around in an obviously deprecating manner. The candidate responds, equally vociferously. Several women elders add their comments. Femba again pontificates, more decisively, and the response is equally more decisive. All of a sudden Femba collapses to the ground at the candidate’s knees, and the ancestral voice becomes a small, high, thin, filmy whisper. Elisabeth and Shimane crouch down alongside the two of them, whispering their responses to the ancestral voice. It seems as though Femba is now apologising, and I seek confirmation of my impression from my neighbour. Yes, indeed, Femba has “smelled out” a character trait, or an event in the candidate’s personal history, which requires “examination”. The candidate is expected to reply in all honesty, satisfying the ancestors. Once the ancestors are satisfied, they apologise for having been so forceful in dragging this out into the light.

Femba surges up again, smelling all around the candidate’s body, in her hair, ears, toes – no corner is left uninvestigated except the most private. Three more times Femba is aroused and fearsome, only to collapse in the end in the same apologetic manner, while Shimane and Elisabeth observe carefully, crouching down with them at the critical moment. At times the candidate shouts her responses back, and many of the women support her against the railings of Femba. Finally, it seems, Femba is satisfied with the body of the candidate, and shoos her off the mat with an imperious gesture. Elisabeth helps the candidate to her feet, and Femba pounces upon the bundle of clothing. Letshoba flailing in the air between trips to her nostrils and the small bowl, Femba subjects each article of clothing in turn to the most scrupulous inspection, wildly throwing away each article in the air, to the side, helter-skelter in every direction when finished, until no thread has been left without examination. She rushes into surgery, and the drumming breaks out wildly, the onlookers screaming, whistling, and ululating their joy. My neighbour informs me, “She has passed cleanly.” I learn the initiate’s name: it is Mafela Sikotheni.

Mafela Sikotheni is led away by one of the elders, and the drumming continues. Obviously it is now the second candidate’s turn, as she has been sitting patiently and in complete silence throughout Femba’s first episode. Indeed, the door to surgery opens again and after the scream from inside, Femba emerges once more. This time Femba is crawling forward on her knuckles and knees in the unmistakable position of a baboon. The ancestral voice is different this time also, in timbre, volume, and pitch. Her physical demeanour is altered, in both the menacing and apologetic moments, as the entire procedure is repeated for the second candidate. She also “passes” in the end. Again the drums break out wildly the moment Femba rushes back into surgery.

I rise quickly and leave my seat at this convenient moment, seeking some few minutes to take deep breaths and collect my thoughts. Out front by the street, I have some less serious conversation with a few gentlemen standing about, until I notice Johannes Mashimbi coming towards us, relaxed and smiling. He had maintained a serious demeanour throughout the episodes in the enclosure, and I approached him, introducing myself. We have a hearty greeting.

Johannes is a burly man, five-foot-eleven, perhaps 100 kg, in his fifties, with whiting hair. He receives respects and greetings from everyone around. Several men assure me in no uncertain terms of Johannes’ high standing in the New Era Ngaka, perhaps because this is not immediately discernible from his “ civilian” physical appearance, perhaps because like many at the gathering, they seek an opportunity to exchange a few words with the lekgowa, the mlungu, the white man. I wonder suddenly if Canny and Stiga are both members of New Era Ngaka, and so I ask Johannes if he knows Bra Stiga.

“Of course, of course!” I felt a sudden urge to relate to Johannes in private a bit about my recent experiences in the cave with Stiga, and uncannily, he inquired about the objects I had found there. I told him about the stone, the bone, and the cane, and he expressed his desire to see these objects sometime at his place in Mabopane, when we would have more time to have a conversation at our leisure. I readily assented to this, and we proceeded our separate ways around the place. Needless to say, my mind was reeling in an attempt to digest this experience.

It was approaching the noon hour. My “about an hour” had turned into about four. I now know this is normal. The time pressure of an afternoon commitment in Johannesburg was becoming more insistent, and it was thus with mixed feelings that I started to take my farewells. Susan would have no talk of my leaving before I was served a meal, and quickly, a young woman was sent out to the cooking fires to select an appropriate plate for her guest. My eyes widened in amazement at the plate which was brought back: a large heap of pap, the corn meal staple, four or five choice pieces of goat’s meat swimming in the juices, and a generous helping of cabbage with an onion and tomato mixed garnish (hot!).

The plate was impossible to finish, but in the end I made a valiant try, as I discovered after one or two bites that I had been ravenously hungry. After I was through eating, it took about 45 minutes to say my farewells, and there were many expressions of “next time.” As I was leaving, dancing was starting up again at the back enclosure. From the short glance I took at the dancing and drumming welling up, I knew that at one of those next times, I would have to see the whole ritual through.