At Johannes Mashimbi’s Place

Thokozani! Dancing with the Ancestors

Sunday, August 28, 1994


fter several aborted attempts, arrangements were finally made to go out to Johannes Mashimbi’s place in Mabopane. It would be an afternoon “society”, a private one, no ritual, no dancing, just conversation. I had talked to both Canny and Stiga about this, and they both agreed to come with me. Thabo and I arrived first at Stiga’s place shortly after 11 am, only to discover that he had been called to Mabopane earlier. We were not to see each other that day, as it turned out. I drove over to “Selbourne side”, the westernmost part of town at the time. We stopped by at Aldrin’s place, and he decided to accompany us. We arrived at Canny’s shortly before noon.

Canny immediately offered me a beer, as several others there were sitting calmly enjoying their brew. He told me that several issues would be discussed at Johannes’ society that day. There would be no traditional dress today, just a meal and talk, planning burials, academies, new students, and so forth. As I was later to discover, we were also saying farewell to Johannes’ elder brother, who was dying.

Thabo and Aldrin went off for some sepathlo (township sandwiches of remarkable ingenuity: a quarter loaf of bread, into which is stuffed a sausage or slice of polony, a complete serving of chips, a bit of sharp atchara, and perhaps a bit of tomato/onion garnish – a complete meal). Meanwhile, Canny and Mothabeni (Margaret) readied themselves for our departure. The street was calm, with few groups of people going about their Sunday business: a threesome on their way to church, in white dress, crimson berets and sashes, the ZCC’s (Zionist Christian Church, evangelicals). Two young boys, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, struggled mightily with two wheelbarrows down the street. One had bricks heaped on it, the other cases of beer.

There were several hearty greetings for lekgowa. Stiga’s present of the deep blue java traditional cloth, which I was wearing tentatively for the first time, draped over my shoulder, was the object of some interest. One elegantly dressed lady asked me if I would like to sell it to her, which proposal I politely declined. In addition, I brought with me the first photos of the morning with Femba and the subsequent afternoon’s dancing with Stiga. Susan, Canny’s mother, confined with what I assumed was gout to her chair in the living room, squealed with delight at the pictures, particularly her portrait in the kitchen door. Yes, of course I will make her a copy.

Canny’s brother Stanley entered, swaying slightly as usual from continuous consumption of beer, and he was so overwhelmed by the pictures that he embraced me impulsively, causing us both to struggle to maintain our equilibrium. Canny and Mothabeni were finally ready to leave, and Thabo and Aldrin had returned, their hunger satisfied. The five of us drove a short distance over to the western part of town, just above the hostel area, and picked up two more ladies, a kettle, some wood, and a bag or two in addition to the three or four bags already in the trunk (boot) of the car. With my car heavily overladen, I realised once again first-hand the value of reliable transport with Robert in South Africa. Soshanguve/Mabopane lies about 25 km due north of Atteridgeville, but there is no direct road. First one must drive about 10 km eastwards to get to the Suiderberg tunnel through the Magaliesberg ridge just north of Pretoria. Down into the valley, one drives to 10 km westwards again to get to the Mabopane highway (about directly north of our starting point), which climbs over the next ridge in the Magaliesberg mountains. About 20 km along, the road suddenly makes a sharp left turn and ends at the top of a small rise, and one enters Soshanguve.

Within a short distance, the full extent of the township becomes visible: in front of one, and stretching towards the north almost as far as the eye can see, is thickly settled urban township. Soshanguve is long and thin, stretching about 15 km north/south. About 2 km westwards lies Mabopane, of about equal size, sprawling westward. This is/was the notorious national boundary between the Republic of South Africa and the homeland of Bophuthathswana, during the years of apartheid. Directly at the entrance to Soshanguve, at the end of the highway, is the main police station compound.

Driving slowly, it had taken us about an hour to get there. For another twenty minutes or so, Canny directed me off the tarred road onto a maze of dirt streets, here left, here right, along the field, then right again, left, right – I was totally disoriented as to direction and distance. We went through Block D, Block E, Block whatever…and we finally arrived at Johannes Mashimbi’s house. There was no way I would find my way back without guidance.

We were ushered into the living room and offered beer and cold drinks. All the women and children of the household came in with us, and we were introduced. Johannes arrived a few minutes after we did, bursting in with a broad smile. He was overjoyed to see us and broke out spontaneously in song and dance, laughing softly to himself in between chanting. We chatted amiably for a few minutes, and then Johannes said we must go to a friend’s house.

Canny, Johannes and I climbed into Johannes’ old blue Opel – it was perhaps a ’78 – and drove off. My car was unavailable, as three young men had started to “soap it down” for a washing. Johannes’ Opel was an experience. Only two windows worked, there were three door handles. My passenger seat was a rolled-up piece of carpet, as the passenger seat was no longer a complete construction. The door to the glove compartment was missing. Inside were several unrecognisable objects, small plastic bags rolled up, and an alarm clock.

At “Pete’s place”, Pete, another sangoma, was to be invited to the Mashimbi’s society. We were offered beer and cold drink, and a small plate of meat in addition, livers and short ribs. Half an hour later we returned to Johannes’ place. My car was now drying in the sun, and the tires were being polished with bootblack. A fruitless exercise, I thought, in view of the dirt streets we were going to drive on the way back. It was about 3 pm when we proceeded in two cars, 14 people, to the house of Johannes’ brother Peter, where the society was to take place.

When we arrived, the guests had already assembled there. A table had been set in the front yard, and food was out. There were twenty-five of us in all, including the children. Most were clad in normal daily dress, and a few of the women wore their Sunday outfits, but three women wore an extraordinary traditional dress which I now observed closely for the first time. These were the nyangas, those who animate and accompany the spirits while dancing, administering to their needs or commands. Over normal dress, they wore a bolt of flowing, colourful cloth covers, the ring of material draped around the waist, but more accurately the hips and the buttocks. It was in essence a ring of cloth, into which had been woven, and from which dangled in profusion, long thick strands of yarn in bright colours, green, red, blue, yellow, and black.

The ladies exposed the colourful material, or hid it, with a simple twist of the covering cloth, double-crossed over the shoulders, across the chest and the back. When they rose to dance their greetings, an extraordinary play of colour and shape occurred, as simple movements of the feet caused the strands of yarn to flay around in the air in sympathy with the physical movement. Arms raised, the ladies would swirl and sway with a blaze of colour surrounding them, their already ample shapes rendered even more imposing.

One of these ladies is Eva Ngobeni, wife of George Ngobeni, another major sangoma of the New Era Ngaka. Much more will be written about George later. Eva is a striking presence. Her arms are extremely long, her hands immense. When she spreads these in dance, she appears to double her size and scope, as if she were embracing the world. Her large facial features are crowned by a smile which goes on forever behind two immaculate white rows of teeth.

We were taken into the house to meet Johannes’ brother Paulus, lying on the couch in the living room. Johannes’ other brothers were there, Peter and Solomon, the former quite striking all in white, tall and slim, the latter striking for his eyes, which are askew, deeply set into his weather-beaten, moustachioed face.

We filled our plates at the table and sought out sitting places in the yard. Peter was sitting on a plastic beer case carton, Solomon on a rickety chair, while Johannes, Aldrin and I sat on the grass. About ten people remained at table. Outside children and young people gathered, as the guests and my car had awakened interest. Three youngsters from the street offered to wash my car, but were disappointed when we told them it had already been washed once today. Johannes and I had an extensive conversation, ranging from the New Era Ngaka, his plans for a regional council of traditional Shangaan leaders, a certification school, to my impressions of their traditional culture.

He told me that he had known immediately at Canny’s place that we would develop a special relationship. He asked about Canny and Stiga, and what more I would like to learn. I had brought my old flannel shoe bag, which carried the traditional artifacts I had collected thus far. In addition to the artifacts from the cave, I had added my three Tibetan I Ging coins, a small piece of amber from prehistoric times in which was captured an ancient insect, a round stone which I had picked up from the dry bed of the Njelele river in the far north of South Africa, on the Zimbabwe border, and two other matching seashells. I had been particularly intrigued of late with the piece of cane I had found in the cave, as I knew I must do “something” with it. Just before coming out to Johannes’ place, earlier that week, I had taken a file and bored two shallow channels diametrically crossing the open edges of the cane piece, and I sought Johannes’ advice on what this might mean, or whether in fact I had done the right thing.

Johannes was fascinated with my bag, and when I retrieved it from my car, he suggested that we go for a private chat out back. I spread out the artifacts, explaining in some detail the coins and amber which immediately caught his eye. At the comparison of the I Ging technique with his traditional “throwing of the bones”, he was particularly attentive, and his eyes lit up. Unfortunately, I had not brought along my I Ging book (Richard Wilhelm’s famous 1902 translation into German), so we could not throw the coins with any discernible answer from the oracle. Then he examined the cane.

He knew the cave, and the spot where I had found the cane. Gently raising it to his eyes, he looked at it from each side closely. He blew through it twice across the filed channels with forced breath, much as over the open end of a bottle, and it emitted a harsh whistle. He then listened to it from each end, pressing it up against each ear, gazing diagonally into the air, evaluating the information he was receiving. Then he explained.

I must cut the cane into two pieces, one larger than the other. The channels I had made with the file were my “life lines”, that is, they could be used in a precarious situation to hang on to a wire. He demonstrated by notching one end of the cane onto the metal clothesline just behind us, then swinging down holding it fast by only one hand. The line buckled under his weight, but held firm, and he slowly inched his way across to the pole in the ground holding the other end of the line. I wasn’t entirely convinced, but he added that two pieces of cane would have been much better. This was more plausible, although I preferred to think of these lifelines in more figurative than literal sense. In all we spent about an hour in conversation.

Returning to the guests, drinks and tea were served, and the nyangas danced, each in turn. Not much of particular note occurred for the rest of the gathering, except that outside a street soccer game had developed, in which I was invited to participate, and a young man named Prince vented what must have been an ample amount of pent-up anger against the white man on me before he was invited to cool down be a few of the guests.

It was getting late, and the setting sun boded a cool evening and cold night. I was persuaded to take one carload of ladies back to Eva Ngobeni’s place in Soshanguve, another labyrinthine trek of dirt roads, though only about ten minutes’ driving time. There I met her husband George (again, much more will be written about him later). And, we were once more offered beer and cold drink. After about an hour at George’s place, we drove back to Peter’s house, picked up Canny, Mothabeni, and the others, and returned to Atteridgeville at about 8 pm. The car was full of dust and dry township clay by the time I got home. So much for the weekend washing.