The Day of the Old People

Thokozani! Dancing with the Ancestors

5. The Day of the Old People

Saturday, October 28, 1995


ast Wednesday Canny called at 5 am. I woke up with a start from a deep sleep, but after hearing him out, there was no way I could go back to sleep before daybreak. From Saturday 4 pm until Sunday about the same time, I was invited to a society. Canny’s mother Susan had made a special request that I attend.

On Saturday I carefully prepared a few small presents for Canny and his family, as I had not seen them in a long time. They were unusual presents, ones which I thought would awaken particular interest: a dried body of a large yellow and black butterfly, which I had discovered under the croton plant just a few days before, a wasps’ nest which had fallen from the pine tree outside, and an empty snail shell. Old, dead, and dry, like the Madlosi tree. I packed some provisions and the camera into the car, and off I drove to Atteridgeville to pick up Lawrence Mogale, who had agreed to accompany me.

This was the first time I had planned to spend some time with the family in advance of the actual function. As opposed to the normal procedure with which I was familiar from previous visits, Canny will slaughter the goats and a steer at about 4 pm. The guests are scheduled to arrive at about 9 pm from all over the region. When I arrived Canny was out buying cold drinks and beer, but we were welcomed heartily by his mother and some of the old folks. Our greetings now took place in SeSotho or SeTshwana, at which I was no quite adept.

In my varied experiences within the black communities, I have never ceased to be astonished how the simple act of greeting in the vernacular calls forth an openness and friendliness which would otherwise not, or not as easily, be forthcoming. Apparently, few whites in the days of apartheid made the effort to penetrate the labyrinth of indigenous African languages.

The drums were out warming in the afternoon sun. A veritable mountain of food was piled up against the wall next to Canny’s surgery: huge netted bags of cabbages, onions, and tomatoes, and several large basins full of pap. Two teams of women were busy preparing biscuit dough in huge plastic basins, both in surgery and out back. They were up to their elbows in the mass. Sitting atop the 50-gallon tub of home brew fermenting in the corner was the young girl Iphiwe. I am introduced to the two ladies in surgery: Daisy (Mohlaba) and Catherine, the former quite slight, the latter impressive in bulk.

Canny arrived and we had our greeting. I complimented him on the addition he had made to the place. The open space at the back where dancing and the femba ritual had taken place was now roofed over in corrugated iron, supported by a brick pillar in the middle. This meant protection from the rain, finally. In surgery, I handed him the presents I had brought along. He was quite surprised at my choice of objects, and handled them with great interest, particularly the wasps’ nest. I received a glass of home brew to taste. It was quite different than the home brew from Stiga’s function in Mamelodi, but nevertheless potent. I reaffirmed my intent to stay away from the stuff.

Just then the news came that the steer and the goats had arrived. From the small town of Erasmia over the ridge to the south came Renee, the farmer, with Cornelius, his farmhand, in their small, open-backed truck. Two goats were lying trussed up by the legs, though the steer was standing free in the truck, attached to a metal pole by a small lead rope. After Cornelius had helped two or three men from Canny’s to slide the goats out of the back of the truck, Renee manoeuvred the truck backwards into the entryway, clambering out of the driver’s seat carrying his very large, long hunting rifle.

At the back of the truck, Renee gave two quick, sharp whistles, the steer turned its head, and he dropped it instantly with a bullet to the center of the brain. The crack report of the rifle sent shivers up my spine – I have never liked guns of any sort. Within 30 seconds the body of the steer was on the ground in the front yard, its throat had been slit, and a gourd full of the first blood was handed to Canny, who took it back to surgery. The body of the steer then fell to the three or four men wielding sharp knives who would skin the carcass and butcher the meat. Operating as an experienced team, they had the carcass skinned within 15 minutes.

Daisy, Cornelius, Kruger, and Barry, Canny’s brother, were hard at work dismembering the body and transporting large pieces of meat and bone towards the back. Within a short while eight or more adults were active on this job, plus five or six young boys and girls, and soon all that was left on the ground was a large mound of steaming, half-digested grass, the steer’s last meal, and a large basin full of its innards.

I left this fascinating scene and went to the back, where tables had been set up in the open space under the new roof, and the women began cutting up the 40-50 cabbages and the 50-lb bag of onions. It was a formidable task, organised in assembly line fashion, in which each woman had her assigned “cut” to do, handing over her load to the next in line. At the end of the line in each instance were several large green bags to hold the cabbage and onion mix when it was cut to perfection.

Canny came over and finally described the nature of the occasion to me. It was a special one, as I suspected. Today he and his family would give thanks to the ancestors, the Madlosi, the great-great-grandparents, those responsible for giving him the spirit to heal. This day was for all the “old” people, not just in this physical life. Through them, Canny was enabled to pursue his healing, instruct his students, and help his people. He explained that he was thankful that his patients survived, proud of some among them whom he had saved, who had “not died.”

I was unable to pursue this intriguing line of conversation, as practical matters intervened. It was unthinkable that my car would not be “commandeered” for one sort of transport task or another, and indeed it was so. Canny, Kate, and I drove over to the trading store for more cold drinks and biscuit flour. By the time we returned shortly after 5 pm, only the skin of the steer was hanging from the branches of the tree to dry. The cabbage and onions were done at the back. It was determined that more firewood was necessary, so off we went to Kate’s house towards the western edge of town.

While driving this stretch, Canny explained to me that he and Kate were gobda – very important traditional doctors (the word also means father/mother, a generic term of respect). He flattered me by saying I was gobda too, however I felt sure I did not deserve this title, at least not yet.

We picked up another huge pot for the cooking, scrounged around the grounds at Kate’s place for large planks and smaller pieces of wood for the cooking fires, and returned by way of the spice shop, picking up ginger and fresh herbs there. We saw a number of groups of people in traditional dress, in threes and fours mostly, Canny’s students and guests making their way over towards his place. He was especially demonstrative in greeting them from my car, marvelling at their surprise at seeing him waving from the passenger seat.

Back once more at this place, the front yard had been cleaned. There was no sight of the recent slaughter. In the back, cooking fires were lit, the combination of wood and coal spewing billows of thick grey smoke into the air. Water was heating, and large chunks of raw meat were hanging from the clothesline, fastened by a strong wire or two.

I was introduced formally to Canny’s brother Barry. His traditional name is Zulu, and as he described it to me, he was something of a “reluctant” spirit. The ancestors did come out from within him, but he chose rather not to pursue a full traditional healer’s life, saying: “It is a very hard life, that of sangoma. Since Canny has proven himself such a powerful sangoma, I thought it better to go a different direction.” Canny had an equally direct way of putting it: “Zulu came right behind me. Once I was through with my mother’s breast, I gave it to him.” Barry is a robust man of about 30. If there is anything heavy to do around the place, Barry is the man.

The sun was just setting at about 6:30. A group of boys and young men came down the street leading a wheelbarrow each, piled high with interlocking plastic chairs, fifteen or so per wheelbarrow. These chairs were handed over the fence and arranged around the place. After helping with this arrangement, I took a few portraits in the evening light, in the process noticing the Madlosi tree, freed for the first time from its encircling bags of cabbages and onions, standing decorated in its enclosure against the wall. The tree itself is not a growing thing. The “trunk” is a thick smooth branch perhaps 60 cm tall, covered in pale red/brown ochre. It has four or five smaller yet unsubstantial branches protruding from it, devoid of any foliage or minor twigs or shoots. It is implanted in the hard soil, and is normally standing there bare as bones. This evening however, it is decorated.

Three small wisps of colourful cloth hang from the tip of the top branch. Around the next branch lower is wound a thin strand of goatskin, about a meter long when unrolled and extended, perhaps 4 cm thick at both ends, and which has been subdivided into three smaller strands approximately 20 cm from end to end. The result is an accessory which can be strung around the neck, slung across the shoulder, or fastened to hang from a belt when worn by a “spirit”. A cap of white cloth, into which have been sewn a solid covering of cowrie shells, hangs from the third branch. Within the enclosure rests a gourd containing home brew, and resting on the bricks another, larger beaded gourd into which has been poured the first blood of the slaughtered steer.

In front of the enclosure kneels a tiny, elderly woman. She is well past 70, four-foot-six, weighing certainly no more than 40 kg. Around her shoulders is draped a colourful green cloth with a smiling picture of Nelson Mandela, his face moving along her back as she sways back and forth, murmuring quietly, her hands cupped together. Next to her stands Daisy Mohlaba, who offers her a bit of snuff from a small white plastic container. She takes the pinch of snuff in her fingers and strews it onto the earth just beside the spot where the Madlosi tree goes into the ground. Then she takes a small sip of home brew and spits it out energetically in a thick vapour over the tree itself.

This finished, the tiny woman rose and scurried off. Daisy took a seat next to me, and removed a small plastic bag from the folds of her simple pink dress. From the bag she produced a double strand of beadwork in progress, and a folded newspaper containing the beads she was working with. Blue and white bead sections alternated with red throughout. Small polished pieces of wood, 4-5 cm long and thin, punctuated the sections of beadwork. When the piece was stretched taut, the wooden pieces spun around like a child’s toy.

At one point hung a substantial part of a warthog’s horn wrapped in a netted string, with only the very tip protruding, and also a small skin sack containing a dark magenta substance. The sack was tied at the end with a thick thread. She spread the opening of the sack with a strenuous wringing of the smaller sections above the thread, and a small bit of the colourful powder appeared at the opening. With just the tip of her tongue, she took a lick, and offered me some as well.

“What is this powder?” “Muti.” “What does it do?” “Make me strong.” She emphasised this by pumping her fist firmly against her breast twice of thrice. I took a lick. It was slightly bitter and pungent. She assured me I would be strong now for a good long while. There was no immediate perceptible physical difference, and indeed there would not be. My best supposition was that it was a blood powder, but I never got a chance to confirm this, as Daisy rushed off busily towards the street, having been called impatiently by some others.

Just in front of where we were sitting, Elijah was shaving the excess hair off the skin of a new drum with a razorblade. Meticulously, slowly, clear areas of skin emerged. It was a painstaking process, but obviously not one to be accomplished by other means, as the skin must first be stretched over the drum face. A small bundle of animal hair accumulated, and it was collected with great care. In fact, almost all excess animal parts are used in one way or another, and traces of the animals, like hair, spilled blood, or stomach contents are used or disposed of with great respect.

The innards, first to be cooked, are making the rounds. Usually, those who wielded the carving and skinning knives appropriate to themselves the livers and kidneys. As a reward for the pictures I had taken earlier, Kruger informs me, I am welcomed into the butchers’ circle with a piping hot piece of liver smouldering fresh from the fire, pieces of charcoal still clinging to the meat. It is delicious and welcome sustenance, once the pieces of charcoal have been removed.

Daisy came back and tried to get an “artist’s” view of her work by draping her necklace-in-progress around my neck. There was no doubt: a strange feeling came over me as soon as the strand was settled there. I did not feel ready for it yet. Many people have assembled, and the place is alive with greetings of an intimate nature, as friends and family see each other again. Some are occupied taking snuff, others finishing off the last preparations of the food at back. There is much prostrating by those of Canny’s students who are engaged in the practicalities of greeting new guests: the offering of wet towels to wash the hands and face after traveling, serving tea and biscuits, even small pots of home brew for some.

Barry, Elijah, Sipho, and Gilbert have taken stations on top of the wall at the street entrance. They consider it an honourable duty and responsibility to see to the safety of my car, for which service I am appropriately grateful. The group is enlivened by the arrival of Lawrence and three of my other Atteridgeville friends Peter, Thabo, and Fanie. An animated half hour is spent in conversation at the gate, and it is suddenly quite dark, almost unnoticed by us all. An old car ambles down the street slowly, chugging to rest just in front of a neighbour’s house. Out clamber five people, of whom it is obvious which one is the ancestral spirit personality. Crying his greeting, a lithe young man, naked to the waist, his traditional blue, yellow and red cloth draped around his midriff, and carrying a long, tapering sjambok, enters the yard vociferously, and the place suddenly becomes transformed.

It is now obvious to me, the spirits are awakening. Drums and sticks are brought out and arranged for the events to come, carpets are laid out where before there were huge bags of cabbages and onions, and people start to make themselves comfortable. Chanting and waving his sjambok through the air, the young man seems to be greeting everyone at the place simultaneously. His woman attendant kneels at his side, clapping in time to his chant, pausing during the responses from those who are assembled. The voices now are far more focused on the enfolding appearance of the spirit within him.

Of a sudden the spirit screams a long, high-pitched wail, and he dashes out of the enclosure towards the front of the house, as vociferously as he had entered the yard before. Susan exclaims to me, “The spirit just got him!” Barry starts a tentative strong beat on the drum Elijah had been working on earlier, gives him a thumbs-up after a minute or so, and begins drumming. The young man has fallen into a severe fit of convulsions on the front porch, and his woman, along with several others, are tending him with great care. Some excited words, and two children rush off, returning in a flash with basins of water, which the women douse over his body. He is revived, smiles weakly at those standing around, and slowly rises. With assistance he returns to the enclosure at back, greets Canny, and now smiles broadly at everyone around. His spirit, I am told, was just a bit early in its exuberance. His name is Makothweni, from Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga province to the east.

During the few minutes I had spent out front observing the ministrations to Makothweni’s aborted trance, I had gone out to the car to get my traditional cloth, which I donned as a broad band around my waist. This became an object of great interest, as a group of elderly women found this new garment of mine cause for chanting and laughter, dancing around me as I made my way towards the back again. The atmosphere was now as relaxed and informal as it had been serious before.

Makothweni came over to me, falling down in a gesture of respect. I returned his greeting in the traditional manner, and we fell into a hesitant conversation, translated eagerly by Daniel, standing beside us. He noticed my necklace, a group of five porcupine quills strung into a double thread of black-eyed beans, a traditional Swazi ornament. He fingered it with great care, his smile broadening across his face. We establish that I know no Swati, but that IsiZulu will do, what little conversational Zulu I know. This nevertheless astonishes him, and he prances about singing at the top of his voice for a short spell, before returning to ask another question or two through Daniel.

The height of this conversation was when I decided on the spur of the moment to recite a small bit of poetry from Mzilikazi Khumalo’s epic, Ushaka KaSenzangakhona (Shaka, Son of Senzangakhona): “Ngabona kuhl’angan’imbizw’enkulu Yezinyandezulu…” (I saw an assembly of the great ancestral spirits…). Makothweni’s eyes opened wide, he grabbed my arm, shaking it vigorously. In the torrent of words which followed, I only picked up a few, but that was enough to communicate to me his enthusiasm and surprise: “Siyabonga…Nkos’…Injabulo…” (thank you…father…such joy!) He bounded off singing. What an exuberant spirit he possesses, or possesses him.

A couple of short rain spells delayed matters slightly, causing everyone to scurry for cover in the house and elsewhere, but it soon cleared and matters resumed after a short clean-up. The place had filled up markedly, with over 100 people around already. More are arriving now that it is later, in groups of threes and fours, as “family” in civilian dress, or traditionally attired. Makothweni seeks me out again, dragging Daniel along, to ask me one question: am I a Zulu sangoma? “No, Makothweni, just a musician,” I reply. He smiles, waves his sjambok in the air, and bounds off.

I returned to Canny’s group at the back by the fires, now rekindled after the rain. Pap is being prepared in two huge kettles. As it nears its final consistency, the pap requires physical strength and dexterity with the stirring implement, a long, thick wooden spoon with a large handle about the size of a cricket or baseball bat. The task is alternately being assumed by a group of five women, including Makothweni’s attendant, the tiny lady from earlier, and Canny’s sister Shirley. Each stirs for a minute or so until the sign “enough for me now.”

Makothweni, now clad in jeans and a striped t-shirt, grabs the spoon and stirs with his usual energy. The women gladly watch him strain for a couple of minutes, wiping the sweat from their brows. The pap is almost done, and soon there will be a repast. Suddenly, from somewhere around the corner, several gunshots ring out in the night. There is immediate consternation and conversation on this topic, as to where they came from, and what it might mean. A police siren screams from the station a short way away, over by Community Hall, the flashing lights visible only as suggestions against the houses at back. Gradually everyone calms down.

Canny organizes group portraits. I have come to realise that pictures play an important role for their people, and many others constantly ask me for the copies from “last time.” I give my usual response, that all the pictures are helping for the book I am writing, and that they will find their pictures there soon, when the work is finished. No one actually wants to wait, and I have long since realised that if the copies were put out publically, there would be an incredible crush for them among the societies I visit, and a singular lack of control over their whereabouts after many hands had had their chance. Thus the voice of bitter experience as well.

The ladies in particular are gracious, excited, and surprised at the photo opportunities, some remembering previous meetings with me. With the men, there is often a somewhat uncomfortable moment as the “show-off” (there is always one or two) clambers for an extra place in the photo. Among the pictures I take, two stand out. First is a picture of two elderly women fast asleep on their blankets against the wall, oblivious to the rain and the commotion around them. They will be refreshed later, when the dancing and the celebrations are at their height early in the morning. The second is a threesome of unusual character: it is Hlathswayo (Canny), Mothabeni (Margaret), and Margaret’s husband Ali. As I learn to my astonishment, Margaret is married to Ali, but Margaret’s spirit, Mothabeni, is, or rather was, married to Canny’s spirit Hlathswayo. This results in Mothabeni spending equally intense times with both her physical and spiritual mate(s).

It is just past 11 pm when the food is ready. The pap comes off the fire, and the meat goes back on. Switching the pots requires two people, one on each end of the wooden spoon, slung under the metal handle of the pot, and hoisted off the fire with a co-ordinated shout of “Hhou!” Several ladies bring plates and basins to prepare the portions, starting to dish out to anyone who wishes to eat. Sleepers awake just for this purpose, and finally the children are satisfied. Some of the men seated on benches against the wall, who had been concentrating with impressive dedication on their home brew for several hours now, encounter some difficulty in the switch to solid food, as they are in an advanced state of inebriation.

Pap and innards is offered me. I can just barely manage one of the five innards parts on the plate, and pass on the rest with apologies. Canny assures me meat course is coming. Drumming and chanting starts outside – guests have arrived. The place once more livens up and people chant their responses in between handfuls of pap and innards. The procession enters slowly from the street, led by the head of the visiting clan, a sangoma draped almost completely in a flaming red blanket. She leads the parade slowly around the enclosure to the rhythm of the chants, and gradually the procession makes its way into the house, having greeted all the sangomas and students gathered outside first. Once inside the house, entering through the kitchen, this group of perhaps twenty adults and five or six children takes its place in the living room, chanting and drumming the Mantshomane. As always, the din reverberates throughout the house. Basins of food are brought in for them, a basket of biscuits, and a large kettle of tea.

Another procession outside is just arriving and making its way into the house. There are now at least 60 people in the living room, and I move outside again, having made my greetings to some old friends, and new ones I have not met before. As usual, there is some degree of astonishment at my presence, which gives way to general delight once the new guests have seen how comfortable the family is with me. It is midnight. Outside, people are starting to move in time to the drums, the square is filled, and celebrations start in earnest. Makothweni has gone into trance again, and the drums stop while the pattern of last time is repeated. He races off once more, waving his sjambok in the air. Mafela Ndleleni (Stella) rushes over to him, kneels, and accepts his address to her, whereupon he rushes into surgery. Immediately a procession forms, following him inside. The room fills with drums and chants, almost as if in consecration. The tempo and fervour of the celebrations are increasing steadily.

Barry, the reluctant spirit, is suddenly seized by the ancestors. With a resounding scream and the subsequent “washing”, it takes him about two or three minutes to complete the transformation into his ancestral mode. His ancestral voice, a thin, high, wispy rasp, takes over, and there is comment and response from those gathered around him. This completed, the chanting takes over again, as he hops along with the aid of his stick into surgery.

It is remarkable: each time trance state is entered, a different variation on the same theme occurs, the general loss of the use of one leg. Some spirits are quite tentative in their progress towards the room in which they will be clad in their ritual garb, others literally bound along on one leg, seeming not to need any support. Barry is one of the tentative ones.

I glance inside. The room is filled to bursting with people prostrated on the floor over one another. The door closes in my face, and muffled chants punctuate the next short while. There are at this time over 200 people gathered, squeezed together in every conceivable corner of the place. Only around the drums, where there is a space for the spirits to dance, and in front of the line of chairs against the sidewall (where I take a seat) is there enough room for an adult to pass. Everywhere else is solid bodies.

It is now 1:45. Zulu emerges from surgery, clad in a flowing, gossamer cloth of golden thread, with red, pink, and blue feathers at his shoulders. He is wearing a cap of animal skin, complete with bushy tail hanging down. His dance takes him through the house, and when he returns, the dancing and chanting becomes ever more incessant, insistent. Now there are four big drums marking the beat, and 30-40 Mantshomane.

Zulu’s layers of clothing are removed in ritual order as he sways in front of the big drums, revealing knitted and beaded vestments and lower garments. His dance is electrifying, on the spot, as there is literally no room. As he dances, people sway to one side or another to avoid being trampled and give him a modicum of space, and the wave of movement which is initiated seems to pass around the assembly, like ripples on a pond. The wave gradually approaches where I sit, and I am engulfed by my neighbours, leaning over, switching position slightly to sit or lie on top of me. It is no different anywhere around the place.

Shortly after 2 am there are more arrivals – some of my acquaintances from last year’s celebration in Mamelodi. There are joyful scenes of recognition and greeting, however the increasing tempo of dancing, and additional trances, puts short shrift to this. The trances are transferring from Zulu to others in turn, and the chanting accompanies the intensity, speed, and onset of one trance after another.

As described previously, it is normal when a trance begins for the drums to stop for a short while, accommodating the appearance of the new ancestral spirit. This necessitates a pause in the dance of the spirit who has taken the “stage”, and it is interesting to note the respect and patience with which this spirit waits for the new arrival before resuming the dance.

The next trance involves five women simultaneously, on their knees in front of Canny and the drums, then in front of Zulu, then over to the group of people among whom I am sitting. Each time the formalities of prostration play out, gentle clapping and encouragement of the elderly women, vocalisations, and snapping of the fingers. Zulu, who has been making ample use of his whistle, draped around his neck by a strand of animal skin, seems to be the link between the various trances, as he dances with each in turn.

Makothweni’s third trance episode of the night is accompanied by the most exhilarating prestissimo tempo on the drums, faster than anything I have experienced to date. With his sjambok waving at the most obtuse angles to his body and the ground, the square erupts with pleasure and approval as he falls to his knees in front of Canny. Another trance, then another in rapid succession: the “old people” are in full presence, and the dancing, whistling, and chanting is constant. Despite the crush, there is nevertheless immense traffic to and fro: food for the newest arrivals at 3:15 am. They must be greeted and refreshed in the same manner as all the rest.

Canny brings me into surgery and insists that I lie down to rest on his bed, rearranging the four small children sleeping there to make space for me. I sacked out immediately, waking up at about 5:30, the two hours of sleep having refreshed me greatly. It was now dawning, and drumming was still in progress, though the crush of people had eased. I intend to make my apologies and leave, but Canny will have none of it: “It is not for us, it is for you and all the guests, this food.” It would be an obvious slight, a breach of etiquette to leave without partaking, however it will be another four to five hours before the food actually gets prepared and eaten. This is of course typical of “African time”, and has much to do with the particular celebration in progress.

I have taken a seat next to George Ngobeni, Eva, the nyanga’s husband, and a major gobda in his own right, as I am later to learn in many ways. In front of us, a sangoma kneels and speaks in ancestral voice, cloaked in a blue and gold robe, coloured feathers, and many layers of beads and undergarments. George continually clicks his fingers in response to her, murmuring “” Thokoza” at each interval which allows him response. His eyes are closed the entire time she is speaking. Abruptly, she is through, and she moves on to fall in front of other women a few meters off, and the same process is repeated. George explains that she has delivered the greetings of the ancestors, both of the spirit which has taken her, and of others not present. As he translates, I realise that the greetings of the ancestors constitute a basic link of human-ness between the generations. At 6:30 am, the fires are burning fiercely at back, smoke billowing throughout the place. Some of the oldest ladies, who have given only a glimpse of their former dancing prowess up to now, execute the most graceful slow variations on the dance. It is astonishing how vibrant some of these frail (or massive) ladies can be when motivated by the drums. A collection of the most colourful robes and garments is now on display as gradually, all the sangomas who had danced through the night assemble for the street procession. To the accompaniment of a large group of chanters and several Mantshomane, the procession makes its way out of Canny’s place onto the street, dancing/marching slowly in time to the beat up the way, turning at the cross street, and returning. It is this way at sunrise at all of the celebrations I have attended to date, and has remained so since.

At this celebration, there had been no slaughter in the morning, as this had been accomplished the afternoon before. But at most other celebrations, this morning procession precedes the actual slaughter of chickens and goats, which regularly happens just after sunrise. The procession having returned, they all dance in the square at back by the drums, a cacophony of colour and movement, stopping only to end one pattern of drumming and start dancing another in a different rhythmic configuration.

Having observed the onset of many trances to date, I was nevertheless astonished at what a complete “break” with our normal existence it can constitute by what happened next. I was sitting next to a young man of 25 or so, engaging in a bit of polite small talk. Having just asked him if he was from Atteridgeville, he had just begun to respond “no, I am from Soshan…” when in mid-sentence, he appeared to freeze stiffly, and his legs curled up rigidly against his chest. There was absolutely no warning to this, and it is clear that when the sangomas describe their complete lack of awareness at being possessed by the ancestral spirits, they are also describing their human vulnerability as well. One’s existence takes on layered levels of meaning when the ancestral spirit can make an appearance and so totally assume control without giving a moment’s notice. I assisted three other people to place him on a blanket on the ground, struggling to extend his limbs enough outwards from his rigid body to allow them to proceed with disrobing him. It was as if I was observing a “live” rigor mortis. His shoes, socks, and jacket were removed with some difficulty, and a light cloth placed over him in preparation for the traditional attire waiting inside. A high-pitches wail, his ancestral voice, appeared in tune to the developing chant. Swaying up on to his knees, now that the initial seizure had passed, he bent down close to the ground, while several heads crowded closely around, responding with exclamations and clicks: Thokoza – click – Thokoza – click… Rising to his knees again, he supported himself with both hands on the stick which was offered for support. This all played out within centimetres of my sitting place, at my right hand, and I felt strangely honoured that I had been called upon for the first time to assist physically in the preparation of a spirit for its presence among the people. Springing to his feet, he began to jump up and down incessantly on one foot, chanting, screaming, and moving over the central square by the drums. The procedure took its normal course from there, as the spirit greeted others in turn, to their responses. I began to realise that every family had its own set of ancestral spirits which visited regularly, and that when several clans got together, it was a remarkable collection of living dead ones which made an appearance. It does not seem as if there is any rhyme or reason as to gender: a man may be possessed by a woman’s spirit, and vice versa. Some people have multiple spirits which may visit them, one at a time, and Canny has told me of cases in which as many as six different ancestral spirits inhabit one body. This is a terrible burden for one person to bear.

Eva, the nyanga from Soshanguve, came over and inspected the notes I was writing, picking up the writing pad and reading carefully. She handed it back to me with a big smile and a thumbs-up, starting to dance in front of me while I wrote. George, her husband, burly and congenial, came over to join us. I finally felt as if I had written enough for this time, and put the pad away. I enjoyed myself in conversation and a bit of shade (it was getting quite sultry as the morning wore on), and gradually the tiredness overcame me. I fell asleep as I sat and talked.

Canny woke me later: it was about 10:30, and he was accompanied by a young girl carrying a plate of food for me. Heaped over the mass of pap was the cabbage-onion mix and three or four sizeable morsels of meat. I ate my fill. By noon I was back on the road to Joburg, and I slept all afternoon. That evening I resumed work on my orchestration of Ushaka, and worked vigorously and productively through the night until about three in the morning. I felt certain that there were some spirits watching, smiling as I wrote