With Stiga in Mamelodi

Thokozani! Dancing with the Ancestors

6. With Stiga in Mamelodi

Saturday, September 24, 1994


had been looking forward to my first excursion to another traditional ritual for some time. Both Stiga and Canny had been pressing me in their own ways to attend one function or another, but it had not worked out. Stiga’s opportunity came in an odd way, as September 24 had recently become a new national holiday, “Heritage Day” in South Africa for the first time following the elections earlier that year. Prior to that it had been “Shaka Day”, and as such, broadly identified with the particularly Zulu aspect of traditional culture in the country. Historically, of course, it was the day in 1828 on which King Shaka was assassinated by the royal conspirators, his brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, his favorite general Mbopha, and his aunt, Mnkabayi.

I was aware that certain other traditional cultures in the country, including my friends in the New Era Ngaka, had felt somewhat neglected at this prevailing impression, and I now came to understand this aspect of the discussions at Johannes Mashimbi’s place the month before in this light. This was now officially a day on which all traditional cultures could celebrate their respective heritages, and so it seemed particularly fitting that I should be accompanying Stiga, my first friend and mentor among the traditional leaders I had met, to my first full-fledged traditional ritual. This was to last through the night, in Mamelodi, the large township on the eastern flank of Pretoria, about 40 km from Atteridgeville.

Stiga’s nephew was graduating, I was told, and the celebration was scheduled to begin at 9 pm in Mamelodi. I arrived at Stiga’s place at about half past five, only to discover that he had already moved on to his aunt’s place on Motaung Street. Once there, I found an initial celebration of sorts already in progress among the family. The drums were out in the passageway, and several were active. Stiga was on the big drum, with powerful strokes, his aunt was on the small Mantshomane, with four or five children and two or three adults drumming these small drums as well.

After our greeting, Stiga introduced me to his fourth and youngest wife, Maria, 23, slight of build, charming of stature and face. We went into the house, and general introductions and greetings occurred among the twenty-five or so people who were present. After a cup of tea and a biscuit or two, I was refreshed, and Stiga’s aunt invited me to dance outside with her, as the drums continued insistently.

I preferred rather to sit carefully over by the drummers and study them awhile, as I began to notice for the first time rhythmic structures which I remembered from Canny’s, and I thought it prudent to note some of these down. The first rhythm was being danced by Stiga’s aunt, a pattern of eight beats repeated:

Music example Nr. 1:

The second rhythm was danced by an energetic young man, a completely different pattern of fifteen beats:

Music example Nr. 2:

Stiga rose to dance, and his rhythm was a more insistent seven pattern:

Music example Nr. 3:

Here is the general pattern I began to perceive. As each person gets up to dance, he or she intones a chant, to which the assembled drummers and spectators intone a response. The chants are basically pentatonic in nature, with some slides and intonations impossible to notate. The drums gradually come in within a few seconds, first a major beat or two on one of the large drums, a small drum raps out an accompaniment, and then an immediate ensemble of composite rhythms from all drummers breaks out. The major rhythms as notated above persist throughout, and the chanting and drumming become one with the dancer. The drumming ceases as abruptly as it had begun, as each dancer finishes a rendition. In an instant what had been an ecstatic plethora of sound becomes complete silence. Someone else intones a chant, and the process begins again. I have begun to appreciate the symbiotic relationship among chant, drum, and dance. The intricacies of the dance are just barely opening to me, but it is clear from the experiences I have had thus far that it is the dancer who dictates to the drums. In the hierarchy of drumming, the large drums, and their drummers, are in synch with the arms and feet of the dancer, and the small drums are foliage, so to speak, a general enhancement of the fundamental rhythms.

The youngest daughter of Stiga’s aunt, a slight girl of perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old, jumps into the dance carrying a small baby, not yet four or five months old, tightly wrapped in a large towel on her back. Throughout her dance and all the drumming and chanting, the baby remains fast asleep.

We had been expecting the Kombi at 6 pm; it was not 6:30, and the travel party had assembled, a group of fifteen to twenty who would make the trip to Mamelodi. Some were already dressed in traditional wear, others were carrying large bags and trunks full of ritual garb and accessories. The taxi was late, so everyone just continued dancing and drumming.

Stiga expressed his concern to me that his brother had not yet arrived, so we took a short spin over to his place, only to discover that his brother had telephoned to say he was waiting in Marabastad, a market precinct on the western edge of Pretoria. There was predictably no alternative but to drive into town while the rest waited.

It was about a twenty minute drive. Marabastad at night is not the most attractive spot, and more than a little dangerous. Where we had expected to find Stiga’s brother, he had predictably “just left, around the corner.” Stiga directed me to a vacant lot just off Grand Street. Across the lot was a small café, with its lights still on. Stiga jumped out and rushed off across the lot. At the taxi rank about 100 meters further on down the street, fires were burning in metal drums, and groups of men clustered around them for warmth. The evening was receiving a chilly bite from the wind, and the flames danced and sputtered in the drums, even at the distance from which I was observing.

Stiga arrived after about fifteen minutes in a rather perplexed state, saying that his brother had apparently returned to Atteridgeville, and thus we returned to Atteridgeville as well, none the wiser. By this time the Kombi had arrived, and everyone had packed themselves and their gear inside, impatiently waiting for us. Stiga’s brother sheepishly explained that he figured no one would come to pick him up, so he had hitched a ride back. Generally, we all thought the situation rather amusing in the end.

We made it out to Mamelodi (East) the long way around, better because it was tarred road all the way, and arrived at about 10 pm. Despite the good condition of the road, there was nevertheless plenty of dust being swirled up and around by the stiff wind, and it was sometimes difficult to see the Kombi directly in front of me. When we arrived, everyone packed out of the vehicles. There were seven in my car, including two of my young friends from Atteridgeville, Lawrence Mogale and Peter Mashego. They were using the opportunity to meet some female friends from Hammanskraal, north of Mamelodi. “Transport” is a key concept in South Africa these days, indeed.

In front of the gate to the house, the Mantshomane were beating a greeting, and the chanting was imploring the ancestors to be benevolent with us, as Maria explained to me. Stiga and three women knelt in front of our group, among these the graduating initiate, who had come out to us from inside the house. Stiga’s “nephew” was in fact Stiga’s niece (one of several common mis-conversions from vernacular languages into English, such as he/she and left/right). Upon completing their chant, they proceeded on their knees up the driveway and into the house, their hands folded in front of them, swaying carefully at each new step.

Inside the complete group assembled in the main room, bare of furniture and stark in the light of a single 60 Watt lightbulb suspended from a wire from the ceiling. This house was a “matchbox” as well, the main room front left, a bedroom front right, kitchen and another small room at the back. Once more we were refreshed with biscuits and drink: a choice of beer, home brew, cold drinks, or tea was offered.

Without any furniture, the room filled with people, 40 or 50 within the 20 square meter floor space. Three large drums were placed at the back, and an open space in the middle of the room remained free for the dancers. It was a crush. Drumming and chanting began, sporadically at first.

I ended up sitting diagonally across the room from where Stiga and the three women sat in a group in the corner. After about ten minutes of drumming, the four of them had assumed a different demeanour, their eyes closed, hands folded, still. A group of three or four people had gathered around them, beating the Mantshomane purposefully. All of a sudden, and simultaneously as if on cue, the four of them were seized, possessed by their ancestors, and the drums fall silent. Eyes still shut, they scream aloud with shattering intensity, their arms flailing in the air, convulsing with every fibre of their physical bodies such that they literally bounce back and forth upon the floor.

Within a short time the seizure settles gradually, and the screams are replaced by whooping breath movements and the appearance of the ancestral voice. The hands are now folded in the air in front of the body, and the “washing” begins, a meticulous yet gentle rubbing of the palms together before and after what physically seems like a cleansing of the face, the surface of the hair, and a quick check under the arms. Spiritually it is the appearance of the ancestor, now chanting greetings. The people respond. Equally as suddenly, the spirit in Stiga leapt up and rushed out of the room in two or three large bounds. The three women did likewise in tandem. There was a buzz around the room. I rose and went out to see what would transpire.

Stiga was sprawled on the couch outside on the porch, the women lying against the fence. They looked exhausted and gradually came to their normal senses. When Stiga greeted me, he asked me what had happened. This surprised me greatly, and I related quickly what he had done. He was unaware that anything had occurred, maintaining that he had been asleep the whole time, and he was incredulous at the “tales” I was telling him. He sought confirmation from a woman who had brought a basin of water for him and the women to wash their faces, hands, and feet. This lady was gregarious in her version of the events. Finally he admitted the obvious, and started to talk about his experience. “I was unaware that I had been visited by the ancestor. My great, great grandfather’s dead body is a living spirit which comes within my body. The drums and the chants awaken this spirit, and when the spirit awakes within me, I am no longer aware of what my body or my spirit is doing. Sometimes the spirit can appear and then decide to go back. Perhaps he senses danger, or he is not happy with things as he finds them. Perhaps he is simply not ready.”

I am finally introduced to the three women, Maggie (the graduate), Sylvia, and Mothebora. Maggie must open the ceremony with her trance, and then all the spirits will dance in their turn. Beauty, Stiga’s second wife, comes out and joins us. It is truly a “family affair”. I strolled a bit out on the porch, finding it a comfortable vantage point to look through the window into the main room. Jonas, who had been drumming on the large drum during the earlier episode with Stiga’s spirit, was now filling the center space with his dance, his tall, lithe, and sinuous body extended by the two drum sticks he was holding in his hands.

For the first time I observe closely the relationship of Jonas’ stressing of right or left foot in the dance, and the exact stress of the drums. The stressing of the opposite foot is accompanied by a balancing movement of the arm. One drummer on the large drum has his eyes on Jonas’ feet, a second drummer has her eyes on Jonas’ arms. They are both in perfect synch. Here is his fundamental rhythm:

Music example Nr. 4

Jonas breaks off his dance with an imperious gesture to the drummers, who cease instantly on the downbeat.

It is time for a small repast, and many of us are served pap and chicken. Those who will go into trance later do not eat. More and more colourful midriff cloths adorn an increasingly colourful assemblage. Traditional dress has been donned by most, and the “balloon dress” is worn by Stiga’s aunt and a particularly fulsome woman known as “Tiny”. With all due respect, Tiny’s most distinguishing physical features are doubtless her breasts, cascading in front of her ample torso.

After the meal, outside, I am offered African maize beer – “homebrew” – I try a few sips. It is definitely strong stuff, with a sour-ish ferment and a taste which at first causes the jaw muscles to tighten up. After a few sips, the taste settles and is more pleasant, but I choose not to pursue this taste test too far, and settle for a regular beer instead. Stiga was now wearing a head scarf of purple cloth, the same cloth as around his waist. He tells me we will start the ceremony soon, as it is approaching midnight. The drums had been warming by the fires out back, and it was beautifully quiet and still in the clear starlit night. I came across the Madlosi tree of Stiga’s aunt: several older women were clustered around the space, bent over on their knees low to the ground, whispering quickly. Stiga explained.

“When we speak with the ancestors, we use a bit of snuff and a bit of beer. The granny pours a pinch of snuff and spits a sip of beer upon the ground at the base of the tree. This is so the ancestor can be satisfied. Then we can speak with them.” The grannies are pleased at my presence, and I crouch down low next to them on my haunches. While Stiga translates, they introduce me to the Madlosi tree and to the ancestors, as Mlungu, white father. This is my name at the place from now on.

For the last ten minutes or so, the drumming had been ongoing inside, and we now re-enter. Tiny is dancing, but she is obviously unhappy at the drumbeat. She breaks off, indicating to the drummers that she wishes a change, taking the drumsticks out of the hands of the woman who had been drumming, and handing them to Stiga. He assumes his place at the large drum, balancing it upon the crook of the meeting point of his ankle joint and upper foot, and begins drumming a different rhythm.

My pen and notepad were unfortunately not at hand to note the rhythm down, as there was a frightful crush of people inside now. I was sandwiched against the wall, ringed left, right, and in front by people swaying, chanting, yelling encouragement, and clapping. Suddenly Stiga stops drumming, shoves the drum aside, leaps up and rushes over to Tiny. She begins to sway with eyes closed, and it takes three or four people to hold her upright, as she slumps loosely in their arms. She is eased to the floor, obviously no easy task, and is relieved of her watch, rings, and gold chain around her neck – her worldly items. She has gone into trance, stretches her arms stiffly outwards, shaking from head to toe. Then comes her piercing scream, the washing of the face, hair, and inspection of the underarms.

Stiga and Beauty minister to her as her ancestral voice begins a chant which is punctuated by the word “Nkosi” (generic: lord, god, great spirit). The drumming has stopped, but the responding chant of the people continues, punctuated by the word “Thokoza!”- you are welcome, we greet you in peace.

Her spirit gestures imperiously, and the drums begin again. She rips off her blouse, and Beauty and Stiga drape her upper body with a shimmering, gossamer cloth of golden colour. Tiny crawls over to auntie, prostrates herself in greeting, murmuring in ancestral voice quietly, almost a whisper, awaiting auntie’s response. Then in turn, in front of several others around the room, the process is repeated. I am about fifth in line, having observed the greeting at close range in front of two of my seated neighbours. Crouching down low so that our foreheads are almost touching, I listen carefully to the periodic murmuring, snapping my fingers and responding “Thokoza” at the pauses, or when prompted by my neighbour.

As Tiny moves off into the small side room, accompanied by three older women, Stiga begins to chant and dance. Sporadically, one can hear Tiny chanting in the next room as well; there is an almost desperate crying tone to her voice, high-pitches and thin. Stiga impels the drums to a faster tempo as he intensifies his dance. They do not satisfy him either, and he changes drummers, handing the sticks to Jonas. Stiga’s dancing is astonishing. Its most distinguishing technique is that of planting one foot solidly, and in a veritable blur of action, lifting his other leg and alternately stamping on the balls and heel of his other foot. Once more I notice with increasing admiration the focused attention and synchronicity of the drummers with the dancer. Even as Stiga’s dance becomes more ecstatic, they don’t miss a thing.

Beauty, Auntie, and another woman lead Tiny from the side room. She is draped in a flowing, glowing green cloth now. She is wearing bells at her ankles and two gourd shakers strapped around her calves. Her rhythm begins to mount:

Music example Nr. 5:

As soon as she gets going seriously, Jonas forces a halt to her dance, as he goes into trance. As soon as an ancestor appears, everything else which is going on comes to an immediate halt, and the appearance is welcomed by all present, including the spirits already manifest. Thus it is: Jonas, when through with the seizure, the appearance of the ancestral voice, and the washing, prostrates himself, and Thokoza fills the room from the respondents. I am fourth in line this time, after granny, Stiga, and Lucy at one of the three large drums. While this is occurring, Tiny is shifting patiently with her eyes downcast at the edge of the open space, occasionally giving a low grunt from the depths of her breasts. It is now just past 1 am. Tiny begins again as soon as Jonas is led into the side room by his attendants, a group of three or four who attend to each ancestral spirit. Her gourd shakers cause problems, slipping off her calves as she stamps around the space, and two women struggle to refasten them tightly as she waits, showing her impatience at the interruption of her dance.

I take a breather outside by the fire. Peter and Lawrence, along with their guests from Hammanskraal, are enjoying their beer and their company, and they do not seem interested in the events inside. Some normal conversation balances my equilibrium, as the breather takes effect. After about fifteen minutes, I perceive two more ancestral voices chanting, and I go back inside.

Maggie is standing in the center of the space with a gourd in her hand, shaking constantly at a furious tempo. Chant, response, and prostration follows rapidly in succession, perhaps fifteen times or more in every corner of the room. The rising din of the chants and the Mantshomane stops suddenly as Maggie’s trance grasps her, and she is overtaken by shivers. Her voice changes equally as suddenly, she grasps the gourd, chanting and beating ever faster, as the women urge her onwards, now on her knees, into the side room. The chanting stops.

Jonas emerges, accompanied by Beauty, Sylvia, and Stiga, intoning a different chant and rhythm. Jonas is wearing a blue and yellow cap in which are sticking straight upwards large red and yellow feathers, and he is draped in a white, black, and red print cloth with an image of the face of a tiger. Stiga and the others stop their chant, waiting for Jonas to begin. In the silence, Maggie’s ancestral voice can be heard from the other room. Jonas begins his chant, as Beauty removes first one tiger cloth, then another, and another. Over a white t-shirt, Jonas wears the crossed red and white beaded body lacings. Around his biceps, white horsehair plumes are strapped on by thick thongs. There are three or four necklaces and chains around his neck. As a further two or three layers of coloured gossamer cloth are removed, the full complexity of his ancestral regalia becomes clear for the first time. Fastened at his hips are two more feathered plumes, these green and yellow. Six or seven cascading layers of beadwork sashes and belts, in seemingly meticulous order, alternately red and black, green and yellow, and finally blue and white beadwork, are fastened on to the various solid colours of cloth, producing a plethora of colourful play, whether in movement or repose.

The beat becomes unmerciful in its intensity. Even the smallest children, no more than two or three years old, are clustered over by the large drums, each with his or her own small sticks, beating on anything available, a milk box, the wall, the floor, even on the lap of any grownup sitting just nearby. Sylvia comes out of the side room with a whistle, which she hands to Jonas, who immediately resumes his dance more intensely and turbulently than before, whistling, stamping, and jumping off the floor, barely touching his top feathers to the ceiling. It is now 1:45 am, and things are now happening in rapid order. Maggie and several other women and girls come out of the side room, Maggie weighed down heavily and moving ponderously under the layers of beads, belts, and cloth. Tiny has jumped into the center space with a small child in her arms. The little one is screaming mightily. Tiny hands the child to the gentleman sitting next to me, and drapes the little one in successive objects and layers of beadwork and cloth which are gradually being removed from her body by a woman attendant. Gradually the child becomes still and peaceful. In the gentleman’s lap is a mound of beadwork and ancestral regalia gracing the small, beatific face of the child, who is now asleep.

Tiny takes a red cloth and spreads it out in her arms, collecting coins from several people in its folds. Maggie, in the center, is switching the gourd shaker through the air with intense speed. New drums are brought in from the fires out back, and she takes over the sticks and the large drum, beating a rhythm to her liking, then shoving the sticks and the drum into the lap of one of the drummers. She now has a short wooden spear with beaded handle in her other hand, dancing slowly, yet with unmercifully strong stamps of her right leg on the main stress. The gourds fastened around her calves continuously loosen and fall as she dances, and the women struggle again with the refastening while Maggie’s spirit struts nervously on the other leg. The efforts fail, and Maggie runs off into another room, returning without the shakers, but with four short lengths of hosepipe, with which she initiates another, slower rhythm on the large drum.

Outside, I encounter and speak with the younger of the two women who had been struggling with Maggie’s leg thongs. It is Veronica, Maggie’s daughter, 19. She is visibly annoyed that the spirit within her mother had encountered such difficulties, and that she was incapable of remedying the situation, though she had made valiant efforts to keep the thongs tight. She doesn’t know yet if she will be called by the ancestors to be a sangoma like her mother. It is a hard life, but if it must be, then she will accept it. It is now 2:30 am. Jonas’ spirit has finished dancing, and gradually he removes his adornments, handing them to his attendant, finally sinking to the floor wearing only the midriff cloth again, devoid of ancestral regalia. Dancing slowly out of the space, and after having prostrated himself in every direction, he exits into the side room. Tiny immediately emerges from there, she too draped in a tiger cloth, and Beauty repeats the disrobing of the cloths in the same manner. Underneath, Tiny is also transformed by the colourful play of her ancestral regalia, in which she has been dressed again.

Sylvia is rushing back and forth from outside with a beaded calabash filled to the brim with a frothy, steaming whitish liquid. Maggie starts beating her gourd and stirring the liquid with a small crooked stick, chanting another, totally different chant. Some of her dancing feats are extraordinary for a woman of such bulk. She is leaping around the room at a rapid pace, landing hard and switching directions, all the while keeping her one hand motionless, pressing the wooden spear against her navel tightly. Her other hand holds a long, black letshoba, swirling as wildly as the other object remains motionless. As her dance subsides, she struts heavily around, gasping and gulping for breath. The drums are once more removed, and the intensity subsides as well. With gourd and chant, Maggie now sits majestically in the center space, and one by one her family is brought before her: her husband, daughter, and mother. Lawrence, for once sitting beside me and observing the events, comments that she appears to be telling the ancestral history of the family as each person is brought before her. They sit facing each other, holding both hands outwardly stretched, and Maggie weighs each hand in turn, chanting the while. To me, it seems like a variant of the femba sequence at Canny’s some while back, only less vociferous. The people are being “seen” by the ancestral spirit. Exactly 3 am. In rapid succession, Stiga, Sylvia, and Jonas once more go into trance, and the room becomes a frothy sea of ancestral voices, drums, chanting and response. There are many spirits now present. Sylvia’s seizure was especially violent, as her eyes went ghostly white in their sockets as she was possessed by the spirit. At one point three spirits drop down to the floor directly in front of me, prostrated in a small circle, and they remain for a long while communing with each other in ancestral voices, snapping fingers, clapping hands, repeating Thokoza, Thokoza. Maggie suddenly clears everyone out in one corner of the room, literally sweeping them away in front of her, indicating this as the spot where the spirits will set down to rest. As I am among those swept away, I take a turn outside. Next to the brilliant half moon high up in the heavens, Orion dominates in the canopy of stars. I lay back on a couch outside on the porch, and my next awareness was being awakened by Stiga at about 6 am, just as day was breaking. He told me some of those left inside had asked him whether Mlungu had gone: I was in fact quite “gone”. The drumming had stopped inside, and everyone was preparing for the morning. Heavily, I rose, while sleep struggled to regain its hold on me. Over at the water tap, I washed my face and hands, which cleared my mind somewhat. The plethora of events which occurred that morning has been repeated at other gatherings, and they are described in greater detail in other chapters. My powers of observation were no longer focused to the task. Suffice for now that the significant occurrences were the street procession of sangomas at about 7 am, directly preceding the slaughter of the goats. I witnessed my first live slaughter and the eventual preparation of the feast which, when it came at about 11 am, was one of the most gratefully-awaited repasts I have ever enjoyed. For my first all-night ritual, I felt I had been sadly lacking in stamina and concentration towards the end, and so it was a bit ruefully that I took my leave at about noon. It was impossible to stay any longer, as my exhaustion made driving back to Johannesburg a questionable undertaking. When I left, the dancing was just starting up again. Stiga told me they had gone on until about four in the afternoon, and the gathering had broken up at five. By that time, I was fast asleep at my place.