Bereavement in Rietgat

Thokozani! Dancing with the Ancestors

7. Bereavement in Rietgat

November 11, 1995


anny has invited me to attend a ceremony in Rietgat, also known as Lethlakganeng. The village lies in the new Northwest Province, the former homeland of Bophuthathswana, about 100 km northwest of Pretoria. We are traveling to the rural home of Canny’s gobda Katherine Hlongwane, whose daughter has unfortunately recently lost her first-born son. Canny had done his studies with Katherine, and sangomas and their students are arriving from all over the former Transvaal region tonight. Early on Sunday morning, as Canny described it, they will “accompany the young man to the spirit world.” Canny describes Katherine as a humble, kind woman, greatly respected by her people. There will be two cows and four goats slaughtered for the occasion, and this information tells me that it will be a significant gathering. As opposed to the previous celebrations I had attended, which had been a joyful cornucopia of colour, this time there will be an emphasis on black. Every celebrant will have black as the dominant colour among the others which make up their traditional raiment. I was intrigued when Canny informed me that he and his students had prepared an appropriate traditional garment for me. We planned our arrival in Lethlakganeng for about 10 pm. I arrived at Canny’s at 8:30, where all the students, Canny, his mother Susan, and several other guests had gathered. The place was spotlessly clean in every corner. We exchanged greetings, traditional and otherwise, and sat to chat for a while. In surgery, suitcases and bags full of traditional raiment were bring prepared meticulously. When trance arrives, the spirit must be clad in a particular order inside the house, preparing for the dance. We then drummed and sang for a while, and Canny presented me with my material.

Two or three of the students had an excellent laugh while fitting it around me, somewhat like a toga, slung diagonally across my shoulder. The minibus then arrived, which would transport the majority of the group and materials. There were now about twenty of us, so we loaded everyone in their respective vehicles, six in my car, and made our way out of town around 9:20, well within African time so far. What Canny had neglected to tell me (Canny always neglected to tell me something extra we had to do, which made excursions with him consistently interesting and surprising) was that the minibus had to pick up Eva Ngobeni, the nyanga, and two or three students in Soshanguve. Since the driver did not know the way, either to Eva’s place in Soshanguve, or for that matter to Lethlakganeng, we were destined to lead the way. On the road, Canny and I got to talking about Johannes Mashimbi’s untimely death earlier in the year. He had been at a gathering at the time, and I listened spellbound to his account of how Johannes had suddenly collapsed, and how he and two or three others had tried to revive him, all to no avail. I remembered Johannes fondly as a good friend and mentor.

It was he who had told me the secret of the “magic flute”, the piece of cane I had found in the cave with Stiga in 1993. It was also he who had identified the palindromatic drawing I had made of the Arena in Saulsville in 1994, turning it upside down and revealing it as "Noah’s Ark” as well. The talk of Johannes buoyed our spirits, and we decided to make a short stop at the widow Mashimbi’s place, only two or three streets from where the bus would pick up Eva. There was some surprise when we arrived, but it turned out that Canny had displayed some small cunning. While he directed the minibus to Eva’s place, it seemed Mrs. Mashimbi had been expecting us. She greeted us at the door holding a large plate heaped with succulent pieces of meat. As I now know, one must sometimes wait several hours for the food to be prepared at large gatherings, so I gladly took advantage of this opportunity. Although I had been to the Mashimbi place only once before about a year earlier, there were four or five people present who remembered that day, and they were overjoyed to see me again. We chatted a while as we finished the meat, and then moved on to Eva’s place, where preparations had been completed. With the full complement of our entourage loaded up in the vehicles, we proceeded out of Soshanguve, backtracking circuitously through Mabopane onto the Oskraal road, past the Jericho turnoff where the tarred road ends, and then on to the dirt track towards Rietgat. We arrived at little after 11:30 pm. On our arrival, many children gathered around the new guests, and within a couple of minutes, more than 100 people had surrounded the cars as we unloaded. Once all the material was out of the vehicles, our group took the Mantshomane we had brought along, and started a chant. The group snaked its way in through the gate and around the left side of the house to the back, where perhaps 150 people were already gathered. We proceeded once around the open space and entered the house, where the standard refreshments of tea, biscuits, and beer were offered. Canny explained to me that the chant of greeting we had sung as we entered the compound had been an excerpt of thoroughly normal everyday conversation, as two people might have with one another. In this case we had been chanting: “It is a little bit cold this evening.” As a chant to the accompaniment of the Mantshomane, this bit of everyday conversation had suddenly taken on a new meaning for me. While we enjoyed our refreshments (I had opted for tea rather than beer, as I wanted to stay awake and alert making my notes through the night), there was a crush of people coming to and fro in the living room where we were sitting. Some old friends greeted Canny, some greeted me. My presence in this new environment caused the usual amount of surprise and delight. Several people came up to me and spontaneously poured out their joy that a white man would come to visit them without special preparations or precautions. Among these was a young man of obviously frail physical and mental state, who gesticulated with wild joy his pleasure at seeing me.

He crawled over to us (I was sitting on the arm of an upholstered chair next to Canny in the corner) and made traditional greetings. Then he grabbed both of my arms and started shaking them, until someone came over and removed his arms from me. He then sat with Canny at the foot of the chair, and it was only a minute later that he was overtaken with convulsions, to which Canny patiently ministered, clapping his cupped hands and repeating “Thokoza!” in the traditional manner to which I had become accustomed. After a few minutes, the young man’s face transformed into a relaxed smile, as he rose from the floor and started to dance. Canny and several others started rocking with laughter, for as it turned out, he had been imitating “the way the sangomas do it”, faking it the whole time. Shortly after midnight, the group rose, refreshed, and formed the snakelike procession again, chanting and drumming our way out back to join the gathering. Drumming and chanting was in full force by this time, with 250-300 people surrounding the open space reserved for the spirit dancers. I took a chair on the periphery to the left of the drums, from where I had an excellent view of the proceedings. I ventured around the perimeter once or twice searching for better angles for my photographs, but in the end my first position was the best, so I settled there. While walking around, I would continuously be engaged in conversation, as new people greeted me, or old friends recognised me, and the situation was overtly warm-hearted and welcoming. The smaller children were fascinated as usual. As was my habit, I constantly looked for opportunities to catch them stealing glances at me. This was the surest way to procure an official greeting or handshake out of them, once they were “caught”. Up to this point there had been no ceremonial dancing in the spirit of the occasion. Katherine was seated at the center of a group of women beating the Mantshomane to the right of the three large drums, at the back door of the house. In regular order, the students and other sangomas approached her in groups of three or four, prostrating themselves in the traditional greeting. They prostrated themselves also in front of me, and I returned the greetings in the manner I had been instructed. I felt very much a part of the celebrations. Shortly thereafter the trances commenced. One by one, those who fell into trance were ministered to by students and older women, carried or accompanied into the house to be dressed, and returned to dance. While this was transpiring, others who did not fall into trance took their turns dancing to the drumming and chanting, like Eva in her flowing, billowing nyanga dress. I accompanied one of the spirits into the room inside the house to observe the dressing ritual, with permission, of course. The traditional garments are applied in a very specific order. First come the longer dress layers, and over them consecutively the shorter layers of clothing, beadwork, and accessories. The layers are draped from the shoulder or hung from the waist.

The outer garments, armbands of horsehair, necklaces and beadwork in profusion crossing the upper torso, animal skins, sceptres, staffs, and face coverings, all of a highly individual nature, create the ancestral personality of each sangoma. I take a moment to reflect on the process of going into trance. It is an unmistakeable occurrence, accompanied by a series of movements which are strikingly similar from one spirit to another. The onset is marked by an other-worldly scream and a set of convulsions which take over the whole body of the sangoma, causing him or her at the end of the convulsions to assume a rigid body position, bolt straight when sitting in a chair, or with legs straight out and torso at a rigid right angle to the legs, when seated on the ground. The upper torso and the arms shake the most violently, and a series of guttural exclamations emanate from the depths of the chest, the sign of the appearance of the “ancestral voice”. This voice can be an extremely deep one, as in the case of many female sangomas, or an extremely high-pitched one, as in the case of many male sangomas. I hesitate to characterise this apparent gender change according to vocal timbre, but the incidence of vocal timbre seemingly inappropriate to the sex of the person in trance is too marked to escape detection. At the risk of repetition: while the ancestral voice is making itself heard, the hands of the sangoma perform a cleansing, washing motion. Hands are rubbed together in front of the face, then across the face from the forehead on down, as with increasing assurance, the ancestral personality takes over. The body is then carried into the house, if the convulsions are particularly severe. Otherwise, the sangoma is accompanied into the house by his or her entourage more calmly, having had a staff placed in their hands. The staff plays a significant role, as the sangoma typically, on reaching a standing position after the initial convulsions have subsided, is always hindered in the use of one leg. The other leg appears crippled, as the foot is raised, and only the ball of the foot touched gingerly on the ground. There are many variations on this theme, but the effect is always the same: the one in trance most definitely does not have two feet “on the ground”. As the sangoma enters the house, he or she will limp along, using the staff as support, occasionally falling at the feet of any respected person. When this happens, the entire entourage will immediately do likewise, and fall prostrate on the spot. There is one notable exception. One young female sangoma, once she falls into trance, will gather her strength at one end of the gathering, while people prepare an open lane for her. She then leaps through the air in large bounds at full speed into the house, yelping with ancestral voice the whole time, and hurtle unaided into the confines of her dressing room. Back at the gathering, I managed to capture some interesting photographs, but as the following account will show, at some apparent peril. One sangoma had gone into trance, been dressed inside, had returned, and was dancing. Canny had been sitting next to me for the last hour or so, and rose to start dancing an accompaniment. Motivated by their dance, I ventured to take a photograph.

I had learned previously to ask for, or tacitly receive permission to take photographs, to avoid upsetting the ancestral spirit. There was however no chance of this in the present situation. There had been instances when my camera inexplicably refused to function. Photographing sangomas was sometimes a hit and miss affair, and I had learned to cope with the mysterious situation. Sometimes the picture would come out, sometimes it wouldn’t. As I snapped the picture this time, the flash went off. The dancing sangoma gave a sudden, loud, terrifying scream. She stood transfixed, waved her arms once, and looked around with a wondrous, fearful expression on her face. Lazarus, who was sitting next to me, quickly reached his arm across from the right, grabbed my left arm, and drew the camera away, hiding it underneath his buttocks. After a few seconds of general consternation, the drums started tentatively again, the sangoma resumed rhythmic movements, and the tension passed. I was feeling quite miserable at this turn of events, but Lazarus assured me there would be no lasting damage done. Later, Canny downplayed any lasting significance, but I was not convinced. I still had an uneasy feeling that I had publicly intruded upon a private space, crucially upsetting an ancestral spirit in the middle of her rendition. I later apologised to the lady when she re-emerged from surgery in her normal state, and these apologies were accepted graciously, although she admitted she had no memory of the incident. The gathering continued in this same vein through the night. Gradually the feeling came over me that, if I was to be at all fresh for the morning’s ceremony, sleep was now a vital necessity. Canny arranged that I be led into the bedroom off the living room in the house, where four children lay sleeping on the big double bed. One of the students rearranged the children slightly, and there was now sufficient space for me to stretch out comfortably. Sleep came quickly. It was 3:45 am. Around 5 am, I opened my eyes for a moment or two without rising. In front of me, a sangoma was being dressed by three woman attendants. They were putting the final touches of her raiment, the horsehair armbands, the colourful blue and red feathers upon the shoulder and finally, a translucent blue and gold cloth to cover the raiment from the neck to the knees. While this was happening, her ancestral voice was speaking and chanting incessantly. When the ladies finished their task, they gave their respect with Thokoza and cupped hands clapped together. Outside the door another attendant beat upon her Mantshomane. The entourage passed outside, and I slipped back into my dreams. I awakened at 5:30. It was just getting light, and things were now quiet outside. The drumming and chanting had ceased, and everyone was either resting or preparing for the morning ceremonies in their own private ways. Food was already being prepared in huge pots at the cooking fires out back. At about 6:30, some 350-400 people gathered at the front gate and started singing. A procession formed, progressing at a slow walking pace from the house towards the cemetery. Katherine’s grandson had been buried some weeks before. The sangomas in traditional dress formed a double line in the procession. There were numerous cars, pickup trucks, and mini buses transporting people also, and my car was somewhat further back, with Canny and five others as passengers. In light of what had happened with my camera the night before, Canny warned me: “Don’t let the ancestors hear the engine of your car. They will run away!”

Apparently, no one in the accompanying mini bus told the driver the same thing, for as he revved his engine to pass another car in the procession, the sangomas all turned tail and ran into the bushes, screaming and hiding. Canny looked at me as if to say, “You see?” I stopped the car and turned off the engine. After some few minutes, they tentatively re-emerged from the bushes and continued their procession towards the cemetery. I hung back, and followed on when I was sure they would not hear us. The cemetery was about 400 meters from the village. We had walked from the parking area some 100 meters further on to the gravesite, and we were in the middle of the bushveld. I was struck by one abiding image. From where we were celebrating, on this crystal clear and sunny morning, one could not see any vestiges of civilisation: no cars, no electric poles, no houses, shops, nothing. One heard only the singing of the birds and the shuffling of feet. The cemetery had a simple wrought iron gate and was fenced around its perimeter with bush wood, much as the cattle and goat kraals back at the village. Inside were numerous grave mounds of earth and stones. Flowers were strewn all over the grave mound of Katherine’s grandson. Everyone entered. Katherine’s daughter, the bereaved mother, was kneeling at the grave mound. Katherine and two or three other elderly ladies knelt beside her. The many sangomas arranged themselves seated all around the gravesite. Then they all knelt against the earth covering the grave, as if they were embracing it. Katherine spoke some few words, addressed to the departed spirit. When she was finished, she threw some snuff onto the grave, and the ladies rose. There followed one group after another, in threes and fours, who all knelt at the head of the grave, repeating their messages and adding their small pots of traditional brew to the objects at the grave, or spitting some of it out over the earth. It was all very private, very soft, very intimate, and very beautiful. As Canny had said, black dominated everyone’s traditional garments. Whether the feathers, one large band of cloth at the waist or shoulder, or even bead necklaces, everyone had a distinguishing black adornment. There were of course some people in normal Sunday dress, and they stuck out for their utter, total blackness, pants or suits. The traditional people were full of colour, of which only one aspect was black. After everyone had finished their communion with the departed spirit, we rose to leave, the sangomas marching in file as before, and the others in leisurely pace towards the village in their cars or on foot, back to Katherine’s place. When we returned, the food was ready, and heaping plates of pap, cabbage, and meat was served. Everyone ate their fill. After the utmost seriousness of the ceremony through the night and thus far in the morning, the rest of the morning was a relaxed counterpoint to this. After the meal, people sought shade to relax and converse. There was dancing and drumming, but of a much more informal nature, in the sense of pure enjoyment rather than official celebration. Eva instructed a novice student in the art of dealing with her nyanga robes. I had a relaxed and enjoyable conversation with an old man on the porch. Numerous people started singing songs out back, songs from the radio stations, popular and with a natural beat. The little kids played soccer in the street. I returned home at 5:00 in the afternoon, went to bed, and slept until morning.