At Mafela Sikotheni’s the Herbalist’s

Thokozani! Dancing with the Ancestors

8. At Mafela Sikotheni’s the Herbalist’s

November 16/17, 1996


afela Sikotheni was coming home. She had finished her initiation at Canny’s place a couple of weeks ago, and now she was being installed at her own place as a certified, qualified herbalist. The Madlosi tree was being planted at her place, and her surgery was being dedicated with a ceremony and presents from Canny and other important sangomas. Nine of the students were there, Mzilikazi, Mafela Ndleleni, and the others. Guests from Lethlakganeng (Katherine Hlongwane’s clan), Soshanguve (the Ngobenis, George and Eva and their entourage), and relatives from all over: by Sunday morning more than 300 people would be participating. It had rained hard all Saturday afternoon, and with the weather having cleared as I drove into Atteridgeville about 7 pm, there was water everywhere.

Canny was out when I arrived, and as he prepared his things, I spent an agreeable hour with his mother Susan, another granny, and his brother Stephen, who was delighted to learn that my father’s name was Stephen also. Transport problems were bound to delay matters after the storms. People were up to three and four hours late in arriving from all over the province and beyond. Mafela Sikotheni’s place was only about three streets away, perhaps half a mile, and I ferried four people at a time (elderly ladies only) between Canny’s place and hers, while others walked or packed into the few minivans that were around, for the better part of two hours.

Everyone was gathered at Mafela’s by about 2:30 am, dancing began at 3:30, and it started raining again at 4:00. By this time, perhaps 150 people were crammed under the leaky tent, with 20-25 people in each of the four rooms of the house. Mafela and the students had been given muti earlier, and they entered the place together, advancing on their knees under their traditional cloths. The students were all covered by purple cloth, only Mafela was huddled under a pure white sheet. They all bobbed and weaved in time to Canny’s leading chant and the nascent beat of the mantshomane outside. We all proceeded inside, where everyone except the initiates took refreshment and a small repast. We completed the extended process of greetings (there were perhaps 30 of us in the room), whereupon we returned outside to assemble under the tent, the initiates in the front row, facing the drums. The tent came of the small house at the front towards the gate, being fastened to both, with one large pole in the center. A smaller tent adjoining it protected the entryway from the street and the passageway to the side of the house. Under the tent(s) were gathered about 100 people in four rows on each side, with a larger central area set aside for the large drums, their drummers, and the dance area. Everyone squeezed together in a seething mass of closely packed bodies, with no free space to stand anywhere. One by one the trances started, Mafela Sikotheni’s first, and several students following closely afterwards. Mafela’s dance was exhilarating, but it paled in light of what was to follow later. Interruption: as it started to rain heavily again, the tent leaked, and a rapid redeployment of the space occurred. There was a sticky brown mush around the side of the house, strewn with enough small rocks packed in to be felt as a sharp jolt under my boots. The majority of people present were barefoot. We all scurried hither and thither until the leaks were plugged, blankets spread anew, and the dancing resumed.

Those trances and dances which had been interrupted by the rain were resumed as if nothing had happened. The spirits, who had taken no part in any worldly interaction during the downpour, had just waited around until things normalised again. The rain eased and eventually dispersed around daybreak. It had been cold and wet for hours on end. I had managed to snatch a short hour’s sleep in the car, while inside the drumming had gone on unabated, and one by one the spirits were populating the place. Mafela Ndleleni, one of the happiest of the spirits while in trance, danced exquisitely. Unfortunately her earthly physical host, Stella, suffers greatly afterwards from the intense physical strain of trance. This is the price some of my friends bear continuously. The chanting and drumming which accompany the appearance of an ancestral spirit (of course, they are also integral in the summoning of the spirit as well), the seizure and scream, the cleansing movements of the hands across the face, the dressing down from normal dress, entry into the “inner sanctum” in the house for the dressing in ancestral raiment, and the subsequent re-emergence in spirit personality before the assemblage, is all stylised and fixed in ritual. I took this moment to enter and survey the “inner sanctum”. This will be one or two rooms inside the house, stripped of all but the most essential furniture, a chair or two, perhaps a couch or a bed. It will have been filled to the rafters on all sides by the most bizarre array of luggage pieces, each holding part or all of a spirit’s traditional attire. Each spirit’s raiment is unique to its wearer, different in cloth and colour patterns, and in the specific bead and adornment details, but each is similar in its structural build-up of layers. Normal clothing is strewn everywhere as well. At any given time there may be between 5-20 people in the room in various stages of dress or undress. Each spirit has an entourage of people to attend to its needs while in trance. This can be from 3-9 people in all, who will accompany the spirit at all times, drumming and singing the while. Inside the room, cacophony and seeming chaos reign, with each group attending each spirit absorbed in its own time frame within the ritual and state of trance. There are constant interruptions, as the spirits acknowledge each other and everyone around them in turn. It is an extended, slowly and steadily-moving, inexorable process. Just after the slaughter of the goats at sunrise, I heard from the back door of the house as George Ngobeni was going into trance, just inside the main door of the house at the front. George is a huge man, not overly tall, but built like a barrel, perhaps 125 kg. When he goes into trance, it sometimes requires five or six people to manage him. As he shakes the house with his seizure and scream, his movements are sudden and unpredictable at first. When he shouts, I believe no human voice can overpower his, and when he sinks into trance, he sinks like a stone to the floor. As his trance proceeded, he suddenly indicated to me through his entourage that he wanted my walking stick to help him rise. The ancestral spirit was fully present, was out, and it was no longer my friend George acting. Of course I complied, and watched as the spirit, relieved of George’s shoes, socks, belt, watch, personal necklaces, cap and jacket, and clad in his trousers, t-shirt, and a translucent, shimmering cloth, proceeded with quivering, probing steps into the small room at back. Each step seemed like a painful, tentative, and difficult endeavour; each step took Mahlangani Pani a minute or more to make. He would probe the floor ahead with the stick, gently extend the next foot, and gingerly place it on the floor, as if the floor might collapse under any more weight. Shaking, the foot would settle gradually, and the weight of the body would shift onto it, thus on to the next step. His eyes were closed the entire time, and around him were hovering three or four people at every step, in case anything untoward should occur.

I accompanied them into the small room and watched as his spirit was clad. The layers of clothing were carefully unpacked by Eva, George’s wife and nyanga, and he was clothed meticulously from head to toe, the two of them singing in quiet communion with each other uninterruptedly. The numerous layers were applied in immaculate order, each tie of a knot, the balance and “sit” of the cloth on the body, tested at every turn. It is a process they have done together hundreds of times. It is a tight fit with so many layers, and each one must go without a hitch. When there is a hitch and the person who is applying the clothes and accessories of the spirit knows not the order of attire, it is a serious occurrence, and the spirit can become mightily distressed. Mahlangani Pani’s raiment consists of beadwork, gossamer waistcloths, crossed beadwork body lacing across chest and back, belts, necklaces, arm braces, leg braces with shakers, and finally the bead mask covering the eyes. The last two cloths are a shimmering luminescent green, covering black, red, blue, green and yellow beadwork in abandon underneath. The raiment must weigh upwards of 25 kg. Mahlangani Pani is an overwhelming presence. As the door opens and he re-emerges, the mantshomane begin their greetings at the door and the chant is taken up by the gathering. Mahlangani Pani appears again with my stick, and with its aid proceeds outside slowly, though less haltingly than before. Everyone makes way for this spirit when he emerges. Mahlangani Pani is one of the large spirits of these people, a great warrior from years past, and his dance is a breathtaking experience. His first episode lasted nearly an hour. He regularly goes into trance early in the morning, and he has been known to dance for four hours on end, without respite. The drums pick up the motions of the spirit slowly, and gradually the drummers acclimatise themselves to the rhythm and style of the dance the spirit will execute once the pattern has been agreed. There are a bewildering number of stress beats, after beats, and compound rhythms, and it can sometimes be difficult for the drummers to adjust from one spirit to another. Often, drummers unfamiliar with the nuances of a particular spirit’s dance will be replaced with others who are acquainted with the pattern, and the dance will resume in earnest after a moment of uncertainty. Mahlangani Pani gradually builds up the tempo, intensity, and certainty of the dance. Once the drummers are synchronised with his dance, they are each responsible for responses to various aspects of his performance: the stress beats of the legs, the movements of the arms with spear and sticks, or subsidiary, more subtle variations in stress occurring at any time. He leads them like an orchestra conductor, and they must follow in like manner. When Mahlangani Pani’s leg rises into the air for a downbeat, it develops the force of a small tree falling when it lands. I had seen three or four of his trances thus far, but this was the most awesome yet. Much as the conductor cuts off the orchestra, so does Mahlangani Pani cut off the drums when finished with a particular dance sequence, with a finalistic wave of his letshoba or an unmistakeable physical movement. The drummers have seen this coming, and the cadential rhythms are infectious at the last beat, the gathering erupting in unbounded ecstatic response. Screams, laughs, cries, yells, whistles, and ululations fill the air. Mahlangani Pani is gasping for breath, yet he begins a new call and chant without a respite. The drums pick up on his call in turn, first the large drums, then the mantshomane, and gradually the gathering picks up the responsive parts, the beat rises anew, and his dance begins again, with different rhythms, but unmistakeably a crescendo from the last dance in intensity and purpose.

As his dance progressed, I recalled from earlier experiences with Mahlangani Pani that his trance defined a large structure along the basic lines of crescendo-decrescendo. As he built up his crescendo this time, there was something unusual about it. Perhaps it was the presence of the huge center pole of the tent, as this object was becoming the center of his constant attention. For a full ten minutes he dance facing the pole, but then he cut off his dance without warning, and sank back exhausted against the pole. The tent shivered markedly, and several of the men at the sides of the tent grabbed immediately for the guywires to prevent it from tilting further. Mahlangani Pani walked around for a minute or so: the groans coming from his breast were deep, and he took great heaves for air. He began anew, another dance, one I had not seen before. Arms spread straight out wide from his sides, legs extended perhaps three feet apart, he started jumping, no, rather leaping in all directions, mercurially bouncing across the dance space with a chilling scream all the while, a jolting “kaa, kaa, kaa”. This went on for what seemed to be an interminable time, perhaps three minutes or so. With short periods of respite, this process repeated itself another four or five times. The gathering was by this time in an absolute joyful frenzy, the drums seemed incapable of finding more intensity, but there it was, they did. Several people got up and danced spontaneous homage to the spirit, face to face. He suddenly dropped to the ground like a stone in the traditional posture of obeisance in front of one of the elderly ladies just beneath him, and just next to me. She responded in kind. Eva signalled to the lady, who leaned over to me, indicating she would please like my stick. I handed it to her, and she handed it to Mahlangani Pani. Slowly, ever so slowly, he rose. The drums had been in their “holding pattern”, a continuous rhythm softly in the background, while the intimate communications were taking place. Incredibly, Mahlangani Pani started a new dance with my stick. For twenty minutes, in a manner similar to his concentrated attention with the tent pole, he concentrated his attention now on my stick, and with it placed securely on the ground gripped in one, the other, or both hands in turn, he danced around and over it. Another crescendo, and he was seemingly ready to “dance down”. This is a phase in which the spirit begins to divest itself of ancestral raiment outside while still among the people, and in which certain acknowledgments are made by the spirit. He acknowledged the drummers by kneeling before them and paying homage, and they responded with a wild flurry of drumming. Towards the old ladies, he fell prostrate anew, making the rounds slowly. The arm bracelets come off, the letshoba is gathered into a willing lap, the leg braces come off, the body lacings in turn, and so forth. Somewhat lighter, he has rested for perhaps two minutes. Off he goes dancing again, a smaller crescendo, larger decrescendo, and he dances his way off into the house where his trance will end. Facing the steps of the house, a last powerful burst of dancing, chanting, screaming, calling, up the steps into the house, where Mahlangani Pani collapses in a heap upon the floor with a deep sigh. The instant he was inside and had collapsed, I rose from my chair and rushed inside as well. His head was already being cradled in Eva’s lap, and his brow was being washed gently. Two or three others were talking to him quietly, and all the while he was gasping. I assisted in getting a glass of water, which a gentleman offered up to his mouth. Eva grabbed the glass and dipped her fingers inside, sprinkling his forehead, and then wiping it off. I glanced at his feet, those giant paws, and saw that there were at least two significant slices in the soles of his feet, caked in dirt and bleeding. So I grabbed a second glass of water and learned from Eva: I sprinkled water over his feet and legs, and among all of us, we calmed down the spirit lying beneath us. At Mafela Sikotheni’s the Herbalist’s, p.5

Mahlangani Pani left George with a deep groan, and George passed out. I went outside. Twenty minutes later, George came out to join us again, refreshed and fully dressed in his normal everyday attire. I told him how much I had been inspired by his dancing this time, and he looked at me with a smile, saying: “Oh, I don’t know, I remember nothing. Tell me, how did I dance?”