Listening to the silent ones

2014-09-25 13:45

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Milisuthando Bongela considers the times her and her family’s present has collided with what came before, and our continuous connections with the past

In the early 1980s, my father, KS Bongela, wrote a novel called The Silent People. The theme of the book, as summarised in the preface, is based on the accepted Xhosa belief in the existence of ancestral spirits that control the lives and destiny of mankind.

Health, intellectual gifts, social eminence and prosperity are all visible signs of the ancestors’ benevolence and generosity towards those who recognise them.

Soon after I blew out the candles on my 11th birthday, a strange thing happened at home. My family lived on a quiet suburban street in East London. On that grey autumn day, swarms of bees congregated at all the entrances of our home.

A medium bunch occupied our gate, a smaller lot occupied the area around the back door and a large, slow-moving mass occupied the area around the front door.

Initially, we thought nothing of it and attributed it to the changing season. On the second day, we tried to Doom them away. But all the insect repellent did was give them stamina and strength.

On the third day, we called exterminators and, as if they knew who was coming, the bees were nowhere to be seen when the men with masks came to do their job. The bees returned to their posts on the fifth day.

My nonplussed father, a traditionalist, decided to enlist the help of our relatives and ixhwele, a traditional healer, who all told him this was a good omen from our ancestors and that we needed to slaughter an animal and brew some beer to heed their call.

It made sense. We had only recently moved into that house, there were two new cars in the garage, my sisters and I were attending new schools and both my parents were doing well in their respective careers.

A beast was sacrificed, blood was spilled and smeared at the entrances to the house and on all the wheels of the cars, and an effervescent and impatient brew was spilled on to the ground for the silent people to drink.

With the dawn of the new day, fed and no longer thirsty, they took back their bees and we continued with our lives.

When we were children, my father, who has since become an ancestor, made sure the elders taught us the meaning of our various family totems, the spirits we call upon when we do what is called ukuzithutha, which literally means “to collect yourself” and figuratively means “to list the names of your clan”.

Some of our clan names are animals and we were taught that when one is visited by these animals in dreams or in waking life, one should not be afraid because they either bring a message of approval or affliction from the other side.

So when the bees returned two weeks ago at my sister’s house, she knew the silent people wanted to be extolled for the birth and wellness of her baby boy. Without question, she did what she needed to do to appease her heritage, and the bees returned to their senders.

But there still remains an inherent fear and truculent attitude towards the pagan or pre-colonial roots of African people.

One has to ask, after all that has happened to the physical properties of our heritage, why so many of us Africans are still so committed to not acknowledging, let alone understanding, the spiritual nature of our vast heritage.

I have a friend who is searching for a spiritual connection.

He is an academic and is generally dismissive of any religious doctrine, but recently found himself going to church to satisfy his thirst for something higher than himself.

During his first church attendance since childhood, he was more interested in the syntax of a problematic sentence in one of the hymns, so he tore the page out and went to a different church the following week, but was bored by how cheerfully tearful the congregation was.

Despite his interest in his ancestral spirituality, he has no idea how to approach his sleeping heritage.

Although he feels like he is, he is not alone.

This belief in something that has come before us, however it manifests in families and cultural groups, is no less significant than the physical properties we inherit such as the earth, our history, language and culture.

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