Thinking about culture over a goat’s head

2008-10-20 00:00

I was pleased to be invited to a colleague of mine’s family do. “Exactly what kind of a family do is it going to be?” I asked.

“Oh,” he said breezily, “we will be introducing my youngest son to the ancestors.”

I looked seriously at him.

“Are there going to be any animal slaughters on the front lawn?” I asked as lightly as I knew how. “Because if there are going to be, then I’m not coming.”

He assured me that the hapless goat had already been killed and that all that was required was for us to gather round and perform some kind of ritual or other.

I thought that would be interesting and so, with the aid of my GPS, ventured, not for the first time, into Gugulethu (or, as some locals refer to it “Sjoojoolehtois”). Without a GPS, I have to tell you, it would be an impossible exercise. There are no street signs. And the streets themselves are named NY121 and NY1, etc. Why NY? Oh, it was explained to me, that stands for “Native Yard”.

Anyway, my two children and I — my two very white children with black skins — arrived. The men were in the garage, being men, and the women were in the living room. I seemed to be an honorary woman, so that is where I stayed for the while.

I had noticed on the way in (as did my saucer-eyed children) that there was the head of the hapless, slaughtered goat, lying next to a small fire that was burning on the front lawn. I noticed too, by the by, that the ground of the front lawn was so waterlogged that the house seemed to be floating. Such is normal, I understand, in the Native Yard area.

At some point, a grass mat was produced and mother and child sat on it, were smeared with something red (I didn’t ask) and all of us, sitting in a circle around them, were asked to take with our right hand, two small beads from a bowl and hold them in our left hands. Then the bowl collected the two beads from everyone’s left hands. These were the same beads that were made into a necklace and placed around Junior’s neck. The string of the necklace was bits of rubbed-together Achilles tendon of the hapless goat. I was told that he would wear it until it fell off.

Just prior to this, the hapless goat was brought into the lounge in which we were all sitting. It was boiled, cut up and in a very large enamel bowl. My children looked at me with very large imploring eyes and said, very definitely, that they were not hungry.

When, later, I asked one of the elders, whom I was sitting with (by virtue of my age, I suppose, and the greying colour of my hair), what the bead ritual had all meant, I was told that the right hand takes and the left hand gives, and so we are all involved in what that child is, because we all add something to him — to his life, to his being.

That, it seems to me, is a pretty important, fairly dramatic sort of statement. I’m not completely sure how it works out in practice because obviously, the proof of the pudding must be in the eating, but it is a serious enough, laudable enough sort of principle. And it sure isn’t the way my culture deals with children. There is no way in hell that I could call anyone else’s child mine and there is very little that I could do to influence the way that child grows up. I see this in my own family.

It is almost as though other people’s children are some kind of sacred domain. I can’t (and don’t) say when I disapprove of their behaviour, nor would it be expected that I should take any kind of responsibility for them, if they got themselves into serious trouble. And if I did get involved, it would not be because I see the children as mine, but because I would have some sort of connection with the parents.

So, I asked what Tata Mkhulu thought of my adopted children? Are they white or are they black? Should I be worrying about whether to slaughter a goat for them, or not?

Predictably, he said that they were not genetically mine and that culture relates to genes. I said nonsense, in the nicest possible way, of course. And that they are as much my children as if they were conceived by me. And, to cut a long discourse short, we agreed to disagree because our cultures are so completely different.

It all took me back to when I was living in Lesotho, where the dominant culture is so vastly different from my own. I felt like I was on Planet Zog and the Basotho behaved like I was just someone who had, over a period of centuries perhaps, just lost my way.

So, should I be slaughtering goats for my children? And making bead necklaces for them to wear? I think not. Mine and my partner’s are the only ancestors around and you know what? That’s what these children have landed up with. And in my culture, ancestors don’t interfere. And to my children’s great relief, the goats are made of plastic.

• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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