The lake of vanishing spirits

2012-09-22 14:00

Exploring the unique beliefs, people and waters of Fundudzi, our only freshwater lake.

We can barely see 20m ahead on the mountain road.

Old women in blankets with ragged bundles of sticks on their heads emerge like apparitions from the mist.

Then suddenly it clears in a burst of green.

Here, south of the Soutpansberg in Limpopo’s Vhembe district, between faded Omo ads, cars on bricks, churches, driving schools and dogs with relentless litters, is a belt of subtropical lushness.

The rain falls on this side of the mountain, on holy forests and tea plantations, sacred waterfalls and orchards.

On the road to Thohoyandou, one sees the occasional new mansion going up.

They say they belong to tenderpreneurs.

But the villagers we pass are impoverished subsistence farmers. There is a spattering of RDP houses between the traditional huts.

The sign to Lake Fundudzi leads to a web of red, dirt roads. We stop to ask directions and the locals don’t hesitate – even though it’s said visitors aren’t welcome at the lake.

It is a sacred site where the Vhavenda worship their ancestors.
According to Chief Samuel Netshiavha, his Vhatavhatsindi clan, the “people of the pool”, were the first to arrive from the Congo.

They are custodians of Fundudzi.

For years, government has earmarked it as a national heritage site and he supports the proposal, impatient for it to take effect.

But there are seven clans around what’s believed to be the only true natural freshwater lake in South Africa, formed by a landslide.

Some are in conflict with the chief about how to preserve Fundudzi.

Others support local government’s tourism plans.

We finally see the lake from the road, curling like a great python around a rock.

When we draw near, the rain has swollen a river crossing our road and we must continue on foot across the wetland.

Photographer Leon Sadiki and I walk past grazing Nguni cattle. The ground grows sodden. With a cry, Sadiki sinks into mud.

“I’m glad I was born on a farm and not in Soweto,” I laugh and jump a tributary and also sink into the mud. Behind me Sadiki hoots.

He may have been raised in the city, but his father lives in nearby Makhado.

It was, in fact, at Makhado, formerly Louis Trichardt, that white hunters and settlers in the area set up a thriving ivory trade – and found themselves in conflict with the local tribes.

Once there were elephants where we are walking.

With mud-caked shoes we look at the distant lake as mist rises. “Cue the zombies,” I say.

Myth has it Fundudzi is protected by a white crocodile and a great white python lives here.

There are murmurs of mermaids and the undead living beneath the water. People who come uninvited will not return alive, say titillating websites selling luxury tourist accommodation.

Visitors are advised to observe the lake from a viewing site.

But since the dirt tracks came in 1995, cutting haphazardly into slopes and encouraging soil erosion, anyone can find their way here.

But it is better to visit the chief to ask permission.

“I must know so I can tell my forefathers a foreigner is here and he must go back safe,” he explains.

“Then you can even swim. The crocodiles have never eaten anyone. But there are places you cannot go, where the Vhatavhatsindi do their rituals.”

Fundudzi is a burial site for the local clans that practise Thevhula.

They exhume their dead after 10 or 15 years and burn the bones, releasing the ash in Fundudzi.

It is Netshiavha’s duty to keep the Vhatavhatsindi rituals alive, as well as the Venda initiation ritual called domba.

But there are fewer and fewer people who want to practise old traditions.

The Mutale River crashes down in sight of his spotlessly swept homestead in the mountain.

It flows into Fundudzi, past pools and rapids, some too sacred to mention.

At his home, under a tree, are clay sculptures of antelope resting. Gazing at them is the chief in tie and collar.

The sculptures represent balance, he says. In times of Western culture, one must search for harmony with nature.

Raised and schooled here, he worked as a forester until 2009.

The previous year, government announced Fundudzi would be registered for development as a National Heritage Site.

“And still we are waiting,” says the 71-year-old chief in a quiet, gravelly voice.

He takes a seat on a grand chair with an elephant carving and plastic leopard print.

His philosophy is that everything in life has good and bad aspects – even the invasive blue gum trees drop debris that prevent erosion.

The unflinching traditionalist lives with two wives. He mourns the youth’s disinterest in initiation and preserving the purity of the Tshivenda language, yet allows his grandchildren to watch TV.

“When they go to school it’s another story. These days everyone has the right to tell my kid this traditional practice is out. There’s a lot of rights! It’s overdose.”

He becomes animated when talking about Deputy Environmental Affairs Minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi, who failed to arrive as scheduled last week.

“I am still waiting for Zuma’s people,” he says.

On the wall is a photo of himself and Thabo Mbeki taken during the former president’s visit.

He speaks at length about traditional conservation methods that must be taken into account at Fundudzi.

People may not cut down indigenous trees, nor farm too close to it. Fishing with nets must be outlawed.

“We must take government’s ideas. They must take our ideas. We must select the good ones and throw away the bad,” he concludes.

He and the other chiefs have formed a committee to discuss the heritage status.

But the community speaks in a divided voice.

There was a lively conversation at the lodge where we stayed overnight.

Artists, citizen environmentalists and activists are up in arms about the steady decay of the many sacred sites here.

They say the chiefs are not to be trusted with their preservation.

The fiery Mphatheleni Makaulule started Dzomo la Mupo to defend sites of traditional rituals.

She works with the makhadzi – the matriarchal spiritual leaders – and is opposed to obtaining heritage status.

“He (the chief) doesn’t understand the Heritage Act,” she says indignantly.

“It makes no mention of sacred sites or ecosystems. It’s for tourism and job creation.

It’s not his fault, it’s the government’s.

They must sit with the real custodians who worship at the lake. He practises at the river.”

The chief and the activist share unhappiness over what happened to the sacred Phiphidi waterfall.

With the compliance of traditional leaders, local tourism opened it to the public. Chalets were built despite Dzomo la Mupo going to court and winning.

“They just ignored the interdict!” Makaulule exclaims.

“They’re advertising it on Phalaphala fm!”

A local tells how she visited Phiphidi and found a picnic site littered with KFC tubs and condoms.

The new chalets have proved popular for sexual rendezvous.

“Look at Mapungubwe. Registered by government and now they allow mining!” vents Makaulule.

“It’ll be the same at Fundudzi.”

“Over my dead body,” says Netshiavha.

“We can allow tourism, but they must look at the lake from a distance. Like at Mapungubwe.”

With his permission, though, we have reached Fundudzi’s shore.

Tens of thousands of years old, it is still pristine.

But the wetland was once water. Sedimentation builds beneath the lake by a centimetre a year.

A Zimbabwean family, who crossed the nearby border, are fishing in brightly coloured beanies.

r>With a stick for a rod, every throw yields a tiny fish to add to their growing pile in a plastic bag.

The only other fisherman is David Mudau (81), who has lived on a farm next to the lake for 20 years.

Sadiki dusts off his Tshivenda and translates as the old man reminisces.

“In the old days there was so much respect for the lake,” he says, “that you had to practise rituals just to point at it.”

He says that no one greets Fundudzi in the old way any more, turning their back to the water and bending over, their heads between their legs.

“Nowadays people come with cars and motorbikes. White people too.”

He says there are fewer rituals performed, but points in the direction of a sacred area.

“If you go in there you never come back. Even the cows know.

“At night one would hear the music of the tshikona band – it was the spirits. But it is not playing nowadays,” he says.

“We are the last generation,” Makaulule says.

“It’s dying, that place. There are many forces making the ancestors go away. It is losing its sacredness.”

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