Government should have done more to honour the national treasure, writes Themba J Nkosi
John Donne, the English poet, penned these lines: “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ... One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” A larger-than-life Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa is gone.
The mere mention of his name brings a flood of memories.
He was, and still is, admired for his remarkable knowledge when it comes to indigenous matters – from the herbs and trees, to animals and archaeological issues, to the history and origins of the Zulu nation and African people at large.
Admirers still see Mutwa through their minds’ eyes wearing his trademark “Necklace of the Mysteries”.
Each item found on the iconic neck piece represents different eras in African and Zulu histories that are associated with indigenous knowledge. You could not imagine his neck without the bronze necklace.
The Chitahuri reptile on the necklace represents a warrior and the copper women stand for people found on planet Earth. The beads weigh more than 9kg and look like rocks on a man’s fist.
Mutwa was motivated by his vision and love for African people and humanity at large. He was driven to preserve their history.
This prompted him to write books such as Indaba, My Children; Zulu Shaman: Dreams, Prophecies, and Mysteries; My People, My Africa; Let Not My Country Die; and Woman of Four Paths: The Strange Story of a Black Woman in South Africa.
Mutwa jealously guarded against the minimisation of African cultures and the people they represent. For instance, in 1975, he established the Kwa-Khaya Lendaba Cultural Village in Central Western Jabavu in Soweto.
He used this unique museum to articulate, in a pragmatic manner, the beliefs, traditions and lifestyles of Africans, long before the continent was scrambled and conquered.
In the North West, he initiated and worked tirelessly on the Lotlamoreng Dam and Cultural Park project in Mahikeng.
Through it, he sculpted statues and moulded artefacts, each of them representing the Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa and Zulu cultures.
Two decades later, Mutwa’s endeavours bore fruit as many people showed their appreciation for his work.
In 1995, the Ringing Rocks Foundation, based in Philadelphia, US, bestowed upon him the title Distinguished Artist and Teacher of African Traditional Culture.
The honour came with a lifetime stipend that would “allow this treasure to live out his days free to create as he chooses”.
In 1997, Mutwa received the Audi Terra Nova Award for his contribution to wildlife conservation.
The late internationally acclaimed conservationist and patron of the award, Ian Player, referred to him as “the sole surviving Sanusi, the highest grade of spiritual healer”.
He defended the importance of indigenous knowledge when it came to healing.
That same year, at a conference of traditional healers and World Health Organisation representatives held in Kampala, Uganda, Mutwa spoke openly about this: “We will show the scientists that our people are not just a bunch of superstitious savages. If the world accepts many of our herbal medicines, this will help to ensure the survival of our traditional healers.”
Andrew Young, the then US ambassador to the UN, echoed Mutwa’s sentiments when he addressed an African Renaissance conference at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban in March 1999.
He said: “There was a devastating illness and medical experts had to come to one of the African countries. [They] dug roots of a particular plant and it was used to save lives and remedy people.”
Mutwa’s books will at least afford future generations a glimpse of this through his writing prowess and help them see what prompted him to be so focused on indigenous knowledge, conservation and nature, and on the histories of the Zulu and African people. His seminal books will not collect dust.
Although Mutwa did not receive enough support and recognition, South Africa and the continent salute him.
Like all visionaries and pragmatists, he was driven by a vision and desire to serve his people through his calling – which he used to dig deeper and write about indigenous knowledge.
He was an outstanding researcher.
It is unfortunate that our government neither used his gifts nor recognised him through financing his initiatives and documenting his encyclopaedic knowledge.
The department of science and technology could have done more and encouraged universities to use his vast knowledge in their anthropological and botanical studies.
Mutwa once said: “Awaken the mother mind within every one of you human beings. Our people believe that every human being, male or female, has got two minds: the mother mind and the warrior mind. The warrior mind looks at things logically. The warrior mind says two plus two is four, but the mother mind says nothing like that.
“The mother mind does not think in a linear way as warriors do. The mother mind thinks sideways, upwards and downwards. We must awaken the mother mind within us. We must feel what is going on in the world. We must not just listen to newspapers, we must ourselves feel. It is said by our Zulu people that women think with their pelvic area, where children grow and are born. We must think that way.
“I must no longer look at a tree, but I must see a living entity like me in that tree. I must no longer look at the stone but must see a future lying dormant in that stone. What minerals are there? We must think like grandmothers.”
These words – from the mouth of a deep thinker and timeless philosopher – sound simple, but they are profound. Like many of his other pronouncements, they teach us and remind people to think out of the box.
“Ask Jesus Christ hanging on the cross: Why did they crucify you? Human beings are like that. They kill those who save them. I’m talking old, historical truth. History should not be thrown away like an old pumpkin. History should not be scoffed at. History should be not mocked, especially the history of Africa.”
Donne’s poem, Death, Be Not Proud, referred to above, is still relevant, powerful and profound.
Death only kills and buries the bodies of great men and women in the bowels of the earth, but it fails to wipe their memories and legacies from Earth and from the hearts of those who admired them and knew what they stood for.
Its weight pales into meaninglessness and becomes inconsequential because, to the people it has stolen from, the beloved ones and protégés, their works and achievements do not evaporate like water in dry soil baked by the scorching sun.
You will be missed, descendant of Ngoza, great warrior of Sifile.
Thank you, Mpembesi, the African grass will echo your name; the mountains will stand sentinel and salute you; the tidal waves will keep on rising and dance for you.
- Nkosi is a freelance journalist and writer based in Durban
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