Tears well up in the eyes of the old, withered woman. Behind her, voices of a band of agitated men armed with clubs and sticks echo through the cool shadows of the forest.
Tshavhungwe Nemarude (86) is a makhadzi, a custodian of the secret rites of the Ramunangi clan.
She remembers how, throughout her life, the elders of the clan performed yearly rituals to summon the rain and to appease the gods right here at this zwifo (sacred site).
In fact, for as long as anyone can remember, the Ramunangi sacred site – located in lush evergreen bush, where the Mutshundudi River tumbles into a gorge forming the spectacular Phiphidi Waterfall – has been sacred ground for members of this Venda clan.
A few years ago, when the elder makhadzi of the clan passed away, the responsibility of leading the rituals fell on Nemarude. But the old woman is miserable. For a while the clan has had trouble gaining access to the site.
Trouble started brewing eight years ago when the Tshivhase Development Foundation Trust? – an organisation registered under the name of the local khosi, Kennedy Tshivhase, and the tribal council?– started developing the area as a holiday resort.
Since then, the clan has been embroiled in a bitter battle to save the sacred site. Last Tuesday, the Thohoyandou High Court upheld an interdict against the developer to stop construction.
After the court hearing, Nemarude joined other clan elders on a trip to the sacred site, hoping to celebrate and communicate the good news to the gods. But it was not to be.
A band of workmen employed at the site, not yet aware of the court ruling, threatened the group with violence and locked the gates leading to the sacred site.
Earlier that morning, sitting in the grounds of the court building in Thohoyandou, Nemarude clutched her minwenda (traditional Venda dress) and shook her head as she examined her slight frame.
“I am sick. I am getting finished like soap every day. Without our zwifo we do not exist in the eyes of the gods,” she says.
Nemarude was the first applicant in the application brought against six organisations, which include the trust; khosi Tshivhase; the Tshivhase Traditional Council; the traditional leader of Phiphidi, Jerry Tshivhase; the provincial departments of economic development and tourism; and the minister of rural development and land reform. Nemarude says tradition dictates that the clan gathers at the zwifo every year in September. Preparations include the making of a millet brew which is drunk by all clan members prior to the pilgrimage to the sacred site.
Then on a night chosen by the elders, following signs such as mist, a selected group of spiritualists accompanies the makhadzi to the sacred site to perform rituals which are kept secret from the rest of the clan.
“When we are done with our rituals, we will hear sounds such as the beating of drums and music like that from the tshikona (traditional Venda dance) coming from under the water.
“The whole area is covered in mist. That is a sign that the gods have heard our prayers and the rain will come. And when it rains, all the people of the land, not only the people of Ramunangi, will benefit,” says Nemarude.
In their court application, the clan decried the fact that the developers had erected a fence around the site, blown up LanwaDzongolo, a sacred rock where sacrifices and offerings were left, and chopped down trees which had stood there for “millions of years”.
Also, the clan are outraged that, since 2000, the sacred site has been used as a picnic spot.
Mphatheni, a spokesperson for Dzomo La Mupo, an organisation whose name means spokesperson for nature – which is engaged in efforts to preserve a network of sacred sites in the Venda area?– laments: “We found used condoms and cans of beer right at the guvhukuvhu (waterfall). There is just no respect.
“People would never do such things in a church. The Constitution respects religious rights. We would never destroy a church. Why are they destroying our sacred sites?”
Dzomo La Mupo, which is the sixth applicant in the Ramunangi sacred site matter, says the areas affected were home to monkeys, birds and trees.
Nemarude warns that violating the sacred sites could bring serious repercussions from the gods.
“In the eyes of the gods, we are guilty. If we do not fight, we will be punished,” says Nemarude.
The Ramunangi are now calling for the demolition of all structures, including fences and chalets, which have already been put up at the sacred site.
“When God created us he gave us this land to look after. We are indigenous, we did not come from somewhere else.
Everything must come down because those things are not wanted there,” says clan member Samuel Ramutangwa.