Mashudu is a young woman of twenty-eight (28) from the Venda culture in Limpopo Province, north eastern South Africa. She works with EarthLore, a Southern African organisation, accompanying communities in their path to revive their indigenous knowledge and practices. Here Mashudu tells the story of her journey so far, revealing that she is now confident enough about herself to talk about something that she had hidden, because of the ridicule she and her family had experienced due to her mother’s calling.
I was born and grew up in Venda, in a township called Makwarela. I did my primary and high school in Venda, then I registered for a diploma in Business Management at a local College. I have six siblings and I still have both parents. My father works for the Dept of Road and Bridges in Limpopo and my mother was working for Dept of Works from 1985 until she had what our tradition understands as an ‘ancestral calling’ and had to leave in 1994. Traditionally this ‘calling’ is seen as as sign from an ancestral spirit who wants to work through the person with whom they are trying to communicate. It came as a shock to the family as we grew up following the Christian religion, which believes that such an occurrence is demonic and needs to be rejected. My mother tried to ignore this calling for several years until she started to lose her eyesight and suffered various painful ailments, and had to leave work. Her family took her to several doctors and they could not find any problem; she also went to some churches, and they could not help her either. Eventually the family realised that she had no choice but to go to the initiation school for Sangomas, traditional doctors. The initiation is called ‘thwasa’ and she became a qualified Sangoma, able to use traditional herbs and medicines to heal people. After this process she was no longer struggling with any pain but unfortunately her eyesight never come back.
This experienced changed our lives as a family, and I had to support her because of her blindness. Through this I learnt about traditional medicines and saw how my mother was able to heal people because of her calling. But this situation made me and my family suffer because most of the people in my community are suspicious of Sangomas because of the churches, and accuse them of being witches and doing evil things. This meant that we tried to hide my mother’s work and became isolated in our community. It made me withdraw from social life, apart from a few friends. We also saw how some people would come to my mother at night so they were not seen consulting a Sangoma. It was very confusing and sad for me as a young person to see how people can believe things without trying to understand and see for themselves.
As I grew up trying to find a place for myself in society, I became interested in traditional dance and learnt how to dance with the Zwashu indigenous and cultural dance organisation, based in Thohoyandou, Venda. I was selected as one of the 20 Venda girls who participated in traditional ceremonies and travelled round to the 9 provinces in South Africa to different events. In 2007, I met people from The Mupo Foundation (now called EarthLore) who were working with communities to revive their traditions. In 2009 they invited me to work with them, and a new chapter opened in my life.
The Mupo Foundation, together with The Gaia Foundation and Gaia Amazonas, organised a big eco-mapping ceremony in 2009 in the Tshidzivhe community, which is where I met indigenous people from many different countries and cultures. Each day when we started the process we did a traditional ‘phasa’ or prayer in the morning. All the people attending from the Vhavenda communities, the ones training us from the Colombian Amazon indigenous communities and the visitors from other African countries and the Altai in Russia did the rituals together, using their tobacco snuff and burning some herbs to invoke the spirit. Truly speaking, I became so happy because this is what I had been doing secretly with my mother and family for years, feeling ashamed – and here people from all over the world were understanding each other’s ways and praying together. I became more and more confident about my culture and traditions as I realised that, though cultures worldwide are different, they have many similar ways of understanding ancestors, prayers, medicine, and how we relate to all of creation as our relatives.
Another turning point for me in my journey was in February 2016 when Gaia was facilitating an induction training with EarthLore (formerly Mupo) on working with communities to revive their indigenous knowledge and practices. When we introduced ourselves we were asked to name the ancestors who came before us, to acknowledge that we are here because of them. I realised that I did not know much about my family lineage from both my mother’s and my father’s side. I decided I needed to go back to my roots, to learn first about my father’s lineage. I felt this would also help those in my family who are vulnerable because they follow our tradition and suffer the same way I did. By reconnecting with my family I felt it would help to build their confidence in the same way that I have learnt not to be ashamed of who I am and my tradition.
I also see myself going back to my roots as a journey that will help my father’s rural farming community to revive their seeds which have been lost or hidden, because these seeds are associated with our traditional spirituality.
Going back to roots
In July 2016, I went to visit my father’s community, Thononda, where there is a small village called Mazwimba in the mountains in Venda. I met up with my cousin who stays in the community and my sister who had stayed in Mazwimba for a long time as a girl and teenager and is well-known in this village. The reason I met them is that they could introduce me and remind the community that I am a daughter of the village and not a stranger..
After my first visit, I made the decision to go back to my roots and have more dialogues with some of the elders to explore the territory and reconnect again with the people. I was interested see and hear about the crops that are grown by the community, how they are saving their seeds and if they are interested in reviving their traditional seeds. I was also exploring if there were organisations doing similar work in the area
During my first visit, I met up with four women elders, Lufuno Ratshitaka, Thathaisa Violet, Alidzuli Ramadi and Ramuedi Flora, who were surprised that I was coming to the community as a young person who has been away in urban areas and was talking about the seeds that they are losing each day. Flora confided “Our children do not want to eat traditional chickens and they are not interested in our traditional foods. Things are breaking down because people are no longer doing phasas (traditional prayers) to ask for protection and guidance from the ancestors. “People do whatever they want and no longer follow the tradition. It is as if they are possessed by a spirit that is always looking for something.”
Now I feel there is hope because some young people, like you, are coming back to their roots
One of the elder women was suspicious of me at first and asked me if I had come to do a project. They are used to people coming to take things from them or impose ideas, so it takes time to build trust, even if you are from the community.
On my next visit I brought some seeds that I had been given in Zimbabwe – pearl millet, five finger millet and especially sorghum – to share with those I met. One of the elder men said that he knew the millet, which was a woman’s crop, and that men traditionally would support the women by doing the harder work in the fields. He told me to talk to the women to find out more. Lufuno said that her mother used to grow lots of millet for rituals and to make the traditional beer used at ceremonies. She said she would like to grow it, but she did not know how as she had not learnt from her mother because, by the time she was able to learn, people had stopped using it. Flora was very happy to see the millet because she said people now only grow maize, peanuts, pumpkins and gourds, as millet is associated with ancestral ceremonies which the church demonises. In fact millet is nutritious and very healthy and also an important crop to grow in areas affected by climate change because it is hardy and provides food security during severe droughts when many other food crops cannot survive. She said she would grow the millet I had given her and multiply the seeds so she could share it with others. She asked me to come back so that I could see it growing in her field.
I am very happy to be making this journey back to my roots. I can see how by sharing my experience with my father’s village I feel confident to encourage the elders to revive their knowledge and practices and to teach us, as the younger generation, to appreciate, respect and hold on to our culture and traditions. I have seen this happen in the other communities in Zimbabwe and Mpumalanga in South Africa where I work with EarthLore. The elders are pained by the breakdown they see and that only a few of the younger generation are interested in their traditions. When they see young people showing interest and wanting to learn they become so happy. As many elders have said to me “I thought I would die with the knowledge and seed from our ancestors because young people are not interested. Now I feel there is hope because some young people, like you, are coming back to their roots”.