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An agnostic finds her spiritual side

Zama Ndlovu

Small rituals offer Zama Ndlovu a sense of completeness and keep the seat warm for God, should he ever show up.

Zama Ndlovu has found rituals that resonate with her. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

As soon as I could think, I thought constantly about God. God has always been a central part of my life, or at least a central question. This is how I know I am not an atheist; why would I look for what I don't believe exists?

I recall waking up sweaty, panicking and scared, in the middle of a Sunday night, after a nightmare about Judgment Day. Jesus had floated down from the heavens on a fluffy white cloud, draped in a white gown, about to determine my fate. At four years old, I was already overwhelmed by the idea of eternal condemnation, thanks to a sin I played no part in committing. To spend a lifetime living in fear of God seemed unjust.

Thinking would complicate my life further.

I asked my mother where black people came from, as Noah could only take one male and female of every species, and his family (which my children's Bible depicted as white) in the Ark. That question earned me a spanking.

I asked my father where all that rain, that drowned every piece of land around the world, came from. Did the ice caps melt and, if so, wasn't the water meant to rise from somewhere and not rain from the sky? I was spanked again.

A question of rotation
I asked whether heaven and earth rotated at the same speed as the earth's rotation or stood still, and asked which hemisphere was in heaven, and which was in hell. That time, I was ignored.

My young life was almost intolerable. I was learning so many new things at school and then being punished for being inquisitive at home. God was playing a nasty trick on me.

Despite my parent's beliefs, there was nothing religious about my family's church attendance. Occasionally, when the spirit moved her, my mother would drag her entire brood to church. There was even a brief stint when the whole family had to become Jehovah's Witnesses because my dad suddenly remembered that he was one. It ended when my mother refused to stop celebrating Christmas.

As we grew older, mom stopped trying to coerce us into accompanying her to church, and eventually she was the only member of the family who attended church regularly.

Still, I yearned for God.

Hoping to connect
During my university years, I tested out a few churches, hoping to connect to something. I tried an old, simple Presbyterian church that promised short services; then new age churches filled with young people, featuring live bands and sermons presented on PowerPoint.

Finally, I visited an eccentric Nigerian church in Hillbrow. I felt nothing.

At the same time, I was testing new ideas and letting go of old ones. I did not believe in the inferiority of women. I could not accept that homosexuality is unnatural or wrong.

It was only in my mid-20s when it dawned on me that it was not a church I was looking for, it was a sense of completeness.

I let go of heaven and hell, and I decided to find my own rituals that would help me accept myself the way I am. Over the years I have read enough books on various spiritual philosophies and watched enough episodes of Oprah on spirituality to discover a few rituals that resonate with me. These rituals allow me to stop, once or twice a day, and just feel life rather than just be alive.

On some days, when my schedule allows, I attend a yoga class. In that hour and a half, everything else disappears, except my body, my breathing and the almost unbearable heat of a Bikram studio.

It may seem indulgent, even pretentious, but listening to your own breathing for a few minutes of the day can change your entire outlook on life.

Writing ritual
My favourite ritual, one I am dutiful about, is writing three to five things I am grateful for every morning when I wake up. Afterwards, I sit still and listen as my street wakes up.

I still feel loneliness, pain, des­pond­ency and frustrations. I still get angry, resentful, jealous and bitchy. I am still competitive, overbearing and unfeeling.

Occasionally I work far too hard, and I have found myself in hospital a number of times because of it.

None of these rituals makes me perfect or infallible. But I no longer mistake imperfections with incompleteness. I strive to be better while remaining as happy as I can be with who I am.

These rituals have taught me that happiness is a choice I have to keep making.

I don't feel a spirit in me, not in the way that religious people describe their experiences. I don't feel any closer to believing in God, or some deity. But I am still hopeful that I am wrong. Maybe God will appear to me one day; it can't hurt to be sure.

Zama Ndlovu (aka @jozigoddess) is the author of A Bad Black's Manifesto, a columnist for Business Day, the managing director of Youth Lab and a communication specialist.

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