The day I drove a bargain with my ancestors
"My ancestors are sensitive and like to be thanked for everything," writes Milisuthando Bongela.
A few days after I was hijacked in 2015, I sat in my flat, physically unhurt by the incident, not angry with the perpetrators and not stressed about losing my car but confused as to why izinyanya, my ancestors, would allow this thing to happen to their child and how something so dangerous could happen under their watch.
Loving and acknowledging my ancestors and the role they play in our everyday lives is an idea and practice that I have been privy to since birth. To quote from my father’s writing about this: “There is an accepted Xhosa belief that health, intellectual gifts, social eminence and prosperity are all visible signs of ancestors’ benevolence and generosity towards those who recognise them.’’
To keep their spirits and mine from ukugodola (being cold), I have a corner in my bedroom where I sit and speak to them regularly. In these conversations, which are fragranced by imphepho (Helichrysum species, a plant of spiritual significance to Nguni people, especially traditional healers, that is burned as a spirit-inviting incense with a strong, protective scent), and lit by a single candle, I keep them up to date with the events of my life, from intellectual troubles to economic concerns, physical needs and emotional triumphs.
As a result, they don’t sleep. They always have my back. It is without arrogance, without disregarding our country’s crime statistics, that I was genuinely confused as to what they were so mad about that they would allow four guns to call on my being on that February evening.
I had bought my car two years prior and always promised that I would drive it down to East London to do a thanksgiving ceremony as my family has always done for all the cars and properties we have purchased over the years, a ritual that my father followed religiously.
My ancestors are sensitive and like to be thanked for everything. Thanking can seem like an expensive and superfluous addition to the life of a busy and distracted Jo’burg-based millennial. It involves the sacrifice of a sheep or a chicken or a cow, rituals that involve calling the village, making umqombothi and long walks to the gravesites of tat’ omkhulu and dad’ obawo so-and-so.
Four days after the hijacking, a few minutes after the insurance assessors had closed my front door and left, I walked over to the corner in my room and sat down, experiencing a moment of clarity. Sitting on a flat pillow covered in Ethiopian cheesecloth, I burned the mphepho, lit the candle, called out all my clan’s names (ukuzithutha) and started apologising to my ancestors for not taking that car back home when I had bought it, nor doing anything in Jo’burg to acknowledge that they had had a hand in this new acquisition.
I asked them to bring the car back so that I could correct this mistake and apologised one more time. I got up from the pillow and continued with my day, letting the smoke of the imphepho fill the flat.
An hour later I was interrupted by a text message from the Jeppe police station, stating that my car had been recovered and that I could go and collect it.
The day after, I drove with a friend to a police depot where recovered cars are stored, expecting to find my car stripped and damaged as the assessors had warned. Instead, I found it in mint condition bar a flat tyre, cleaner than I had left it inside and out but sans my belongings.
When I had the money to do so, I drove it to East London, as promised, and did right by my beliefs.
Things like this happen to me almost every week. I rest in the knowledge that none of us knows who or what God is and that there are no absolutes regarding the esoteric, but I am grateful to have been brought up in a home that gave me something like this to make sense of some elements of modern life.
I don’t always know how to engage with this realm of existence, but I’m grateful that it exists as a direction that I can look to when I need to find a place of spiritual belonging that is consistent with who I truly am.
Recently, I am also grateful to see peers I used to party with disappear from the social scene in Jo’burg, only to emerge months later wearing goatskin bracelets and white beads around their necks and ankles, and going by the prefix Gogo because they have accepted the calling to be traditional healers: the indispensable mediums who interpret the spiritual world to those of us in the modern world who have, unfortunately, been taught to fear who we are and what we do not understand.
Iimbali, a regular column by Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela, is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis.