/ 16 April 2014

Ancestors in all aspects of my life

Shaka Sisulu finds heaven in the face of his cherubic son.
Shaka Sisulu finds heaven in the face of his cherubic son.

I've been blessed.

Actually, my whole family has been blessed – half a dozen new bundles of joy in less than a year for us, and I get to sleep next to one every night.

And I get to call him son.

When he arrived I felt a wash of relief. It was strange, a sense that, come what may, I could live forever, at least in name.

He also came with the expected anxieties of a father. Would I be able to provide? Would I be a better father than my own?

I'd been here before, with his older sister, the 11-year-old apple of my eye, but this time there was a marked difference.

Spiritual parenting
Whereas previously I worried a lot about the material and even emotional support and care I was to give my child, this time I mostly worried about the spiritual aspect.

You see, I had recently "discovered" my ancestors. Sure, they'd always been there, but up until a few years ago, I didn't appreciate just how important a role they played in my life. Significantly, I didn't invite them in to do so.

As with many of my generation and ilk, I had grown up embracing the ideology often ascribed to the West that I alone was the master of my destiny.

Later, a few pious teachers at my secular schools took it upon themselves to impress upon me that, in the event that fate was more robust than my will, then I could simply opt to accept a particular messiah into my heart, and follow his teachings and go to his house weekly, and I'd be okay. My spiritual retirement annuity was assured.

Meanwhile, back at home there were always those little rituals that especially came out around a funeral or when things were really tough. They were also dusted off for a few happy occasions – an uncle's scholarship abroad, another's wedding – but mostly they stayed up on the mantelpiece along with old photos.

A gogo explained to me once that ancestors were those people in the old photos, the ones who had died, and were now looking after us.

Yeah. Right. It seemed odd to me how much my gogo and my teachers wanted to ascribe to people who'd died years ago.

Anyway, fast forward to my 20s, and there is an uneasiness about me. As if I'm not quite whole. I started to take an interest in my lineage. Where I come from.

It was uncanny; I'd seen my uncle go through this years before. He recorded everyone's details and put them into a family tree on his computer.

It was cutting edge at the time, and he beamed. I just thought this was the kind of thing that old people do – look at family trees.

But as I grew in my knowledge of my parents and their parents and their parents' past I began to feel more comfortable in my skin. I began to feel as though I understood myself better, the better I understood my ancestors' choices.

Importantly, I came to understand the relevance and significance of those rituals on the mantelpiece – all the times we'd gone to a graveyard and an old person began speaking after putting a little pebble on the headstone, the times we'd washed in aloe vera, the times we'd lit candles and tossed pinches of snuff around.

Overnight those things I grew up knowing as amasiko (traditions) suddenly had a spiritual dimension too. It was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. I saw that just as every major religion was intertwined with cultural practices, so were my people's cultural practices – except African spirituality isn't deemed a religion – but that's most likely another colonial relic.

Anyway, the family tree is the basis of this belief system: those who have gone before remain present, except on another plane. Like guardian angels these dlozis (ancestors) steer, guide, whisper to and protect you. But just like Norse gods, they also have temperaments and feelings. In fact, they are pretty much the same people they were when alive, so if your granny was cranky here, she'd be cranky there.

And just like granny, they're happy when you visit them, overjoyed, in fact. Hence it is said that those who observe their customs regularly, which is tantamount to visiting them, amass significant blessings.

But woe betide you if you ignore their demands for attention, like warring separated parents when the father withholds monthly instalments to get visitation rights, They too withhold blessings so that they can get your attention.

Regular interaction
Once they have your attention, they appreciate regular interaction. My grandmother has been kneading this idea into my head for years. Every week she'll call simply to say, "Long time no speak; when are you coming to visit me?"

Visiting dlozis or speaking to them is expected at every milestone, from graduation to winning trophies or awards, getting a job, a new house or car, getting married, and having your own kids.

And there are always Christmas or New Years' feasts to invite them to.

Yes, it's like everything you do is a constant reminder of the role of family, past and present, in their good and bad fortune. As Michael Jackson said: "You are not alone."

So there I was, not quite alone – the little rhythmic snores in the dark with the fresh new baby smell that reassured me – but alone in my thoughts. What was I to do now about crafting this little man's spiritual relationship with his elders?

And how to balance this with giving him the freedom to explore and discover his own spirituality for himself?

Introduction ceremony
I knew I'd have to have a ceremony, imbeleko, to introduce him to them, and then another one to ask for his great-grandfather's names. But then what?

How would I make sure he was all right with God? I had to pray on it. So I lit a candle, burned some imphepho (dried African sage) and knelt.

They say the ancestors, like the guardian angels, will act on your prayers, intercede in your life, forewarn of what is to come.

But just like the angels, when bad comes to worse, they ask God to intervene. Most certainly the same God the Christians and Muslims speak of. They say that when the ancestors call upon God they send little children's spirits to ask, because they are pure, and can be in his presence.

I knew they'd just done that because right then, as I crawled back into bed and gazed upon my son's cherubic face, all aglow with innocence and promise, just then … I saw God.

Shaka Sisulu is a columnist and political activist. Co-founder of Cheesekids, he is now a member of the ANC Youth League interim leadership task team. He is also the author of Becoming, published by Pan Macmillan. Follow him on Twitter @ShakaSisulu.