Weeping before the choir

There is a haunting sorrow which can sometimes accompany gospel music. When it arrives, it is cold and devastating, especially if your faith is thin. But understanding why gospel music evinces in me something so dark, yet hopeful, would mean digging wherever it is that I bury my emotions.

I do know where my loved ones are buried though their remains are on the side of a hilltop, in a graveyard seemingly hidden and populated by people who share my name. The hill is called Thabakgone, which overlooks the rest of Ga-Mamabolo, a village on the fringes of Polokwane towards Tzaneen.

Thabakgone is also where the Zion Christian Church was born. I wasn’t born in Ga-Mamabolo but it’s home.

I find myself here, in my 20s, trying to face the weight this place holds. In the air is the sound of worshippers singing. Their humming alone unspools the cold from within, pleading for me to hold on until the warmth is revealed.

It feels like Oleseng shuping and the Lusanda Spiritual Group on Sunday mornings when I reluctantly prepped for endless afternoon services in the townships of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Plettenberg Bay. It feels like pilgrimages to Moria in buses filled with believers and songs of belief. I strangely found pride in something so grounded in my home area but still refused to give myself over to faith.

No matter how disinterested I was in the sermons, I couldn’t ignore the singing. The sombre harmonies have never left me. In them I see shades of martyrdom, voices prostrating themselves to a being who somehow knows everything is bad but good if you keep the faith.

Any faith within me died with my cousin and decomposed when my mother couldn’t afford to get me back to Ga-Mamabolo to bury my father. She went alone and buried him with his family. It’s fitting that they are buried in different cemeteries in the same village because we were not a typical family. My parents were both Christians and maybe together they could’ve unearthed some faith in me but instead it was my cousin who showed me glimpses of the warmth I was looking for. I loved my cousin enough to see what kept him warm before he went cold.

It was with him that I journeyed to Thabakgone from the valley below, known as Sahara, to attend Wednesday evening gatherings of the men and boys of the Mkhukhu choir. My fascination with the range of emotions still follows me. I still see the sky of all those years ago, brown with an orange tinge fading into a darkness that may have been nonbelief awaiting its moment to shine.

I visited no more than twice a year and that was not enough for me to find out what warmth the martyrdom offers. I kept the music and became numb to the world, not willing or able to cry unless moved by song and the promise of happiness, which I saw as warmth.

At my cousin’s funeral the men and boys, who had sung into the sunset with us, gathered with the women of the choir at our home, in Sahara, where the night vigil was held. One song from that night is filed in my memory as more of a feeling than an image. They used my cousin’s name, Sophonina, in place of Modimo (God) and sang: Re na re tsepele wena, Sophonina wa rona (Our faith is in you, our Sophonina).

For me it was a declaration of his passage from one of us to one of the angels — or ancestors — or whoever the dead become if they become anything. In my eyes they sang to let him know that we cry now but we know in him we can have faith that something better is coming. Perhaps he heard them and gave me the strength to never again cry as I did when his death became a reality.

Close to his grave lies my mother’s, who died in July 2017, and not far away are those of my grandmother and great-grandmother. If Ga-Mamabolo is where my roots begin then it is here that my family tree lies, beneath which my genesis was written. Scattered among its branches are the forbidden fruits and, for me, crying was one of the them. It reminded me too much of the cold and not enough of the warmth, the way gospel music did for such a large part of my childhood.

My mother’s death taught me to embrace the cold and that there’s still time before I become as cold as the hand of her corpse. While I held her lifeless hand I recall thinking of God and of how she would want me to believe in Him, especially now, to submit myself to the aching sorrow and how I would have told her I don’t want to believe if it means accepting that a being I can’t see holds all the answers and kills on wax. On her wreath I wrote: “I hope you find the God you were looking for.”

The night before I dressed her body I read sutras on death and dead bodies from a text on the Buddha’s teachings. I needed to find solace beyond the tragedy and that was the closest I could get to a true sense of spirituality, which may have just been numbness, a refusal to hurt openly.

As my uncle and I left the funeral home I lit a cigarette, a few moments before I heard Winnie Mashaba’s voice twirling in the air, calming me better than the bad habit my mother hated but accepted. It was her rendition of one of the songs that had coloured my pre-teens and, even to a nonbeliever, her words felt as if they had came at the behest of something bigger: Thula ngwana eso, tsohle di entse ke Morena (Be at peace, child of my kin, everything is the work of God).

I ate the forbidden fruit once more at my mother’s memorial service. Until that moment I had not cried for her death; not when I received the news, nor when I helped my aunts pack her worldly possessions, nor when I dressed her body in the choir uniform she had worn on so many Saturday’s, the uniform she had donned as she sought catharsis, keeping me in her thoughts as she sang songs of worship. I cried for the all the times I had not, for one less person praying for me, even if I can’t believe.

I cried for my sister who sat on my lap, bewildered and not truly aware that our mother was not coming back. I cried for the beauty in the humming of the mourners as one of my cousins read my mother’s obituary, and I remembered how it was all supposed to be healing: the crying, the process of burial, the words of remembrance, the song, the faith. It was for us more than it was for her.

My sister, six years old at the time, sang along to the hymns. Recollections of Sundays with our mother is probably what caused her tears and drew more out of me. Mama had left us with memories of song and the pursuit of happiness. There we were — sitting under our family tree, eating of the fruit that may put a warmth in us — pining for a reprieve from the ache.

It’s been more than a year since I had to face the cold and succumb to sorrow. The lessons I learned then are fading faster than the grief and I don’t know if any of the truths I know are true. I don’t know if I’m erring by being an atheist. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly understand the sorrow gospel music evinces and I don’t know if my mother, father, cousin and everyone else I’ve lost had found the God they were looking for.

All I can do is hope that I can remember that warmth does exist and that I can sing the hymns with feeling, if not belief, while watering my family tree, hoping that the fruits can feed generations to come because sometimes you have to have faith that the tears will heal you.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday