Where and from whom do we come?

Milisuthando Bongela (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

Milisuthando Bongela (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

An old lady was released last weekend. Her name was spoken in the house she built more than 100 years ago. Spoken by strangers and strangers’ children.
By family members who had not known about her before. And by family members who only knew her through the fog of hearsay.

They called her MaXaba. It is not clear when she died. It was either 1929 or 1932. Although she gave birth to the largest branch of my mother’s family (five sons and three daughters), nobody knows where she is buried. Some members of the family say she is buried kuMaganga, our family gravesite. Others say she is buried on the hill where Ngubengcuka lived and died near the village of modern-day Tyeni. We call that section Zwelidala, the old world.This theory is largely disputed by most of the family members.

I come from the branch of her fourth child, a daughter born in 1922 who gave birth to my mother in 1955 and died four years later in 1959. For a long time, the family did not know where her grave was, either. They knew it was somewhere on the large plot kuMaganga but where exactly, nobody knew. People back then did not mark gravesites as we do today.

She appeared to one of my cousins in a dream, again and again appealing to be found. My young cousin did not know who this old lady in her dreams was and consulted the elders, who consulted igqirha (a healer) for some guidance. After a few consultations, they were guided on how to find her grave. Part of the ritual they had to do included placing a white goat inside the fenced area of the gravesite and lock the gate.The goat would walk around and where it urinated, that would be where she is.

The elders followed these instructions. Where the goat urinated is where they laid a big grey stone, which I visited for the first time in 2016. Her name was Zuziwe, meaning “she is found”. She has never bothered anybody again, to my knowledge.

Zuziwe’s mother began to “bother” me earlier this year.And when it felt appropriate, I informed the elders. We decided on a date to perform a ceremony of remembrance, with the intention of finding her grave and releasing her from the confines of time. I consulted a nyanga, who was able to tell me a little bit about her and what she needs from us. Finding her grave doesn’t seem to be on her priority list yet. First she wants to return to the house that she built. And to be known.

Why the family has waited almost 90 years to wonder about her, her whereabouts and her story remains an unanswerable question. One of her other children suffered the same fate until he was found a few years ago. The story goes that he, Zweledinga, died mysteriously in the Fort Beaufort area in the mid 1950s. His body was never found.

His only remaining sister —my great-grandmother’s only living child, 90-year-old Somikazi whom everybody calls Mama Mama —researched and fetched his remains from the hospital burial site and returned them to his home a few years ago. She carried them in her red Citi Golf and buried them in a blanket kuMaganga, where a stone was laid.

A third theory that emerged about the whereabouts of my great-grandmother’s graveis that she might have been buried in the village she grew up in, a tiny dot called Chefane in the deep Eastern Cape. This theory is also unlikely because she was married. By custom, she should be buried where she was married.Whatever happened is a mystery that some are afraid to probe, not for any other reason but that it will change the narratives we have told ourselves about who we are.

In my probing of where and from whom I come, I have learned that her clan name, MaXaba, goes back 800 years to Burundi. And I have learned that there are some white ancestors who also want some acknowledgement from my mother’s paternal side of the family.My mother didn’t seem to know much about this when I asked her.

I have met and named some ancestors who are with me and with us, in an effort to affirm that I am not a stranded being on Earth.

Last weekend, we heeded a quiet call to remember this old lady and a beautiful ceremony was held where I learned of the healing qualities of the ancient technologies of blackness. One of my aunts and I were leading this ritual, guided by my uncles and Mama Mama. With the power of spoken words and willing throats, we sacrificed a goat as a symbol for, and an exchange with, her spirit. We gave her a sheep as a present and two chickens to khapha the sheep. It is not a small thing to slaughter an animal.It requires reverence for life itself. We made igonga, a shrine where we placed sweets, fruit, money, tobacco, water, snuff, candles, store-bought alcohol and homemade mqombothi. We sang. We prayed. We breathed.

Then we brought her back. I learned her name, Maraya Matshaya. She cried as I spoke on her behalf, thanking us for bringing her back home. We visited Chefane and placed our hands on her father, my great-great-grandfather’s grave. We met the grandchildren of her brothers and sisters, our grand-cousins. I recorded everything I could. Should I be forgotten a hundred years from now, I want my relatives to know there are ways to remember that cannot be erased. Plants and animals as technologies being.

“Why do you care about dead people?” asked a young mother I sat next to on the flight to East London, when I told her why I was going home. She had her seven-month-old baby on her lap. The baby has a long and beautiful name that I cannot remember now, but she kept calling him Dlamini, his clan name, while tending to him.

“For the same reason you call your baby Dlamini,”I said to her.

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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