Heal yourself by healing your ancestors

One need not travel far in a conversation with another person to realise how much each of us is carrying on our backs and in our hearts. How, beneath all of our chosen and performed identities, inescapable human pain and suffering are the winds that keep the blood coursing through our veins.

We spend a lot of time coping, pretending and distracting ourselves so as to hardly encounter our internal selves, because we fear what we will find when we put our phones down, when we mute the volume on our playlists, when we leave the office, when we have run out of things to talk about with our loved ones and when real questions about ourselves are posed and given room to breathe.

It took me asking a simple “How are you doing?” for an acquaintance I often see at my local breakfast hangout to very quickly admit “I’m depressed, Mili” with tears gathering in her eyes before a gentle silence settled between us. But before we could talk further she began to close up, as a friend arrived to join us at the table. She replaced her story with that very familiar dishonest grin that white women, especially, use to cope.

On a different day, I posed a very difficult question to an unsuspecting colleague when we were talking about our families. I had not intended to ask it. It was out of curiosity that I asked her where her father was, because she is always talking about her mother and grandmother. “Good question,” she retorted. “I’ve never met my father. I don’t know where he is. I think he’s somewhere in Pretoria,” she said in a well-practised tone.

It’s very difficult to imagine how this must feel on a daily basis for someone to become an adult without a parent ever reaching out to claim and love them. Where does one put that pain so that one can live each day? Does it ever comes out to take a walk and to stretch? The shame of not being claimed by a parent. The anger of not being acknowledged. The confusion of not knowing why. The numbness of missing someone anyway. The loneliness of unreciprocated love.

I have several friends for whom this is their daily reality — where there is total estrangement from either their father or mother and, in some cases, the story of having never met their father. Being a secret child or only knowing your father as the man who used to buy you sweets or give you R20 every few months outside Sales House when you were five years old. He is not spoken about by the people who raised you. It is a pain you carry alone with shame and fear, and you are totally incapable of talking to your mother or grandmother about it.

The conversations with my friends on this subject eventually find themselves in the territory of healing. “What are we going to do about this, my dear friend?” I’ve asked over the years.

Until I was educated in the necessity of ancestral healing, I never used to know how to move this conversation forward with my friends and family members. As I have grown older, I’ve come to learn that one’s existence does not begin and end with the parents who bore you. One is not stranded on Earth simply to find your own way. Our very presence on Earth is to heal the broken parts of ourselves in collaboration with those who came before us. Many of us don’t know that we can connect with our ancestors, whether our living parents claim us or not. That it is especially those ancestors from whom we are estranged who want us to connect with them, without needing to go through the missing parent, or through the resentful present parent.

“How, though?” my colleague asked. “This is why these technologies have survived throughout history,” I said. The fact that there are healers who know how to connect with the spirits of our ancestors is no small matter in a country where so much pain and separation exists.

I don’t want to simplify a complex, difficult matter. It is not easy to suddenly want to connect with your ancestors if you have never done that. Even visiting the graves of your ancestors is considered a sin in some families. We have been shamed, ridiculed and violently disconnected from the mechanisms that have the capacity to aid our healing, or we simply don’t know about them. But in the interest of moving our conversations of what has happened to us towards a territory of healing the pains we carry, we need to put our fears aside and make it normal to seek help and support from our ancestors and the divine intelligence that is our inheritance as humans.

It’s not even a matter of black pain being more painful than white pain. Pain is pain and either way, in this country anyway, we are bonded, related and ancestrally tied by the things we have done to each other.

On the other side of my friendships, while we were discussing the idea of ancestors and healing, a white friend asked me whether he is allowed to be angry at his ancestors. Another simple-but-difficult and understandable question. “Nobody can give you permission to be angry or not,” I said. “You are, and you need to deal with those feelings.”

His anger has started to affect his body and his health, because that is what anger does. I advised him that his own healing is dependent on his ancestors healing. It doesn’t help if acknowledging the anger does not lead to your own healing, so that it is not further transmitted into the world. “How?” he asked. I gave him the same answer I gave my colleague. “This is why these technologies have survived throughout history.”

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Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardians 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.

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