Learning to commune with the dead

“Papa, you know I don’t know where Gogo is buried.”

It’s a recent Friday afternoon and my father has just picked me up from the train station. He folds his face into a deep frown at my mention of his mother. She died in 2016. I was halfway through my year-end exams at Rhodes University. We decided as a family that it would be best if I completed my exams before returning home. Two weeks later, I returned but the visit to her grave did not happen. My parents said nothing, so I kept quiet.

When I thought about the logistics of going there alone, keeping quiet made sense. Although my grandparents lived in Soshanguve, Pretoria, they had a home in Loding, Mpumalanga, where they wanted to be buried. But I knew that the hours on the road, the stops to visit family along the way and the cost of going emakhaya had nothing to do with us not visiting Gogo and Mkhulu.

I knew it would not happen because once the tombstone is erected, we don’t visit graves and we don’t talk to the deceased. With the exception of the Virgin Mary and other patron saints of the Catholic Church, dead people are not there and they cannot hear us. We need to let them rest. We are Christian and such visits are reserved for pagans.

This is the response my mother would give to my brothers and me when we would suggest visiting my brother’s grave because we missed him. When we persisted, Mama would say: “It is written: ‘Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord Your God.’”

I knew that attempts to visit my grandparents graves would suffer the same fate. So why bother?

I have managed to go unbothered for two years. But recently the urge to commune with my deceased loved ones has grown.

I have questions about the relay race the Hlalethwa lineage is running. I need to know what ground they covered so I can move forward and shake the feeling of existing without my kin reference. I want to say hello and tell them I miss them.

So when I took a week off from work and asked my father to pick me up from the train station, it was not because I had plans to rest at home.

When we got home, I brewed a pot of tea and took the tray into the backyard where my mother was listening to a podcast from our church. I then mustered up the courage to tell them my intentions.

“I don’t want to spend my week off at home. I want to go to Loding to be alone. I feel really stimulated by everything that’s happening around me and I feel out of touch with myself. Please can I go, asseblief.” My parents looked at each other and sighed.

“Plus I haven’t seen Gogo’s grave. I think visiting Gogo and Mkhulu would help me,” I mumble under my breath. Mama pauses the podcast and removes her glasses to glare at me.

After a struggle between my parents, my mother grew tired and agreed to give me her conditional blessing. I could only go if my cousin Tsholofelo came with me because she speaks isiNdebele fluently and knows Loding better than I do. The other condition was that, before I go, I must fast for a day. I agreed.

On Sunday afternoon, my mother called me back into the house so that we could pray for protection. After amens and good-luck kisses, we picked up my cousin and made our way to Loding.

When no one from Pretoria is visiting, the house in Loding is occupied by two herders who are close to the family. By the time we arrived in Mpumalanga, I had a burning throat. As we offloaded our luggage, my father spoke to our housemates for the next week and warned them not to try anything funny with his daughters. After inspecting his home, my father walked us to Bab’ Mguni, an elder who also has keys to the cemetery.

As soon as my father left, I prayed and then broke my fast. My cousin and I spent our first two days reading and sleeping away from one another.

And then the day finally came. At 4am, we washed our faces, put on our doeks and dresses that cover our knees and shoulders before heading to Bab’ Mnguni. At the gate of his home, he greeted us with a nod. He gave one of us a spade and the other a cornstalk broom that we carried while he silently led the way to the cemetery.

He directed us to our grandparents’ tiny tombstones on which their names are written: Rose Junith Hlalethwa and Ramaphakela Hans Hlalethwa.

We began by ridding the area of weeds before dusting their headstones.

I took a deep breath, pulled out a notebook and attempted to read to my grandparents in my hoarse voice. “Kabin’omnyama Namadodana,” I started with iinanazelo zethu (our clan praises). Siyathokoza! Then my cousin introduced us: “We are your granddaughters Tsholofelo and Nkosazana.” She explained that we are the daughters of their second son, Sipho, and the fourth, Maledu. I told them about where we were from and our journey to them.

Then my cousin told them how she was here to inform them of her engagement. I told them how much I miss them. I told them about how their sons are spending more time together after I wrote about how Rangwane’s time in Angola had affected their relationship. I apologised for taking so long to reach out and I asked them to protect their grandchildren.

By the time we left the site my throat had dried me into silence.

That evening, while sharing a cup of Milo with my cousin, my chest began to feel heavy and I struggled to breathe until I covered my head with a blanket and crouched over a tub of steaming water to inhale vapour rub and coarse salt. While inhaling the steam I thought about how maybe my mother was right about ancestral practices not being for me. I worried that I had opened a channel that should have stayed closed.

When I fell asleep, Mkhulu visited my dreams for the first time. I sat through a service in which he gave the sermon and then we walked home hand in hand.

I am still confused. I don’t know this means. But I am not scared to find out.

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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