/ 18 November 2022

Ancestory: Nokulinda Mkhize’s call to return to ancient teachings for modern living

Discretion: Author and sangoma Nokulinda Mkhize (above) says certain rites are not accessible to everyone when it comes to ubungoma (below) because boundaries and parameters are necessary.

A new book calls for a return to our indigenous knowledge systems and serves as an accessible archive of traditional teachings. Described as a “road map of yesterday’s learnings for the journey into tomorrow”, Nokulinda Mkhize’s Ancestory is an approachable resource, inclusive of the teachings of scholars and historians, on the communal and individual way of life in an African setting. 

It offers wisdom in a world where the younger generation is displaced from the teachings inherited through ancestry. Having been a sangoma from 2008, Mkhize draws her wisdom from life, family, community and her healing practice.

What was the catalyst for writing a book that archives ancestry and provides some navigation for modern life?

The catalyst was seeing the need over my years working as a sangoma and observing the trends in wellness and self-improvement as well as the trends in spiritual expression that exist. I had to correlate the crisis that I have been seeing in my clients with the work that I have been doing since 2008 and the global trends in that arena. 

I have seen that there is information and knowledge that will assist people to have a better context in making those decisions in their quest for self-exploration and find themselves. They have a place to start and understand that they do not have to start from scratch. 

There is a tension between the concept of discretion and the concept of protecting that which is sacred, particularly when it comes to practices of ubungoma (being a sangoma). At times, people think that discretion denotes something ominous. 

That is a difficult one to answer in isilungu (westernisation) because isilungu dictates that there must be these dichotomies. It must either be open or it is bad. 

However, every rite of passage, every station and everything in life requires there to be parameters to assist accountability but also to preserve integrity. 

It is frustrating that people think that closed practices belong only to certain African customs. There is a culture of entitlement, and hyper-individualistic ways of being, that give people the impression that if something is inaccessible to them, then there must be something wrong. 

Ubongoma and isintu (being a sangoma and tradition) have parameters at every level; ubungoma is only but a small aspect of a culture.  I speak in the book about how people have ceased to partake in communal practices and have lost knowledge, however, they want to be indulged in their curiosities. People need to know their role in a community and that one does not belong everywhere so it is okay to understand that you cannot be allowed in certain spaces without the training and completing rites to be there. There are boundaries. 

On the idea of dichotomies, it is interesting that through a Western framework, everything is seen as either black or white. Concepts are mutually exclusive and there is no room for nuanced understanding. I bring this up because, in the book, you state the idea of being an individual and the idea of practising communality are not mutually exclusive. Why do you think that, as people, we see these concepts as oppositional rather than symbiotic?

We want to see everything as dichotomies and not be open to the idea that things can be contradictory and simultaneously true. We oversimplify and overcomplicate concepts so we don’t have to grapple with the discomfort of knowing that life is complex. 

Nokulinda Mkhize’s Ancestory is an approachable resource, inclusive of the teachings of scholars and historians, on the communal and individual way of life in an African setting. 

It is true that one is an aspect of their community and it is also true that you are your own person. The community and the individual do not have conflicting ideals. Those kinds of dichotomous divisions and binaries exist to uphold the social constructs of hierarchies of worth. 

When we start to look at things as a network of complexities, rather than a pyramid of superiority, then there is room for imaginative thinking. I argue in the book that these are the consequences of the laziness of a Western framework that does not want to consider complexity.

Due to this dichotomy of the individual and the community, people fail to grasp that personhood can exist in tandem with community?

A person is a person because other people made the decision that this person is going to exist and they took care of that person. Your eyes, ears and toes come from somewhere. 

However, once you grow up, it is up to you to make decisions. It is up to you as an individual to take accountability for your decisions and not blame your actions on the group.

Let’s shift to your discussion on the tangible effects of colonialism throughout generations. I will use the topical discussion of Queen Elizabeth’s death as an example. There are parts of society that have a blind spot when they must reconcile that colonialism had intergenerational material consequences and that it was not a small event that happened a few centuries ago. Even in my own work as a scholar, I interrogate the role that colonialism played in shaping gender dynamics, and biological determinism, as well as how patriarchy came to be hegemonic throughout the continent. You have also explored this in the book and I’d like to know what your thoughts are on the idea that patriarchy is the cornerstone of African communities.

Our societies may be patrilineal but that does not mean that they are patriarchal. Just because there are gendered roles, it does not mean that gender division creates a hierarchy of worth. 

Due to linguistic restrictions in translation, some concepts are difficult to explain in English. This is also difficult because of the Western framework that society employs when looking at issues such as gender. 

There is nothing wrong with there being a gendered division of labour because gender is a function and not the personal aspect of your identity. Just because there are those who can carry life to term, and must do certain tasks because of what they can do with their bodies, and there are those who are sent on expeditions and warfare, does not mean the acknowledgment of one role over another denotes weakness and strength for the varying roles. 

Everybody has their place and, just because things are different, does not denote that superiority and inferiority as people. 

There has always been a conflation of what the colonial imagination of African society was versus what it actually was. When white anthropologists were studying African cultures, they were limited by their Western lens and we took on those interpretations as truth. This is why there is a section in the book about the matriarchal element of leadership in families and in society in general. 

This book is a call for living Africans to participate in their cultural life and community while using their imagination as a framework to dislodge Western methods that have disrupted us from our traditional ways of being. 

Ancestory: Ancient Lessons for Modern Life by Nokulinda Mkhize is available at: Guided Africa for R264.50 and Amazon.com for readers abroad.