I have been away for a while, on one of my regular visits to the most remote corners of the country in rural Pondoland, Transkei. So many South Africans don’t even know of this incredibly beautiful and ancient part of the country, where African ways and traditions thrive almost untouched by European influence and where lush indigenous forests remain unspoilt. Of course, the current government – most of whom were born in the Transkei – have lots of plans to mine and cut down and rape the land every which way they can, but thats another story for another post one day.
I took some folks to experience the ancient spirituality that is alive and thriving in South Africa today. One of the wonderful ironies of the evil apartheid system is that it unwittingly and unintentionally preserved the ancient culture, and so here in this land we have spiritual practises that reach back to the heart and core of our shared humanity.
We spent the weekend in a roomy, dark hut. Mpepho, the sacred herb of the ancestors, burned, its spicy smell permeating the air. The drums began, and their insistent rhythm slowly called more and more people from the hills far and wide, people who walked as much as ten kilometres to get there, in response to the call.
As they joined, they began to sing the ancient songs, clapping with the drums louder and louder, the children’s high voices soaring and waving over the rumble of the men and the sing-song of the women. The energy was raised higher and higher. One by one the sangomas took the floor in the centre of the hut, stamping and whirling faster and faster, the rattles on their feet urging the rhythm on, the spirit rising, filling the room, the presence of the ancient ancestors as tangible as the dust and the smoke in the air.
As always, the white South Africans with me were utterly transformed, moved beyond words. Some were eventually encouraged to join the dance, shown the steps, taught the songs. At no point was their colour relevant. Our ancestors are the same – spirit is the colour of light, the white inside, not the ‘white’ of the skin. As they say here, if you scratch the skin, we all bleed red. And so we danced, we who were born on this land thrugh the winds of destiny, history, and karma, we who have been joined on this continent, like it or not, through the ways good and bad of our ancestors, we danced together in the celebration of spirit, in the affirmation of our shared humanity.
Some days later, we returned to Port St Johns, the old town at the coast which is the magnet to dope smokers, hippies and nature loving backpackers around the world. It’s an amazing place itself, shockingly beautiful, giving a hint of the ancient African culture that surrounds it.
And there we found backpackers from Cape Town, camping in their native American tipi. Having a spiritual experience, waving their crystals and their eagle feathers around, talking of lodges and sleeping under dreamcatchers. Feeling connected. Yes, ‘connected’ to a lost and very distant spiritual culture not even remotely connected to themselves and their ancestors.
In the hills around the campsite, you could see the fires being lit and you could hear drums starting up. Only a kilometre or two away, the drums called their invitation to all who would listen, all sons and daughters of this African soil, and made welcome to them all. ‘Come dance, transcend time and space, my culture and yours, enter the ancient space of spirit!’
And the new age hippies, seeking spirit, so blinded by their own starry eyed vision of what spirituality is, a made up version of another continent’s lost ways, so deafened by the banging on their own drums that they remained utterly oblivious to the unique and precious invitation they have inherited as young South Africans, the invitation to accept the invitation of the ancestors and be a part of a new, authentic, African spiritual path into the future.