By Lerato Ngwenya
As we approach Africa Day, I cannot help but reflect on my identity as an African. Thinking about my identity, in this light, always leads me to think about my ancestors. My ancestors are very integral in my life. I am never alone, even during what I think of as my weakest moments. I have thousands of years of powerful ancestors within me. The blood of the divine great one is in me, supreme, as well as the intellect. Infinite strength is always available for me.
The Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA, and Castle Milk Stout have called on the government to officially add May 8 as Ancestors’ Day, a national public holiday dedicated to preserving our spiritual culture and heritage.
This is a no-brainer for me. How can we be an African country that acknowledges and honours other religions and spiritualities, but not its own? We have national holidays for the Christian faith, we acknowledge Jewish, Hindu, and Islam holidays, but not our own.
Ancestral belief is misunderstood by many Africans, because of a lack of spiritual wisdom. Spirituality acknowledges ancestors, but does not worship them.
We should not be shy to take our place in society as the owners of this land. We are a product of those who came before us.
You see, I had recently "discovered" my ancestors. Sure, they'd always been there, but up until a few years ago, I didn't appreciate just how important a role they played in my life. Significantly, I didn't invite them in to do so.
As with many of my generation, I had grown up embracing the ideology often ascribed to the West that I alone was the master of my destiny. But when I reached my 20s, there was an uneasiness about me, as if I'm not quite whole. I started to take an interest in my lineage, and where I come from.
It was a strange feeling; I'd seen my grandmother go through this before, taking an interest in where she came from. She recorded everyone's details and put them into a family tree in her big black hard-cover book.
I just thought this was the kind of thing that old people do – look at family trees. But, as I grew in my knowledge of my parents and their parents and their parents' past, I began to feel more comfortable in my skin. I began to feel as though I understood myself better, and I better understood my ancestors' choices.
Importantly, I came to understand the relevance and significance of those rituals on the mantelpiece – all the times we'd gone to a graveyard and an old person began speaking after putting a little pebble on the headstone, the times we'd washed in aloe vera, the times we'd lit candles, and tossed pinches of snuff around.
Overnight, those things I grew up knowing as setso (tradition) suddenly had a spiritual dimension too. It was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. I saw that just as every major religion was intertwined with cultural practices, so were my people's cultural practices.
The family tree is the basis of this belief system, those who have gone before remain present, except on another plane. Like guardian angels these badimo (ancestors) steer, and guide. It really resonated for me when my parents passed on, they became my badimo.
It is disheartening to see how most Africans in our society are mis-educated. They think their ancestors are demons. Colonisation had forced Africans to forget who they were, where they came from, and what they stood for, hence the conflict between African spirituality and religion.
Introducing Ancestors’ Day would be a catalyst for economic and social acceptance of people who believe and practice African spirituality, this day would collapse distortions around African spirituality and would set a tone for the rest of Africa. It would also give us an opportunity to acknowledge this important part of us as a collective.
While we wait for our government to come to its senses, let’s continue with a culture of displaying vintage family photos, old family photos are timeless, go to your burial sites, and clean the graves of the dead.