Out of the corner of my eye I saw the girl in the red dress.
“Brake”, said the feeling.
“Brake hard and brake now!” it repeated.
Without thinking I jammed on the brakes.
The bus coming the other way passed by us and out from behind it came running the little Zulu girl in the red dress. She ran straight in front of the car. As she saw the car she stopped in surprise – right in the middle of the road.
We screeched to a halt just in front of her. She stared at me in disbelief. Her eyes were big. Her dress was bright red and contrasted sharply with her deep brown skin. I stared back for what seemed an eternity. Finally she smiled, turned and ran off.
“We would have run right over her”, I said, turning to Savannah in the passenger seat.
“What made you brake?” she asked. I thought about it for a while.
“Ancestors”, I said slowly.
The Zulus believe that your ancestors are always watching over you and that you can receive guidance from them in your dreams. Some people are chosen by their ancestors to be Sangomas – traditional healers or shamans. They work with their ancestors to heal people who come to them.
To train as a Sangoma involves, amongst other things, honing one’s ability to hear one’s ancestors clearly. Savannah had felt ‘called’ to train for a long time and in the past year had been diligently spending weekly sessions with Leah her ‘Ma’ – or spirit mother. Now she was ready to graduate but before she could, we needed to ‘link’ our ancestors.
“You need to find a white male chicken to offer to Savannah’s ancestors”, Leah told me. “No-one should help you find this chicken. You must listen to your ancestors and let them help you find it.”
The afternoon leading up to the ceremony we drove to Pietermaritzburg where I found myself wandering through the markets looking for white male chickens. In the throng of people I didn’t see a single other white person.
Emboldened by the task at hand I began looking intently at the chickens on offer. I knew the Muthi – traditional medicine – market in South Africa was big but I’d never considered that the associated ‘Sangoma’ market was just as big. For every ceremony there is generally an offering made – a chicken, a goat or a cow; but not just any chicken, goat or cow. No – the Sangoma will say that the ancestors want a pure white male chicken or a goat with a white spot or something just as specific. And yes, one also has to find the right animal oneself and ask it for its permission to be part of the ceremony. To the Zulus this is the opportunity for the animal to fulfill a higher purpose, one that is linked to the spirit realm and one that they should feel grateful for.
I don’t know if I dreamed or I imagined but soon I found myself standing in front of a chicken seller. Three roosters stared back at me. I looked at all of them closely and consciously asked which one should be offered. Two of them looked away from me. One of them stared defiantly and seemed to say, “Pick me”.
So, I did.
Ask. Listen. Do it! Simple.
By listening and doing you get better at discerning what is guidance and what is not, whereas by listening and then analysing, you simply get more confused.
To the shaman, everything is interconnected, including the past, present and future. This means that signs and guidance are all around us all the time – as long as we are prepared to listen. But it also means that the world is a fluid mystery. The future is never fixed in stone and listening to guidance and trying to follow it is not a guarantee of success but rather a means of navigating through the storm.
A few hours later we’ve burnt Impepho – a herb used to facilitate communication with the ancestors, asked and chatted with them, and now the moment of truth.
Zama, Leah’s assistant, brings the chicken in. He’s amazingly calm for one who is about to have his throat slit. He’s held close to the burning Impepho; so he is forced to inhale some of the smoke.
Savannah and I hold onto him and chat with him, asking for his blessing to be our vehicle of communication
He remains calm.
Zama brings out the big knife and before you know it blood is flowing.
Intention is all-powerful. I am sure of it. You are what you believe. You create your reality through your beliefs and your intention. So, here we are, offering a chicken. “May this link our ancestors together”, I think. “May they work together for our benefit and the benefit of our unborn baby.”
Zama finds the gall bladder and hands it to Leah. She holds it over the pot of Ubulawu – a mixture known as ‘white light’ that is said to clear any blockages and enable clear communication with one’s ancestors – and squeezes the bile into the mixture.
She picks up her mixing stick, kneels close to the pot, leans over it and begins to stir. As she stirs she talks to the ancestors, infusing the mixture with her energy and intent. The air in the room seems to swirl with electric energy. Could we really be stirring other realms?
Next it is Savannah’s turn and then mine.
I crawl forwards until I’m kneeling right in front of the pot. I take the mixing stick in hand and stare at the frothy white mixture. The pungent smell of Impepho hangs in my nostrils. I’m aware of Zama, Leah and Savannah watching me. I take a deep breath and start stirring – faster and faster. As I stir I repeat the five things that Savannah and I have agreed to.
“Intent is all powerful”, I think to myself.
“Please work together”, I ask as I stir madly, “Please protect the children” .
The room becomes a blur. The only thing that matters is the pot. If I am praying then I am doing it in a manically driven and totally focussed manner. The muscles in my arm are aching. Sweat is beading on my forehead.
“Please work together”, I’m saying again. “Please protect the children.”
It is a plea but one that has a frightening amount of energy behind it.
“Intent is all-powerful. Intent is all-powerful.”
I intend for this to work. I intend for this to create an unimaginably strong bond between Savannah and myself. I intend for this to stir up the energy of the gods to protect my unborn child.
I intend. I intend. I intend.
And then it’s over. I stop suddenly. The room stops spinning. I notice that I am breathing heavily. The knuckles on my hand are white. The Ubulawu has frothed up and at times over the pot. I take a deep breath and slowly put the stick down. My hand is shaking.
The room is silent for what seems an eternity.
I slowly lift the pot and drink a small amount of the mixture. It tastes bitter. Little bits of bark float on the top. I think about what is to come in the days ahead when I must start every day by drinking this foul mixture and then promptly throwing it back up.
And so we are linked, Savannah and I, her ancestors and mine.
We cook the chicken and drum and dance into the night before sleeping on the floor.
In the morning I wake at dawn. My dreams have been vivid.
I crawl into the ancestors’ room with Savannah. We burn more Impepho and stir the Ubulawu once more. I drink a few good gulps of the mixture and then head off to the garden to throw it all back up.
And so, what of the girl in the red dress?
If I wonder as to the usefulness of doing what we have done, if I doubt that the Ubulawu – the white light – might not be any good, if I am tempted to dismiss the whole Sangoma path as one of folly, then I have the life of the girl in the red dress to wave as evidence. I have her big brown eyes and her wide smile to appease my doubts and quell my fears. For when in Africa – surely one must do as the Africans do?
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