The Khubayi Family Home. Tshiawelo, Soweto. South Africa.
“But Ma Grace,” I ask, “Do you think my ancestors will understand Tsonga?”
Ma Grace laughed and hit me in the shoulder, a slightly violent display of affection that usually happens at least twice whenever we have a conversation. She was explaining that we would be going to Soweto – a black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg from which I am otherwise explicitly forbidden by Peace Corps to visit – to participate in a ceremony to offer prayers to the ancestral spirits.
“They will Thabo!” she assures me, offering no absolutely no evidence for why my European-American ancestors – some of who held African-Americans as slaves in colonial Virginia – should understand an African language.
The Setswana word for ancestral spirits, Badimo, comes from the locative godimo, meaning above. The prefix ba- refers to people, so substituting this prefix for go- in godimo changes the meaning of the word to “Those Above.” Similarly, the prefix mo- refers to a single person. Substituting this prefix for go- gives the meaning “The One Above,” or God.
A belief in Those Above, the badimo, pervade spiritual thought in South Africa. Though Christianity is the nominally the dominant religion in South Africa – 80% of South Africans identify as Christian – it is largely a synthesis of the teachings of the Good Book and of traditional southern African religion. Many pray to the badimo, either in special ceremonies like the one my family would be dragging me to, or more informally on a daily basis. My friend Jewel tells me the extravagant tombstones are erected in part to placate the badimo. Sangomas – healers trained in the old traditions – are consulted in matters of health and social relationships. Fates are discerned by throwing bones or through dreams. Conditions are diagnosed, and prescriptions for muthi, traditional medicine gathered from the bush, are given. (Say what you will about muthi, but the African potato at least, frequently prescribed by sangomas, has been independently shown to have a therapeutic effect for those afflicted with AIDS.)
Theologically speaking, this synthesis of Christian and traditional beliefs prevents a potential conflict: how do you reconcile belief in a God demanding singular devotion with an allegiance to a host of ancestral spirits calling for their own prayers and sacrifices?
Regardless of what language my own ancestors might or might not speak, a couple of weeks later I found myself on the road for Tshiawelo, a primarily Tsonga neighborhood in Soweto. I was crammed in the family bakkie with Father Fanuel and Ma Grace, my brothers Amolekani and Gomolemo, and a herd of pre-school age cousins.
We arrived to the home of Ma Grace’s mother in Tshiawelo in the early evening. I sat around the kitchen table with my family, politely cradling my cup of tea and understanding very little of the animated blend of Tsonga, Tswana, English, and Afrikaans which spoken at incredible volume. Occasionally, the conversation would stop, everyone would look at me, someone would shout “Thaaaabbbooo!’ and everyone would laugh before resuming their chatter. When we finally went to bed at close to three in the morning, I crashed on a twin mattress on the floor with my brother Obed, who stands at well over six feet and two hundred pounds. I’ll let you guess who the little spoon was.
When Obed lumbered out of our twin mattress at six o’clock, I had no choice but to arise as well. For the next two hours, I stumbled around the house taking every cup of tea offered to me and trying not to butcher Tswana, Tsonga, or for that matter, English. I had finally reached a state of full consciousness when the ancestor ceremony started at eight. The various members of the family were marshaled to a narrow passage between the house and the wall that marked the boundary of the property. Mid-July on the Highveld gets cold – frost isn’t uncommon – and the shady alley was chilly. Very different from the tropical Limpopo, the home of the Tsonga ancestors we were preparing to honor.
Kneeling beside a young man’s assegai or spear, an old man’s cane, and a drinking bowl made from a gourd, Ma Grace’s mother began the ceremony. She began clapping a beat and chanting in Tsonga, my family’s native language. Soon, everyone was clapping along. Father Fanuel held his infant grandson, named for his grandfather, and clapped his hands together, smiling and bending down to kiss him every now and then. With Ma Grace’s grandchildren, children, mother and grandmother in attendance, five generations of the Khubayi family were represented at the ceremony.
We made offerings of gin, bojalwa, money, tobacco, and money. I tendered R20, and Ma Grace offered a prayer on my behalf that my learners would behave in the coming school term. Someone passed me the bottle of gin and then the gourd of bojalwa – a foamy, home-brewed beer made from sorghum meal and tart enough to make your mouth pucker – and I was happy to drink to the health of the badimo.
After the ceremony, more people arrived to celebrate. Bottles of beer and whiskey were opened and shared. The men passed around foamy jugs of bojalwa while the women set about peeling vegetables and cooking massive cauldrons of bogobe, the cornmeal porridge that forms the staple diet here, over a coal fire. The celebrations continued throughout out the day, carrying on late in the night. That night I crashed on a bed with my brother-in-law, our toddler nephew curled up between us.
Earlier that day, I sat with Father Fanuel, asking him about his beliefs in the badimo. I was curious in the potential conflict between Christian and traditional beliefs. Between sips of bojalwa, Father Fanuel explained how this synthesis presents no apparent conflict in contemporary South African spirituality. “The minister at church, he is telling us we mustn’t worship the badimo,” he smiled, “But we are not worshipping them. We give them prayers, and they are taking them to God.”
“They are like messengers, then?” I asked.
Father Fanuel clapped once. “Yes, that’s right.” He broke into a big smile, and we raised our glasses once more to honor the badimo.