SPIRITS OF AFRICA

THE VENDA : the blessing of the ancestors

this film can be viewed on our youtube channel

  The Venda live in the mountains of southern Zimbabwe and northern South Africa. They grow corn, potatoes and other crops and raise cattle. Centuries ago they came to this area from the Congo and they are related to the civilisations of Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe. I came to Venda on a cold and rainy day and along mountain trails I found my way to the compound of Neluvholu, chief of the traditional healers of his people. During archeological digs at the Mapungubwe site, human remains were found. Neluvholu was asked to preside over the traditional re-burial of these ancestral bones. His work as a traditional healer is all about his contact with the ancestors, he told me.

 

Neluvholu and his company

 

He had invited a number of other healers (or sangoma's) from the area. Today was a special day, because Vela Vela, a young girl of about ten, was to speak to the ancestors for the first time during a fertility ceremony. Sitting on his throne, with a leopard skin as backdrop, the chief healer told me about the Venda ancestors. They live in the water and can only be seen in visions. That is how he became a healer himself: his ancestors appeared in a dream ('they had big eyes, big nails, and big hair' ) and showed him a snake which then turned into four magical futuretelling bones which he still uses. If a human being sees an ancestor in the real world, he will die very soon.

 

Vela Vela and grandmother dancing

  He tells us that the contact with the ancestors is essential for a healer. They give him power ('even now, as I sit in this chair') and act as messengers between the people and 'the God'. After he told me all this, a dance ceremony took place. Three big drums were set up and each of the 'lesser' healers danced to their music under Neluvholu's supervision. The last dancer was Vela Vela, who danced together with her grandmother. It was a touching sight to see the supple young girl and the old woman dancing together. In the fertility ceremony, Vela Vela was flanked by her two grandmothers. Neluvholu was going to 'send her up' to talk to the ancestors, who would then ask the supreme God for rain and a good crop.

 

a sangoma dancing to the drums

 

The little girl was beautifully dressed and obviously quite nervous. Maybe even more so because my camera was rolling. She drank holy water from a special gourd (Neluvholu explains that water is essential because we are all made of water, and start our life as water creatures inside the womb) and was then sent to speak with the ancestors, somewhere up above. Low clouds obscured the mountian tops, and at the end of the day it began to rain. It looked like the mission of the girl was successful. I was impressed by the way the Venda take their traditional ceremonies seriously and live with their ancestors every day. They are still very much in touch with their spiritual roots.

 

the girl and her grandmothers

 

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