Vhembe, Sacred Vestige
Posted on September 2, 2017 by Amy Lenzo
I have returned, feeling different in my skin, after a short but enlivening visit to a few remote villages in Vhembe, Limpopo. Time seemed slower there, given a certain rhythm by the pounding of grain in preparation for dinner, or the many steps taken to the forest to fetch wood. It is worlds apart from the South Africa I thought I knew: Cape Town; and I learned a lot from their way of life – I believe we all could.
The Vhavenda tribes inhabit the Soutpansberg mountains, nestled in lush Afromontane enclaves, situated in the northern most subtropical part of South Africa. Vhembe, formally Venda, was declared self-governing in 1973 and independent in 1979 by the South African government. Edward Lahiff reflects on how the enclosure of the region allowed for the preservation of many traditional ways of life in his book, An Apartheid Oasis?: Agriculture and Rural Livelihoods in Venda. We were led by Jeffrey Rink, an ecopsychologist from Cape Town who had long since fallen head over ‘hills’, those beautiful green mountains, and in awe of the cultural and spiritual wealth of the tribes.
In the traditional Domba fertility dance, women weave their bodies together mimicking the form and movements of a python, with incredible likeness. Their bareness and unbridled expression in song and dance made me question my own inhibition, especially as I was invited on a previous afternoon, at an Inyanga (healer) ceremony to dance by myself in the middle of a crowd of people. As the nyanga handed me a brightly beaded skirt to put on, I shook my head. She frowned and handed me the skirt over and over again — she simply could not understand that I did not want to dance. She couldn’t fathom my shyness. I asked myself, is this shyness natural or the result of childhood conditioning? At school, music and dance was something to be performed on a stage, perfectly practised and executed. Here it was an entirely naturally everyday ritual performed around a fire. Even the babies danced, as much as their developing muscles would allow!
We were told that the chief apportions plots to each family, inexpensive and big enough to grow maize and vegetables. Our guide, Dr Mushudu Dima, is a doctor, traditional African healer, conservationist, and a proponent of indigenous knowledge. At seventy-eight years old, he is lively and strong, attributing his vitality to his home-grown vegetables. He tells us that his mother is also a strong-boned healthy woman of one-hundred-and-four years, and is still tending to her vegetables.
Dr Dima became a conservationist after witnessing the Afromontane forest recede due to the encroachment of tea and pine plantations. His goal is to encourage young people to take pride in their heritage and to guard the forests that have a lineage as ancient as their own. In fact it is only among these ancient trees that the spirits of departed kings choose to dwell, marking these sites as sacred. Dr Dima showed dismay that the youth of the village are increasingly swept up in the tide of modernity, forgoing the village customs. A group of teenage boys enthusiastically presented us with a traditional boxing match one day, but the leading boxer told us that the sport’s membership is dwindling. More and more young people move out to the cities, and yet the community is determined to revitalise interest in indigenous culture.
Dr Dima took us to the Sacred Lake Fundudzi, a very long journey around the undulating hills. We saw the lake from high above, a vast body of water and smaller rivulets stretching in every direction further than my eyes could see. Women among us were asked to greet this ‘feminine pool of life’ in a special way: upside down, head through spread legs! It was clear to me that the sacred feminine is appreciated and revered in daily life.
We were so grateful to enter the Thate Vondo Sacred Forest, the home of ancestral spirits. A very old indigenous forest; you can feel the air charged with something or things! Our guide took a photograph of the group, and in the picture there was an inexplicable white fog all around us. We let the mystery surprise us rather than scare us. As a sacred heritage site, it is not open to the public anymore as the chief feels the need for stronger protection of the surrounding forests, with the encroachment of development and building of further plantations.
Charlotte von Fritschen lives in Wilderness along the Garden Route of South Africa. She is a writer and is completing an honours degree in psychology at the University of South Africa.