Changing the narrative
by Nancy Monnya
A people that cannot celebrate themselves and their culture would never believe in themselves and their capabilities.
In my previous paper ‘The Relevance of Magadi in the Modern African Society’, I spoke about the struggles that have engulfed Africa; the struggles that include but are not limited to; the detaching from that which is foreign and is a threat to the thriving of the African people; as well as the struggle to reclaim our identity as a people. But it has become clear that no reclaiming can be done if one does not know what to reclaim.
One of the issues modern African society struggles with understanding, let alone accepting, is African traditional ceremonies in their vastness. Before we delve further into discussing what these struggles are and the different traditional ceremonies, it is crucial to define what a ceremony is.
A ceremony can be defined as a public or religious occasion that includes a series of formal or traditional actions; or the ritual observance, traditional actions and words used on particular formal occasions. The one word that stands out from this definition is ‘traditional’. Traditional is defined by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary as being part of the beliefs, customs or way of life of a particular group of people that have not changed for a long time. Be it traditional dress, food or norms and values.
Therefore it is clear that ceremony and tradition goes hand in hand. For the purposes of this discussion, we will look at tradition and culture, in the African context, as inseparable. Culture can be defined as the customs and beliefs, ways of life and social organization of a particular group of people.
All of these definitions have one thing in common; a way of life of a particular group of people. This is where in the modern African society there is an issue. As already stated, if you take away from a people their ways of life, you have taken from them their identity. And if you take away their identity, you control them forever.
Let us restrict the context of this discussion to that of South Africa. Today we have many ceremonies that we celebrate. Some of which many would give their lives to protect. Almost all of these ceremonies are religious in nature. This brings us to the question of how and why African traditional ceremonies where demonized. If I want you to wholeheartedly believe I am better than you, I know better and therefore I can get you to a much better place than where you are now, I would introduce to you a belief system that portrays me and my kind as superior, and chosen for this task. Often times the introduced, and in most cases forced on people, belief systems conflict with that of those who are being introduced to these systems. One major instrument that ensures the belief systems are entrenched in the people is by ensuring that all that is unsatisfactory about their indigenous belief systems is constantly thrust at them. Another instrument is fear. When you fear something you therefore cannot question it for fear of punishment. The introduced belief systems will be portrayed in such light that the people would fear eternal condemnation and neglect to see any unsatisfactory aspects of these ‘new’ belief systems.
That was the start of the demonizing of African traditional ceremonies; from marriage ceremonies to birth and naming ceremonies. Religion and many social organizations and movements that are not African in nature sought to point out the demonic nature of all these practices. Traditional African ceremonies such as the process of Magadi were reduced to lowly bartering and haggling as that of consumers and sellers at the market place, to paraphrase Chinua Achebe’s words in ‘Things Fall Apart’. The naming ceremony and the ceremony that the Bapedi refers to as “go ntšha ngwana ka ngwakong”, became a baptism or dedication that had to be done by the priest and in the church. Go ntšha ngwana ka ngwakong, which literally means to take the child out of the house, by taking the child ‘ka ma fure’ or behind the house or even at the gate at sunrise and raise the child up to face the rising sun. This was the child’s first encounter with the sun and at sunrise the sun is at its gentlest and therefore cannot be harmful to the newborn. The child is introduced to how the outside world is having only lived in a rather dark place since conception. The ancestors are then told officially of the new member of the family. To try and discuss the significance of this ceremony and its bearing on the child’s life will prompt a rather long discussion about god as seen by the Christian religion, and the African concept of god being manifest in all his creations which prompted the high respect of all that is nature by Africans.
This and many others became demonic practices that many feared to practice because the Christian religion described them as dedicating the child to the sun, and as offending to the Christian god. What we fail to recognize is by merely accepting that our traditional ceremonies are demonic, we have accepted our inferiority, we acknowledge being a people steeped in sin, and being detestable to god. We therefore had to await, mainly, for the white man to come and save us.
Other ceremonies such as the initiation of the young into adulthood are met with the same amount of resistance and many today believe such traditional ceremonies involve demonic practices. You ask what demonic practices mean, and the answer is always the same; using muti or dihlare. Dihlare or muti literally means medicine, but as long as it comes from nature and is not manufactured in a laboratory; it is demonic. This also calls for a full discussion of its own. By this the African acknowledges that even his language is sinful in itself. He’d rather say medicine. It sounds more civilized. I reiterate; you cannot reclaim what it means to be an Africa if you choose to reclaim certain aspects of your identity that do not conflict with your adopted identity that you are reluctant to relinquish.
Another reason that is raised for the demonizing of African traditional ceremonies is the slaughtering of animals. Slaughtering of an animal for any ceremony has always been done in the most humanely way possible until guns where used; and until there was a slaughterhouse where thousands of animals are killed unceremoniously. Let’s not forget that a ceremony is a ritualistic practice, or a practice that has been done continuously in a similar manner for a long time, which means the slaughter of animals was done by Africans in a similar manner for eons; and because the African belief system values and respects all that is nature, the animal was accorded the amount of respect it deserved as one of the manifestations of that which is god and for the purpose it’s body would serve for the ceremony. The slaughtering of an animal involved many processes that were of importance in the belief system of the African, and belief systems are crucial to the identity and survival of a people.
One crucial thing to note from this is, ‘if everything you do is considered demonic, all that you are must therefore be demonic’. By letting go of your own traditions and adopting those that are foreign to you, you acknowledge your inferiority and therefore agree that your own way of life must indeed be wrong. You therefore spend your entire life trying to scrub off from yourself all that makes you, you, in order to be acceptable to he who sees you as unclean and unacceptable.
Another African ceremony that has become controversial, as if one’s culture can be seen as controversial, is the veneration of ancestors in many African cultures. This ceremony is essentially the celebration of heroes and heroines that have departed, acknowledging that those who have departed have become spirits and are still part of us. This has been mistaken as the worship of ancestors. The god concept in the African sense did not have any human characters, and therefore anyone who departed became part of that whole spiritual concept that is god. Many religions across the globe venerate their departed, from Jesus in Christianity to Muhammed in Islam. Yet the African fears being unclean by venerating his departed relatives.
Today we celebrate Christmas, Easter and many such ceremonies. We hold white weddings and christenings. All of these are foreign ceremonies. All of these are traditional ceremonies of a certain group of people. Let us remember that traditions are ways of life that have been done in that way for a long time. This therefore means that Africa has let go of his traditions and adopted those of others. In essence we are merely escorting others on this earth; those who are, in their entirety, living who they are while we, on the other hand, try to fit in with what everyone else is but not who we are.
In addition to the spiritual onslaught that this has had on the African, the economical onslaught is incredible. We are accused, maybe justly, for being the biggest consumers of others products, and now coupled with the amounts of money spent on each of these foreign ceremonies, the African is left at the beginning of the year and after each holiday with nothing but debt. To make things even more confusing many do not even know why they celebrate these holidays. Most have lost their religious importance, yet many still observe them religiously without knowing why. This can be linked to one of the instruments used to entrench foreign ideologies and belief systems in a people: fear.
Our traditional ceremonies have been observed for innumerable generations, and the introduction of newly formed systems has all but eroded them. Does this mean our people have been lost since the beginning of time? That we have been a dark nation waiting to be saved? Isn’t this in itself an acknowledgement of inferiority?
Until the colonized relinquish the parts of the identity they have acquired through colonialism, they remain colonized regardless of political situations. In the past ignorance and lack of information were blamed for all that has happened to the African. On what then do we put the blame today?
*magadi - traditional marriage ceremony within the baPedi people of Limpopo, South Africa