Transcending the tangible world

AFTER several weeks of focusing the spotlight on the burial rites of Chief Gampu Sithole, we bring to a close observations made by Reverend Herbert Taylor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church who was based at Tegwane Mission. His observations, at the concrete level, provided useful insights into the intangible aspects of burial rites. As we have always argued, African culture is best understood when it is unpacked beyond the concrete cultural practices into the world of Thought and Cosmology that underpins cultural practices.

As a parting shot, we shall dwell on the slaughter of an ox. “An ox was eaten by the visitors (hundreds of them) none of the people of the kraal partaking and none being taken away — the bones and what remnants there were, were burnt.” What we shall focus on and see its interpretation was the practice of burning bones of beats associated with rituals.

We turn, in the first instance, to King Lobengula kaMzilikazi who was observed to burn bones at his capital town of KoBulawayo, also known as Enyokeni or Entenjaneni. The first name, KoBulawayo, was given as a way of documenting opposition that King Lobengula kaMzilikazi faced when sections of the Ndebele nation opposed his accession to the Ndebele throne. That opposition culminated in the civil war that took place in 1872. Hitherto, his capital town was known as Gibixhegu. Following the war in which he personally took part, he changed the name of Gibixhegu to KoBulawayo, the place where he who is rejected lives. Chief Mbiko kaMadlenya Masuku of Zwangendaba led the forces that rallied against King Lobengula kaMziliazi.

As King, Lobengula took part in the consumption of meat from slaughtered beasts. What that translated to, was that the identity of the king remained on the bones. That was tantamount to saying the bones became a part of the king which, given the techno-spiritual manipulative capacity of some people with malevolent intentions, could result in royal incapacitation or even death. For that reason, bones were carefully assembled over a long period of time only to be ritually burnt by the king himself who sat in a chair in front of a fire which he stoked.

Given such cultural practice and its underpinning worldview, it was not unexpected that burnt bones were retrieved during archaeological excavations at KoBulawayo (now referred to as Old Bulawayo) in the 1990s. Instead of seeking interpretation from local people, researcher took bones to faraway places for interpretation as if cultural practices at KoBulawayo no longer existed in the Ndebele community. Further, the abandonment of KoBulawayo and, indeed the demise of the Ndebele State, did not mean cultural practices of the Ndebele all of a sudden disappeared. If anything, observations made by Reverend Herbert Carter do testify to the continuation of related cultural practices till and beyond 1916 when Chief Gampu Sithole died.

Bones from a beast slaughtered for ritual purposes carry spiritual significance. When a person who was under training to become a doctor, ithwasa, returned home, a beast to welcome the spirits, ukucola, was slaughtered. Its bones were carefully gathered together to ensure none were taken out of the homestead. Bones from a beast slaughtered for that purpose were perceived as bearing some identity of the ancestral spirits who could be harmed when those bones were collected and worked upon metaphysically.

A similar observation was made when bones from a beast slaughtered during the death of someone. The bones were carefully collected and burnt later. The argument and basis for that cultural practice is the same as that furnished above.

The above explanation and interpretation helps to clarify the observations made by missionary Reverend Herbert Carter

Bones from the beast slaughtered at the burial of Chief Gampu Sithole were not perceived as being the same as those killed for a wedding party. The bones were spiritually infused with some sacred content, specifically that of the late Chief and his ancestors. It was a chieftainship which was expected to continue, in the process providing some material/physical and spiritual link between the living, and the living dead.

Such a bridge was perceived as critically important and had to be protected within the cultural context of the community, particularly with regard to existing cosmologies and worldviews. Here we may need to differentiate between belief and cosmology. What the people believe in translates to some justification for the continued existence of a given cultural practice.

As part of Ndebele society, the Gampu Sithole family adhered to cultural practices as described by the Methodist missionary.

However, what we need to be alert to is the fact that the family members did not have to go beyond beliefs that sustain rituals and rites. The higher philosophical and cosmological ramifications demand different and perceptive minds. The majority of minds do not transcend the material and the physical, beyond the cultural practices to the level of cosmology-based interpretations. When we begin writing about Great Zimbabwe, it will become apparent how critically important it is to get to the mind of the African rather than dealing with and explaining what his hands have built, crafted, painted, moulded, sculptured and engraved.

All these practical processes are products of the mind which creates, justifies, and legitimates what hands have been commanded to translate to concrete reality. Stone walls are built in the mind before they are built on the ground. Unless researchers access the mind, but continue choosing to deal with physical manifestations or trappings of creative and intangible processes, so long shall they grope in thick darkness and offer misplaced interpretations to African heritage.

Reverend Herbert Carter did point out that it was not just the bones that were burnt, but all remnants. This is important as it explains that what matters is not bones but everything that was present and associated and linked to the sacred burial. A stone on a burial mound is not the same as one in the veldt. In terms of appearance the two stones look exactly the same but the two possess different traits at the intangible level.

We could cite one example from the world of science. A brick at one metre above ground level is not the same when it is elevated 10 metres above ground level. Visually, there is no difference in the same stone. It’s the same brick in physical parameters. Science however, tells us that the potential energy of the same brick is different at different altitudes. When the brick is released, the two will have different kinetic energy levels and their impact may be visibly different when they land.

We point this out to show that it is not always material or tangible differences that matter. There are non-material or intangible traits that come to play. Concrete traits translate to intangible traits that are intricately interlinked and mutually interact. Duality of being as an important African principle lies at the two levels, which levels help in the interpretation of material traits.

By confining interpretations of African cultural phenomena to one world, the material world, we are presented with serious challenges when one has to deal with an African world which is dual, one that embraces the material/physical/tangible and the intangible, spiritual and metaphysical. When we deal with Great Zimbabwe in the coming weeks these issues will become apparent.

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