‘Heeding the Ancestors’ Call, Part 1
Nkosiphendule ‘Mehlwemamba’ Ntuli was born on 5 January 1989. His parents, Mkhuliseni Ntuli and Busisiwe MaGasa Ntuli, of eZilozini in Nkandla had been struggling to have children. When he was born his grandmother named him Nkosiphendule as it was clear that their prayers had been answered. He currently works as a sangoma and is also a well-known imbongi who often accompanies leader of the National Freedom Party Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi’s as her official imbongi.
During his high school years Nkosiphendule, became very sick with a mysterious illness doctors could not diagnose. He became thinner and would even hear and dialogue with voices that only he could hear and understand. He found it hard to pursue an education at high school like every other school teenager. He started dreaming a lot about different kinds of snakes, mostly pythons, as well as elderly people of his lineage who had passed on. One day while looking after his father’s cattle in Nkandla, he was suddenly drawn towards a dam where he witnessed a uniquely beautiful and large python playfully maneuvering its body in the water as though it was showing off its strength and beauty. When he told family members of this event, he was immediately informed that such was indicative that he had a calling. Apart from the sicknesses and the dreams, this was not the first sign. For some time he had also had a rare desire to scream and run into the water every time he came across a lake or a damn. It was at the age of 16, on Friday 3 March 2006, that he suddenly responded to the voice that had been telling him to pack his things and go. In a rage, he started yelling back at his family members telling them not to stop him as he was going to MaZondi’s in ETulwane as instructed by the voice. So he departed, led by a spirit and followed by his family members.
MaZondi was an older sangoma who had been practicing for years and knew how to respond to being appointed by the ancestors to initiate somebody with a calling. The first step she took was to plead with the ancestors for Nkosiphendule not to be sent to undergo training underneath the water (in the dam). She feared that he might be drawn by an ancestor of light out of goodwill only to realise that amongst his ancestry there is also an ancestor that will then trap him underneath as a means of punishing the family for the sins of his forefathers. MaZondi’s request to the ancestors was for them to release the snake that Nkosiphendule was supposed to go and fetch from the water so that it could make its own way to his home. The ancestors agreed. The snake was released and made its way to Nkosiphendule’s home in the same way as it did when MaZondi herself was undergoing the initiation. Nkosiphendule then found a new home at MaZondi’s where he started his initiation.
When I asked him about the process of ukuthwasa, he said: “Ukuthwasa inkambo yobizwe yidlozi lapho esamukela ubizo lwakhe. Kuwukuqeqeshwa,ukwelashwa nokushayelwa izinkamba zokwamukela idlozi nokulipha umtombo eliwufunayo. Uma idlozi lisegazini kumuntu lidla igazi lakhe, esikhundleni sokuba lidle igazi lakhe aze azace ithwasa liye lishayelwe amagobongo liwadle liwaphuze liphalaze ligeze ngawo ukuze idlozi lidle wona. Okulandela lapho kuba ukufunda imithi – umuthi uwufundiswa idlozi ngokufika ngephupho. Uma usulaphelike wafunda nemithi, ufihlelwa izinto ekumele uzithole ngokubhula, izifo nemikhuba nemihlola eyenzeka emagcekeni yabantu. Uphinde unqwanjiswe uhlatshelwe imbuzi uphuze igazi layo. Leligazi yilo elidliwa idlozi emzimbeni wakho. Uphuziswe inyongo yembuzi uphinde uthelwe ngayo njengendlela yokwanyukeliswa idlozi. Uma usugeziwe ibomvu (usekhona esigodlweni) njengengxenye yokuqeqeshwa kwakho ube usubhulela abantu. Isangoma esikuthwasisayo sisuke sikuqaphile, uma enganelisekanga umuntu kuye kube sekuqhubeka sona simbhulele. Uma usuqeqeshekile uhlatshelwa imbuzi wethweswe imiyeko bese uba isangoma ngokuphelele. Abakini sebengafika bekukhiphe ngokubeka inkomo yokubonga ukuthi welashiwe wathwasiswa kanye nenkomo yokuthi uyamukelwa usuyisangoma kanye nembuzi yokwamukelwa ngabakini njengesangoma – lapho sithi usuphothule idlozi.”
“(Ukuthwasa is a journey undergone by an initiate who has a calling when he or she responds to the calling. It is a form of training, healing from your sickness as well as a process of accepting your ancestor and feeding it with the necessary muthi that it requires. When an ancestor resides inside of someone it feeds on his or her blood. So instead of it feeding on that person’s blood until he or she wears thin the initiate is then given amagobongo (a form of muthi) for him to eat, drink, to use as a means of regurgitating and also to use when bathing so that the ancestor can feed upon it. Thereafter one has to learn the process of understanding and mixing muthi, throwing the bones and telling where certain objects are hidden, and identifying ailments and circumstances facing someone’s family. A goat is then slaughtered for you and you are required to drink its blood. This is the same blood that the ancestor is meant to feed on. You are also fed that’s goat’s bile, which is also smeared on you as part of the process of you accepting the ancestor. Once the ibomvu (the ochre clay) has been washed from you (while you are under the guidance of your trainer) you then start consulting or attending people where you throw bones and tell of their circumstances. All of this is done under the supervision of your trainer so that should that person be unhappy your trainer will take over the process again. Once you have been trained in this department as well a goat is then slaughtered for you and your hair is then twisted and beaded (nowadays one can also get ready-made headgear) thus qualifying you as a sangoma. Your family members are then expected to bring you home by giving a ‘cow’ as a form of gratitude to your trainer, another cow to welcome and accept you as a sangoma and a goat for the ancestors to welcome and accept you – and that process renders one a qualified sangoma.”)
An initiate is also expected to follow a number of principles to keep them grounded. They are kept painted in umcako (white body clay) as a symbol of being in the process of initiation. When greeted they are meant to raise a hand while bowing the head down as a gesture of obedience. They have to kneel when talking to another person in conversation and their speech is supposed to be brief and to the point. When eating he or she is supposed to do so in a kneeling position. They are required to use their own individual utensils that they will not share with anyone during their period of training. This includes linen, eating utensils, bathing utensils and everything that one requires on daily bases. On graduating they are expected to get rid of all the clothes that they were using during their initiation. They are then cleansed of umcako (the white body clay) and they are smeared with ibomvu (ochre body clay) upon graduating.
‘Mehlwemamba’ – the new name
One day while Nkosiphendule was still undergoing his initiation Thokozile Soni Zondi, the sangoma who was initiating him, connected with her ancestor while the two of them were sitting in the kitchen. She started singing passionately and it became clear that she was in a moment of deep connection with her ancestor. A while later she then explained to Nkosiphendule that her ancestor had given him a new name: ‘Mehlwemamba’ (mamba’s eyes). On asking why that name, MaZondi explained that the ancestor had noted when Nkosiphendule is dancing in trans with the other izangoma his eyes became skewed and glowed in the same manner as those of a mamba. The ancestor had noted that his eyes were very quick in finding and spotting things whenever MaZondi had misplaced them. His general curiosity and the way he thinks and operates also resembled the cunning of a mamba. Hence the name ‘Mehlwemamba’.
I asked him if he knew the ancestor that possessed him. He said yes. He first noted his paternal great-grandfather, Nyawozengane Ntuli. He was then possessed by his paternal great-grandmother, MaNdebele Ntuli. However, she had come through a different kind of spirit (isithunywa), as she had been a practicing Christian in the Zionist Church. Mehlwemamba uses both the isithunywa from his grandmother and the ancestral spirit from his great-grandfather depending on the nature of the situation faced by the person he is attending to. He is also possessed by his maternal great-grandmother, MaMakhaye, who is the most powerful all of his ancestral spirits, together with Nyawozengane Ntuli. He also acknowledges his late grandfather, Smolo Ntuli. Mehlwemamba then points out that his ancestors had different reasons for him to undergo this initiation. His paternal great-grandfather, Nyawozengane, and his maternal great-grandmother, MaMakhaye, were simply giving him a ‘gift’ to survive on. Smolo and MaNdebele used the initiation as a means of saving and protecting him from harm directed at him by family members that were jealous of him as an only child from his mother’s womb within a polygamist family. Going into initiation was a means of taking him away from the family.
Each initiate has his or her song/chant/hymn that is communicated to him or her by the ancestors. Mehlwemamba explained how he once heard a voice that sounded as though it was singing at a distance, echoing in a way that suggested it was in a gorge or a valley. On listening carefully he found himself singing along:
“Webaba nomama, ngixoleleni nami angizenzanga, ngenziwa abaphansi ngenziwa ogogo, ngenziwa nawomkhulu. Nani bomndeni nani bafowethu nani bakithi ngixoleleni, nami angizenzanga, ngenziwa abaphansi ngenziwa ogogo ngenziwa omkhulu.” (“Father and mother, forgive me. I didn’t do it by myself, it was a call from my ancestors, a call from my grandmothers and my grandfathers, brothers and family members, I didn’t chose to do it through my own choice, it was the grandfathers and the grandmothers.”)
Another chant that followed clearly justified the setting depicted above as it went:
“Ngaze ngathwasa emaweni. Awubheke imithangala ingakanani, awubheke izintaba zingakanani, awubheke izihosha zingakanani, ngaze ngathwasa emaweni.” (“ I am being initiated in the vallies, behold the depth of the valleys, behold the magnitude of the mountains, behold the magnitude of the valleys, I am being initiated in the valleys.” These are his chants.
Follow Mehlwemamba’s journey in Part II of the story.
Musa Hlatswayo is an Archival Platform correspondent based in KwaZulu-Natal