LIFESTYLE

Decolonising Faith: Here's How Some Africans Are Rediscovering Their Ancestors And Spirituality

Is this a case of a few Model Cs rediscovering themselves, or a wider return to African spirituality? Writer Percy Zvomuya set outs to listen to those on the journey.

09/04/2017 20:56 SAST | Updated 17/04/2017 07:51 SAST

If South Africa is undergoing decolonisation, if black folk are staring at their white souls and perusing their Christian hearts, surely there can not be a better living mascot for the project than the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

Wa Thiong'o, who was in South Africa last month where he gave lectures at Wits University and other institutions of higher learning, is a novelist and scholar based at the University of California, Irvine. His ouvre is varied, including polemics such as Decolonising the Mind and Barrel of a Pen; novels such as Weep Not, Child; The River Between and A Grain of Wheat; and memoir installments Detained: A Writers Prison Diary, Dreams in a Time of War and In the House of the Interpreter. In the 1970s, in his quest to find his African roots, the writer dropped his Christian name and stopped being James Ngugi. That process reached its culmination when, in 1977, with the publication of Petals of Blood, he quit writing in English altogether, opting for his mother language of Kikuyu.

At Wits University, to applause, the Kenyan scholar said: "Along with the political and economic empires, Europe simultaneously and consciously created empires of the mind through language, practices and ideologies and empires in tune with their worldview and practical needs. They gave us their accents in exchange for their access to our resources".

As marmoreal institutional structures start to corrode, a similar trend can be seen in the lives of some individuals.

Over the past few years, South Africans, led by university students, have been questioning this unequal exchange of African resources for English accents. The disparate movement at the centre of this querying of colonial dogmas and imperial certitudes has organised under the catchy rubric of Rhodes Must Fall. They have scored significant victories across the country, including improving the working conditions of non-teaching staff at universities, zero fee increments and the renaming of some university buildings after black heroes.

As marmoreal institutional structures start to corrode, a similar trend can be seen in the lives of some individuals. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, artist Nakhane Touré spoke about how when he abandoned Christianity, he couldn't imagine becoming an atheist. "I knew that the only way to deal with this was to look at who we, as a people, were before being colonised. So I threw myself completely into our spiritual practices and who we were as a people". Touré's aunt is a sangoma, and so he has a handy resource in the family from whom he can enquire about Xhosa traditions and culture.

One of the most dramatic of these back to the roots stories must be that of Unathi Magubeni, a sangoma and the author of Nwelezelanga: The Star Child. He grew up in East London and moved to Cape Town where he enrolled at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. After university, he went to work for Old Mutual and, after that, became an entrepreneur in telecommunications. But finding that unfulfilling, left to become a sangoma. Magubeni spoke of that period at the cash nexus and environment as "desensitizing", one that impedes the path towards finding one's purpose.

There's an ancestral spirit that is rising and demands our attention. It's rising and rising.

When I asked him whether his personal journey was mirrored in bigger trends in South Africa, the writer said. "There's an ancestral spirit that is rising and demands our attention. It's rising and rising. It's easier to identify with an ancestral spirit that is rising outside of oneself." He added, "it's easy to identify with Biko, Fanon, Sobukwe. Some become one with these ancestral spirits and they call themselves Bikoists, for example. It is much harder for individuals to honour and identify with an ancestral spirit that is rising within one's own lineage and where the calling is much greater."

In some ways the path that Magubeni has taken is the same one travelled by people like Gordon Chavunduka, the second vice-chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe between 1992 and 1996. The late sociologist and sangoma was aware of supra-national spirits like Biko and Fanon, and national ones such as Nehanda, Kaguvi and Murenga (the three are heroes of the war against Rhodes' imperial project in Zimbabwe), but, in his role as sangoma, he wanted to unite the individual with his ancestor gone.

After studying for his bachelor's at the University of California, Chavunduka proceeded to Manchester University for his master's degree before completing his PhD with the University of London. It was after completing his sociology doctorate that he decided to apprentice with a traditional healer. In a Zimbabwe where a fundamentalist Christian ethic reigns, his decision was much maligned. "Many of my colleagues looked down upon me for getting myself involved in that kind of social life. There was just no encouragement all round, but it was my conviction in that what I was doing was right, and despite all the discouragement from all sorts of people to study it. It was a very difficult period for me personally because of the opposition both from the university and from the society in general but I continued to this day," he told an interviewer.

May be a couple of Model Cs are rediscovering themselves but that doesn't mean anything for the rest of us; that's their personal journey

Chavunduka's life project could be summed up in a few statements from his 1980 inaugural lecture. "My object is to attempt to resolve this conflict between traditional courts and formal courts. In doing this I shall draw together some of the important points about witchcraft that have been made, not only by sociologists and social anthropologists, but also by traditional medical practitioners and the courts of law".

In their attempt to outlaw African spirituality which had been used to rally opposition to white settler rule, Rhodes' administration had passed the Suppression of Witchcraft Act in 1898, a piece of law that bore much similarity to a 1895 law passed in the Cape Colony, then ruled by Rhodes.

But historian Nomalanga Mkhize called for caution, arguing that it was wise not to conflate the experiences of a few with a wider narrative. "Just because people are asking about decolonisation in South Africa doesn't mean anything is going on. Maybe a couple of Model Cs are rediscovering themselves but that doesn't mean anything for the rest of us; that's their personal journey."

Whether the experiences of a few is representative of the bigger project of decolonisation or not, the last word should go to Jesus Christ. In the parable of the lost sheep, in which a shepherd leaves his flock to go and look for just one missing sheep, the Nazarene concludes by saying: "There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous person who do not need to repent."

Indeed, it must be the same in the kingdom of blackness, where there should be much joy and celebration when the soul of one black person finds its blackness again.

Percy Zvomuya is a writer and football fan. Follow him on twitter at @percyzvomuya.

The Huffington Post South Africa is delving into what faith and spirituality means to South Africans here and now. Against the backdrop of a renewed wave of thought around decolonisation, a new generation is rediscovering its traditional beliefs, while some are reconciling with Christianity. On another note, we tell South Africa's real good news story: our remarkable and peaceful religious diversity. In a world fractured along religious extremism, we have a large Christian population with significant Muslim and Jewish communities, who often come together peacefully and with purpose, as has been evinced at the memorials for departed struggle stalwart, Ahmed Kathrada. Read the rest of the special report here, or choose from our selection below:

27 Quotes By Desmond Tutu On Faith, Justice And Love