My grandfather was a great man. He could control the weather.
A tornado ripped through the town one day. It lifted entire houses, trees, cars, everything. When it neared his house, my grandfather took a handful of something and sprinkled it around his house. The great serpent neared his house, and then turned direction. It hit the houses around him, and then turned back to the original path it went on.
One day, a man came to his house to kill him. The spirits of his ancestors told him that his life was in grave danger. He didn't run. He simply went to the house at the back of the yard, and he prepared something. He smeared it across the entrance to his yard, and retreated into his house. The assassin arrived, and when he crossed the threshold of the property, he collapsed. He lost control of his bladder, his bowels and his stomach. He convulsed on the ground. A taxi was called for him, and he was taken to hospital.
I can still see the glow in my grandmother's face when she spoke to me about him. "He was a very rich man," she would say. Even today, she still lives in the same spot that he told her to.
They say he was the first black man in the townships of Pretoria to own a Mercedes Benz. They say all the traditional healers from here to Malawi were in awe of him.
That's my grandfather. He exists only in my imagination –- he died when my mother was very young, and everything I know about him, I learned from my family. All I have to work with is a small, black and white photograph in my grandmother's house, and these stories.
In my mind, he's tall. He has a gigantic beard and caramel skin, like my uncle does. He speaks with a quiet, measured tone. Like a man who knows that his every word carries the weight of the world...
I grew up in a system of faith that utterly rejected everything that my grandfather was. He was unsaved. He was a pagan, a superstitious native who consorted with demons and probably even Satan himself. I was taught that there was nothing to love about him.
It's funny now, but some of the stories that were told me to shock me into disliking him are those that nourished my imagination.
Did he see a weather pattern, like I was trained to in school? Or did he see the will of the gods, blessing those they favoured with rain for the crops, and cursing those who had displeased them with lightning strikes and floods?
I began to wonder what he saw when he would sit on his stoep and saw the glory of the highveld thunderstorms rolling in over the golden hills. What was his experience of this? Did he see a weather pattern, like I was trained to in school? Or did he see the will of the gods, blessing those they favoured with rain for the crops, and cursing those who had displeased them with lightning strikes and floods?
What did the flight of the birds mean to him? Or the sound that the cattle made when they returned home from the fields? What would he see when he walked in the veld? Was it a vast natural medicine cabinet, an endless sea of possibilities for every ailment and sickness? I think about this a lot.
Steve Biko was excoriating of the missionaries who came to South Africa and taught us about Christianity, and the Christian God. He saw the arrival of this new religion as a great swindle. "It was the missionaries who confused the people with their new religion," he wrote. "They scared our people with stories of hell. They painted their God as a demanding God who wanted worship 'or else'. People had to discard their clothes and their customs in order to be accepted in this new religion."
He saw Christianity as being tied to the entire colonial project –- in fact, he argued, it served as its vanguard. But, he also argued that it should be adapted to fit our needs.
"Black theology seeks to do away with spiritual poverty of the black people," he wrote. "It seeks to demonstrate the absurdity of the assumption by whites that 'ancestor worship' was necessarily a superstition and that Christianity is a scientific religion. While basing itself on the Christian message, black theology seeks to show that Christianity is an adaptable religion that fits in with the cultural situation of the people to whom it is imparted."
My own spiritual journey has gone hither and thither –- I've changed my mind a lot, in many different directions. I was very much in the frothing-angry-militant-atheist phase when I wrote Get Me Started, which as you can imagine caused a great deal of distress to my family. There's no human worth in sneering at people's faith, I've since come to realise.
Of course, in Africa, our religions are tied in very much to the human lineage. Our ancestors, those who came before us, are our link to the spiritual realm. And when we die, we will become that link for our children. There is nothing more devastating to an African than the loss of that lineage. To have no children is to condemn yourself to wander the world, a lost ancestor with nobody who remembers you, and no one to intercede for before the gods. This eternal loneliness, this is hell.
This is why I imagine my grandfather. I was taught not to. I was told to reject this paganism. And to an extent, this is what has become true in my life. I offer no sacrifices. I have no backroom in my apartment. I don't pray to him. But he lives on in the greatest asset that I have, which is my imagination. He lives on. He must.
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:
- Decolonising Faith: Here's How Some Africans Are Rediscovering Their Ancestors And Spirituality
- I Was Taught Not To Remember My Grandfather. This Is Why I Do.
- South Africa's Untold Success Story: A Christian Nation's Peaceful History With A Muslim Minority
- It's Nearly Easter: Here's What You Need to Know In The Run Up