South Africa


Falling back in awe of our ancestors

Thinkers such as Jeremy Lent, author of ‘The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning’, argue that we need a society-wide upheaval, in cultural values and economics.(Image sources: Candice Picard / Unsplash and Juniperphoton / Unsplash)

The Western notion that we are in dominion of nature is driving us over a precipice of ecological overshoot that is killing life on Earth, including our own. Maybe it’s time to fall back in awe of our ancestors, to bring about the social upheaval we need to slow suicidal capitalism.

Polite company doesn’t like us to fall apart. It doesn’t want us to “hear voices”. It’ll probably recoil from the idea that our emotional unravelling is an anguished ancestor taking hold of our body, wailing through us, pulling us physically to the ground. It certainly doesn’t want us to do that at the podium in the front of a packed conference hall.

Admitting to “hearing voices” is even riskier when your evangelical Christian background has groomed you to believe this is “demonic”, or where Western-trained doctors tend to slap a diagnostic label on it.

But when healer Sinethemba Nombala Makanya stepped up to deliver her talk at an international mindfulness conference earlier in 2019, the call of her ancestors was too strong to stick to conference decorum. She melted into tears, and let the force of it pull her to the floor.

Nombala Makanya was there to discuss important matters about how to marry African contemplative practice with the Western-Buddhist hybrid of “mindfulness”, speaking from her perspective as someone who is walking the path from evangelical Christian into her calling to be a traditional healer. She’s writing this up through her doctoral studies with the Medical Humanities and Psychology unit at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (WiSER), which probably gives her story, as an other-than-Western cosmology, more gravitas to a Western-groomed audience.

The conference was at the Cradle of Humankind, 90 minutes’ drive from Johannesburg, where geological time has left a burial ground of the richest collection of hominid fossils yet found.

This was my first visit to the Cradle of Humankind,” says the KwaZulu-Natal-born healer and academic. “But I felt a heaviness from the moment I arrived. This feeling wouldn’t go away.”

It was more than just the irritation of the travel difficulties in getting there, or that the academic presentations still had the ring of the coloniser in them.

It felt like Westerners were coming here to see how they could import their contemplative practice into black communities. Black people don’t want to be treated as research subjects, to see if some Western theory can work.”

No, she says, there was more to the dis-ease than that.

I was connecting with the actual earth,” her voice is soft over the phone, “here were the bones of my ancestors, and we were walking on those bones. There are bones that are still in the ground, and there are other bones on exhibition. We (Africans) are so tired of being trodden on, of being put on exhibition.”

It’s hard to find the right language to help a Western thinker understand the interior world of an African healer.

If I said I was ‘hearing voices’, you might want to take that with a pinch of salt, but I felt as though the earth was speaking to me. This tiredness, this heaviness, was the cry of an ancestor.’

When she woke the next morning, she’d been shown that she must pray and collect water. The pull of this call led her to play hooky from the conference, and travel instead to the nearby Sterkfontein Caves.

In my culture, we believe that every running water source has an ancestor residing in it. That ancestor is linked with the land and nourishes the surrounds. This is a land ancestor. It is not my ancestor in the way that an ancestor might be mine through blood, but we are connected through the fact that we are both of the land.”

She prayed at those caves, not just to the water, but to the bones at rest there.

I’m sorry that we have come here and invaded your land without asking,” she had whispered in prayer, she told me. “Forgive us for not asking entry into this land because that’s how it was done.”

In her practice, she tells me, when you arrive at a new land, you introduce yourself and you are given entrance into that piece of land by the ancestor.

For healers like Nombala Makanya, contemplative practice isn’t about “getting into yourself”. It’s about listening to what the different spirits are saying, so you can act. It’s an act of service.

Later in the conference, when it was her time to take the podium, she went off-piste. She abandoned her academic notes and told this story instead. And while she spoke, the tears streamed down her cheeks; she wailed; she let the ancestors show themselves to the room through the form of her slumping body.

The audience, though, didn’t turn away. What followed was a passing of the mic around the conference room, a sort of passing of the electronic conch, as different people from around the world reflected on what their notion of ancestor means for them, or where they and their ancestors might be complicit in the kind of colonising mindset that had led them to trample on this sacred space.

What does any of this have to do with tackling climate collapse, you might ask? Earlier columns in the series have looked at the problems with our economic model and the Western value systems underpinning them, which are driving massive ecological overshoot and pushing us towards planet-wide extinction. Thinkers like Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, argue that we need a society-wide upheaval, in cultural values and economics. This needs to be a shift that acknowledges that we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, that we are not the technological overlords of nature, and that nature isn’t here for our bidding and for our comfort.

In his book, Lent argues that we can draw from other-than-Western cosmologies and world views that embed us within the circle of life, rather than place us as masters of it.

Nombala Makanya’s story is a unique weave of her early Christian roots, her rediscovery of her ancestors, and her answering of the call to be a healer. But it is also shot through with a thread of modern science. Her connection with her ancestors is expressed through her biology: through her bloodline, her DNA, her family’s epigenetics.

It may have been a difficult journey at times, re-tuning her spiritual ear to hear what she once might have thought were “demonic” voices, but now she knows that these are the whispers of her ancestors. She is finding harmony in this new sound.

Western-trained thinkers like myself have our own experience of ancestors. Biological science tracks a beautiful family tree back through our shared lineage. Before our earlier hunter-gatherer families left Africa and settled on nearly every continent on this planet – way before these new environments gently painted our skins or irises with slightly different hues, or styled our hair with different textures, or sculpted our faces and body shapes into slightly different forms – our earlier forebears were the young green shoots growing on the canopy of an ancient tree of life. A common lifeline tracks right back to the primordial ocean that was the amniotic fluid in which the first single-celled organisms blossomed billions of years ago.

My own evolution-based “cosmology” sees every life form as part of a shared common ancestry: every tree around me is my close relative, every ant, every bird, every bloom of fungal growth, even every dandelion “weed” and scurrying “pest” of a gutter rat. These are all my family. Every other human and non-human animal, and the other biological kingdoms which create the life-supporting systems in which the tree of life can thrive, have a shared common lineage.

There is no conflict between Nombala Makanya’s experience of the ancestors and mine. While we talk on the phone, it’s clear that I can see hers, and she can see mine. The two can walk side by side. Both of these recognitions of ancestry take us outside of ourselves, and put us in service of others – other humans, and other non-humans, alike.

Everyone has access to a different kind of ancestry,” Nombala Makanya says, “but it depends on how aware and connected you are to that. I must connect with your ancestors.”

And I must connect with hers.

In The Patterning Instinct, Lent suggests that the echoes of this kind of cosmology still reside in our psyches and that we can re-learn it as a way of thinking.

In the 200,000 years since we first become anatomically modern humans, we were animist hunter-gatherers for a lot, lot longer than we have been these Western rational individuals, isolated from each other within a capitalist system that commodifies our bodies, our time, our skills, and the natural world in which we live. We are evolved to see ourselves as part of nature, not separate from nature. Our brains and psyches are hardwired for this experience of connection, and we can remember this way of being. If we remember this, we’ll not only feel more connected with nature, but become better custodians of nature. We’ll realise that we are not here to protect nature, but that we are nature protecting itself.

Daily Maverick’s Kevin Bloom has a similar story to tell. He brings a hard, investigative lens to his reporting on the corruption and vested interests driving South Africa’s pro-coal energy policy and decision making, which makes our country one of the biggest carbon emitters on the planet. His personal journey into a traditional African cosmology might not “stick to the page” in the kind of storytelling that he does for his day job. But the value system underpinning his work as a writer and watchdog within the Fourth Estate is a similar marriage of cosmology and culture: his own Jewish origins, and a meeting of his ancestors in the same way that Nombala Makanya describes.

He “wears the beads”, as he says. He has journeyed through several gruelling initiation ceremonies. He makes pilgrimages to the sacred sites like Lake Fundudzi in Limpopo, and the megalithic stone structures of Inzalo ye Langa in Mpumalanga. He understands that a connection with the land is not just about the soil in which we grow our food. The fact that he’s an mlungu doesn’t even feature in the spaces where he communes with other sangomas, he says.

Bloom and Nombala Makanya embody the possibilities that are available to us, where we can draw together other-than-Western ways of viewing our origins, and the value systems that shoot from this, so that we can weave our daily behaviour and climate activism into one that puts us back inside the web of life. It is one where we can cherish and respect other life forms, and the life support systems that have allowed us to become what we are. Human beings are unique shoots on this tree of life.

The late historian and eco-theologian Thomas Berry said that it is through humans that the cosmos becomes conscious.

We have an opportunity in this unprecedented crisis to help humanity to journey to still greater consciousness,” Johannesburg-based social worker and the Sustaining the Wild Coast activist John Clarke wrote to me recently, quoting his mentor, the “barefoot economist” Manfred Max-Neef. “It comes down to creating a transcending cosmology.”

Beyond scientific analysis and rationality lies a need for transcendence, he scribbled in his note. It is real and relevant today when we need truth-seeking and understanding at this time of the unprecedented existential threat caused by the over-extraction of the natural world that is driving mass extinction and gargantuan ecological overshoot.

Indigenous cultures around the planet carry in their cosmologies a library of knowledge about what it means to connect with the natural world.

Our ancestors are biological,” says Nombala Makanya, “they are spiritual. They are the ones in the land which are also in the water.” DM


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