No one yet has highlighted that Castle Milk Stout, a hearty beer, is the money behind a Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) push for recognition of 8 May as a public holiday to be known in future as “Ancestors’ Day”.
Nothing wrong with a bit of sponsorship for a splash of the old spirits in remembrance of the dead – ask the Irish about the uses of Guinness.
And besides, offering libations to ancestors is common practice.
In May 2022, Contralesa, with the support of the National House of Traditional Leaders and the National Khoisan Council, decided to “officially inscribe” 8 May as “Ancestors’ Day”, according to Contralesa secretary-general Zolani Mkiva. It also called for the day to be made an official public holiday.
The first to thunder was African Christian Democratic Party leader Reverend Kenneth Meshoe, who proclaimed: “While we acknowledge that millions of South Africans consult and worship their dead ancestors, committed evangelical Christians know that God’s Word denounces such practices.”
Anyone in the 21st century who still views the universal human commemoration of the dead or veneration of ancestors as being about “worshipping” these places in public, displays a malnourished understanding of human existence.
For Meshoe, ancestors are “dead”, gone, irrelevant, of no consequence and have no meaning. Freud would disagree, but let’s not stray.
To hold in mind, to think of, to commune with ancestors – the departed who came before us – is a vital human psychological, emotional and spiritual practice. Without this we are just a collection of gases in a skin, holding a cellphone.
Even for those who might be ashamed of their ancestors and what they stood for or what they did or didn’t do, reflection and acknowledgement can offer a key to personal liberation. Probably best to do so though on a therapist’s couch with at least three consultations a week.
Saying “Hi” to the forebears can also result in occasional cosmic windfalls of mystifying proportions.
It started with a candle
Pull up a chair, uncap that milk stout (or a cup of tea, if you prefer), here’s my story of ancestral bounty.
It is how a votive candle, lit in a cathedral in the middle of Europe in 2018, coincided with a series of events that ultimately led to the front door of my late mother’s abandoned ancestral home in a small village in southern Portugal.
Barbara walked out of the door of 104 Rua Luís de Camões, Aljustrel, in the 1940s, never to return. The silences surrounding her early life overshadowed the rare nuggets shared before a debilitating stroke and her later death in 2011.
For Meshoe’s enlightenment, my mother died on Wednesday, 2 November, celebrated as All Souls Day in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy. It is a day when the dead are traditionally honoured in visits to graves and family gatherings.
Make no mistake, the impulse to light the candle in a nave of the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp that morning in 2018 had not been motivated by any belief or commitment to the Catholic faith nor its rituals.
I had been on a book tour. Between engagements, my friend, Belgian author Tom Lanoye, and I visited the Gothic cathedral with its Rubens and other treasures and tzatzkes venerating Mary.
Tom’s mother too had been Catholic and had also suffered a debilitating stroke, which had left her speechless and paralysed, just like Barbara. Both our mothers were big Mary fangirls.
“At home we burn things for our ancestors. How about you and I light candles in honour of our mothers? They’d love it,” I whispered to Tom.
The day we lit our candles in Antwerp, in a small flat in Lisbon, about 2,000km away, a 90-year-old widow and her 70-year-old daughter were sorting through boxes of letters and photographs before moving to the rural serenity of Alentejo.
From the pile emerged an unopened letter from my mother to Donna Maria Ameila written in 1971. Inside were photographs of my brother and I and a short handwritten note.
“I have such saudade,” she wrote (loosely translated as longing).
The internet and email led Donna Maria, the only surviving member of my mother’s generation from her village and indeed a childhood friend, to my inbox via her daughter, Elisabeth, who had asked the Oracle, Google.
For the villagers of Aljustrel who gathered a few months later to meet the long-lost but not forgotten Barbara’s daughter, the candle and Mary had everything to do with my being there.
“You asked Mary to remember her and in return your mother gave you a house, and a country,” they laughed, pointing out that the name my mother had chosen for me should have provided a clue.
Maria and Anne (Mary’s mother I learnt for the first time was Anne).
And there it was, there I was.
Those raised Catholic know the power of the spiritual intermediary. Saint Anthony, softly and repeatedly called on, will help to find those lost keys. Saint Christopher on the dashboard will “look after” the occupants of a car on a journey.
Everyone knows that these intermediaries are not “worshipped” and rather act as gatekeepers for the multitude of prayers and mantras clogging up the comms to the great unknowable beyond – to Modimo, Unkulunkulu, Utixo, Allah, God – who is hellishly busy, as we all should know.
One way to mash up Mother’s Day and Ancestors’ Day is to acknowledge that we all carry within us, in our DNA, all the women who came before. Women carry the double X gifted us by female ancestors on both sides of our parents’ lineage. We carry no male lineage as women.
The Y male chromosome is passed on immutably to males only by their fathers. But each man holds within him a female X passed down by the woman who birthed his father.
Reflection on the past, on our ancestors, however you choose to do it, is an act of self-healing (and who knows, you could hit the jackpot). DM168
Marianne Thamm is the assistant editor of Daily Maverick.
Please do write to tell us your views of Ancestors’ Day or any stories you may have relating to their presence in your life.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.