Religious differences don’t justify family squabble

It ’s the role of ffamily members to show up for ancestral rites

Makazi Ncumi and her favorite niece Zipho circa December 2017.
Makazi Ncumi and her favorite niece Zipho circa December 2017.
Image: Supplied

I have always found it interesting when people cite religious differences as justification for not participating in ancestral rites.

My position is: family supports family. Qha! 

Okay let's take a few steps back. A while ago I binged on the Bala Family reality TV series. I, like many South Africans, have historically found them fascinating as a trio of brothers with singing capabilities.  

For a little context, the show follows the life of the Bala family in their matriarchal familial surrounds of Gqeberha and Kariega – formerly known as Uitenhage. The youngest brother, Phelo, is a journeying sangoma within a family that, by the looks of things, has been historically staunch in its Christian beliefs.

Nonetheless, Phelo is actively biting the bullet by going against the grain to fulfil his ancestral calling and become a fully initiated healer. Phelo’s beliefs and decision (towards actualising ubungoma) are very apparently a contentious matter, with some members expressing apprehension or fully ceasing to attend or participate in ceremonies.  

In one of his diary sessions, Zwai, the oldest brother, expresses irritation at the failure of some to participate as a matter of "beliefs". “Family is family” he said, while loosely emphasising that it is the role of family to show up and support one another. Family supports family.

Thinking back on Zwai’s words, I cannot help but to stroll down memory lane while reflecting on my own journey as a traditional healer. Specifically the roles of the many family members that needed to step in and participate in rituals that implicate them because of their relation to me.  

Let me explain. Intwaso is not an individual project – it is a group effort and the group is your family. There are specific rites that require the participation and representation of patriarchal and matriarchal ancestors. The roles of physical family members representing these said ancestral groupings are therefore seminal in rituals like ukuphahla (communicating with family members residing in the ancestral realm) and ukusila (preparing traditional beer).  

Also, when a ritual (ceremony) takes place, customarily there are witnesses as a form of record-keeping and ancestral affirmation. The creation of roles towards the successful execution of a ceremony ensures the presence engagement of all required members. Brilliant on our ancestors' part – if you think about the sophistication of this complex design. 

A clearer example, each family will have intlabi, a person who is responsible for carefully and ritualistically slaughtering an animal according to the customs of their family. Not everyone can be intlabi – it is a gift that is often passed from father to son. Also, animals cannot be slaughtered willy-nilly without the observation of custom. This means that for every occasion that entails slaughtering, the intlabi must be in attendance and must fulfill his role.  

Fortunately for me, I have had little to no ill-support because of "conflicting" Christian beliefs. I remember when I started journeying around 2019, I was living in my maternal home in Mthatha with my mom, grandmother, sister and aunt.  

My maternal aunt, Ncumisa, has been a born-again Christian for many years now. Her love and dedication to the word of God and her church community have always been admirable – along many other things. I mean, hear me out; when I was growing up the girlie was fashionable, always looked and smelled good and she had nice things. She had this clean lady-like aesthetic and she fully embraced the fashion of each era (her 90s fits are out of this world).  

When I was younger, we were besties. I was literally an auntie's baby. I would watch her tentatively and decide which parts of her I would embrace when "I grow up".

The other thing I have always admired about my aunt is her unconditional regard and support for family. No matter what. Her beliefs generally would prohibit her from even witnessing her niece become a sangoma, for example, but I know she has not missed even one of my ceremonies.  

I remember when all of this started, she would ask me if there was anything expected of her. Which is slightly funny when I consider that she has a pusillanimous character. She would ask to mentally prepare herself. The look on her face when I would describe my experiences thus far – she was always in sheer and utter disbelief. I’d often say “relax... I’m doing it, I’ll be fine” knowing fully well that I am as scared and anxious. 

I imagine the psychological turmoil that one faces when transgressing church rules – even if it is to support family. Her presence tells me that the turmoil is something that she is willing to negotiate with God. I think in her heart of hearts, supporting and showing up for family is the morally superior thing to do. That’s brave.   

Belated happy birthday makazi wam!

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