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How God and Ancestors Build Community

Written by: Nombulelo Shinta

 

The Xhosa people believe in ancestors and communicate with them for guidance throughout life. My stay in Gwaba village has given me a clear picture of ancestral communication and worship. Talking to the ancestors here is popular even among Christian families, and its popularity seems to have increased post-COVID as families recover from the material and spiritual shocks of the pandemic. I was intrigued to find how much ordinary people in this rural area have integrated their connection to their ancestors with other belief systems such as Christianity, fusing their ideas of a Xhosa God with a Christian God.



Figure 1: Communicating with ancestors in Gwaba Village at Imicimbi (traditional ceremony)


In Gwaba village, Xhosa families connect ancestral beliefs with family and clan names. Interestingly, some children are even named with their Clan name. For example, there is a family of Amaqoco, which is a Clan name, and there is a 16-year-old in this village called Nomaqoco. Families that name their children like this usually have a story of how the ancestors blessed them with that particular child, and such families usually rely heavily on their ancestors. Xhosa families in Gwaba village believe that God and ancestors are almost the same. When I asked some families about this, they gave a vague answer. Some said God and ancestors are one, and others said the ancestors are closer to God than people on earth. I use a small letter when referring to the god they talk to because it is not clear if they are talking about the almighty God or another being they refer to as god. Some say the god they are talking about is the god of their father, and his name is Qamata. This god is said to be the god of our fathers, who are our ancestors.

 

Talking to the ancestors is an important part of Xhosa culture, as ancestors are believed to be powerful beings capable of performing miracles and bestowing both blessings and curses when needed. To avoid curses, many Xhosa families speak to their ancestors regularly. There is no ceremony or celebration that should be done in a home without informing the ancestors; whenever the ancestors are not informed about such events, the consequences are dire. This belief is instilled in children from a very young age, for example, in traditional ceremonies such as Imbeleko. Imbeleko is a process of introducing a child born into a family to the ancestors. This process usually takes place in a child’s life around the ages of 9 years and above. The age may differ from family to family, but the ultimate goal of Imbeleko is to show the child’s dedication to their ancestors. The process involves isolating the child from other children for a few days, and slaughtering a goat is done for him/her on the day of the ceremony. This ceremony serves as an introduction to the ancestors and is usually attended by family members only. As the child grows, they are required to maintain that relationship with the ancestors.

 

If for any reason that relationship is neglected, the ancestors will give a warning to that individual in the form of dreams and visions. The ancestors could even send a stranger to inform the person that something dangerous is about to happen to them, unless they talk to the ancestors and make things right. It is believed that some have ignored such warnings of the ancestors, and as a result, some have become mentally disturbed, and some have even died. For this reason, many people have become Amagqhirha, for their mental health. A Gqhirha is someone who closely communicates with the ancestors; without that communication, they are mentally unstable. After some time, a Gqhirha (Traditional Doctor/Healer) gains knowledge on how to guide others when talking to the ancestors. As a result, many families consult amaGqhirha instead of medical doctors. The counsel of the Igqirha will be that the ancestors are trying to communicate something, and the process following will be a ceremony in which the family would talk back to the ancestors. The ancestors are believed to be omnipresent, but in each home in the village, the best place to address them is in the Kraal. If one has gifts such as meat and traditional beer, it should be left in the Kraal. Whenever a family member is about to travel, they have to address the ancestors in the Kraal for protection. The ancestors will bless the journey, and those who do not inform the ancestors of their traveling could face challenges on the way.

 

In current times, many people have accumulated money for themselves, and some Xhosa people believe this money is a blessing from their ancestors. As a result, people will perform ceremonies at the end of every year to honor their ancestors and express their gratitude. The Xhosa people also believe that keeping the ancestors informed like this will ensure that they are protected forever. Younger generations, however, believe that talking to the ancestors is weird and old-fashioned, and they refer to ancestors as the “dead gang”. It is usually the older generation that still holds onto these beliefs.


The older generations attribute the younger generation’s apathy towards their ancestors to their modern education. Some families try their best to keep educating their children about the importance of ancestral worship. Such families do not even go to church; they believe that their church is home with their ancestors. They believe the church that other people believe in is un-African and therefore misleading. Hence, they have chosen to worship ancestors; the same praise and worship that is given to the almighty God, they give it to the ancestors. Other families have chosen to worship both the Almighty God and their ancestors. The explanation for this type of worship is that both God and ancestors are powerful, but God is greater than ancestors because he created them. There is another group of people, those who do not identify with anything. They do not worship God or their ancestors. These are usually rich and educated people; they believe worship is a waste of time, and time is money, which is why many young people that are growing up now find it difficult to stay connected to their ancestors.

 

During my fieldwork, I asked a pastor, Mr. Cuthu, at the local church I attend about God and the ancestors. I had noticed that during worship he often referred to ancestors as God. He told me that many churchgoers believe God and the ancestors are working together. Anything which God can provide; the ancestors can also provide because they are all in the spirit realm. Mr. Cuthu kept emphasizing that this is what they were told as they were growing up, and they have now taught this to their children. He also shared that it is important for them to hold on to what they know and pass it down to their children as a way of preserving Xhosa culture and tradition.

 

Talking to Tata (Father) about this ceremony was enlightening; not only did he share about the ceremony, but he also shared about Xhosa culture. He also spoke about Imicimbi (traditional ceremony) as a way to connect to the ancestors. People in Gwaba village believe and honor their culture every Saturday, which is reserved for funerals and Imicimbi. There is a common understanding in the village that everyone should start at the funeral because Imicimbi takes longer. It was so interesting to see how tightly knit and dedicated this community is. In some cases where there are two people having Imcimbi on the same day, the family members of the community will divide themselves into two groups. Each family will make sure they attend the other family’s ceremony and support each other. Mr. Cuthu (Tata ‘Father’) shared with me that because of COVID, Umicimbi have fallen behind, and there is a backlog that the community needs to take part in. He expressed how families are taking more time to do ceremonies that were never done during COVID.

 

In this time of stress, hunger, and a need for spiritual reparations, families and communities in Gwaba village seem to be mobilizing around their traditions and beliefs to reaffirm a connection to their history, families, and culture.

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