With South Africa’s rich history and shameful past – where our identities were distorted – young people constantly battle to maintain our sense of belonging in the context of faith, spirituality and tradition. Where the gospels are preached as the only true path, we often find ourselves struggling to make sense of our own beliefs.
I grew up with parents who knew of the gospel but also strongly believed in ancestors. Although my mother was a praying mother, we were never taught to go to church. I grew up praising my forefathers. When someone was sick, our first reliance would be incense and traditional herbs. All the events in our lives were said to be connected to our ancestors, including our achievements, misfortunes and health.
My grandmother used to burn incense and praise our ancestors while kneeling on a mat of woven grass. She called upon them to protect us whenever we left home for school after the holidays. During thunderstorms, she’d tell us to stand outside and call on our forefathers to make the lightning go away. Somehow it always worked, even though I didn’t understand how. I felt deeply connected to them.
Although I went to a Roman Catholic school where morning prayers and sermons were regularly held, I was hardly connected to the surroundings and the preaching. I only knew my ancestors as my protector. To this day, the concept of God confuses me. But, how does one unlearn childhood teachings and beliefs? I know faith, in my own understanding of it and I have applied it where necessary. I have had faith in my ancestors since I was young, I believe in their existence and, as a black woman, I have been able to communicate with them through dreams.
We are influenced by different things and different people as we grow and learn new things. After years at university, I’ve come to experience the pressure of being a young black South African woman who has to conform to the gospel’s teachings and the idea that Jesus is life. It’s either we are a lost generation who beseech guidance from God, who is said to be our saviour, or through our ancestors who keep track of our roots and origins. I have come to understand that the gospel, in a way, does work for those who believe in it. However, it shouldn’t overshadow the existence of tradition and customs.
I have friends who are in the same boat. “At home we strongly believe in ancestors and it’s always been that way. I don’t have a problem with religion but I’m more in touch with my tradition,” says Zamaswazi Mdhluli (22). As much as we are connected to our forefathers, there’s an underlying confusion about the intersection of faith, spirituality and our ancestors.
But there are also those who believe in what they see as the true gospel. Xolile Nzama (25) is a born-again Christian. “There’s only one truth and it’s through God. We cannot be foolish enough to think that ancestors are our protectors. God is the only creator and protector,” she says.
This confusion – religion vs culture – usually stems from the people we surround ourselves with, especially our supposedly “woke” counterparts who consider tradition to be outdated. But our origins are what give us a sense of belonging and belief, they inform our identities, and not everyone is able or willing to trade one for the other.
For a long time I’ve been defined by culture and tradition; “isiphandla” (the wristband made from a piece of skin cut from a goat or a cow) has always been that one symbol that reassures me of my connection to my ancestors. In the years I’ve been independent, I’ve never been to church and I haven’t found anything wrong with my life. Whenever I feel like I’m stumbling and my life is heading down a precarious path, I always turn to my ancestors for guidance. It has always worked for me.