I N MPOFU (uNyandeni oMpofu)

NDEBELE religion encampassed the whole life of a person .

A child was born into it and he lived it all his life even beyond his death. When a woman was pregnant, she followed many observances which seemingly were not religious, but in fact, had religious significance .

A case in point is childlessness. The Ndebele believe that a woman who fails to bear children may be bewitched or that one of her ancestors is angry with her or merely wants to spite her because of a wrong committed by her family.

In which case an inyanga will be engaged to heal her or a family sacrifice is conducted to appease the ancestors. (Notice that this is not worship of ancestors, but a go-between process and is a sacrificial appeal for the ancestors to plead with uNkulunkulu).

The child, even at the stage of the mother’s pregnancy, is always in danger of being harmed by wizards. Some families have or acquire from an inyanga imithi yokuvikela umntwana.

The pregnant woman must be careful where she goes and must avoid making unnecessary visits. She may be required to avoid eating certain foods, to generally behave in a special prescribed manner and to observe certain rites.

Child birth is attended to by old women who have themselves gone past child bearing. Men (including the child’s father) are not allowed anywhere near the hut of a child’s birth.

Elaborate processes are followed and on delivery the umbilical cord is treated in a special way so as not to harm the child. The afterbirth (umnakwabo) is also given special attention and some families will bury it emsamo (inside at the back of the hut) while others bury it outside the homestead esidulini (ant-heap). Some are known to throw it into the river to be devoured by fish.

At this point full attention is given to the new-born child, but the most important precaution is to prevent the sinking of the fontanelle (ukuwela inkanda). Special medicines are smeared over the front of the head of the child.

This is followed by special cleansing of the child, the mother and the hut of birth in addition to all the utensils and the equipment that was used during child delivery.

There are, of course, many details that have not been mentioned here and as a man I am not supposed to know even half of what has already been written here. The most important precaution is to prevent the infant from harm.

Witches are at work all the time. Both the Ndebele and the Zulu appear to continue the same practice of strengthening the child against inkanda.

Even when a child is born in hospital nowadays when it gets home traditional treatment is given. The child’s mother is cautioned: “Ungaphika ngabafundisi loba ngamadokotela udelele isintu sakini yindaba yakho.”

A special concoction is burned and ground very finely and smeared on the front of the infant’s head. Eileen Jensen Krige in The Social System of the Zulus explains that “this substance has the power of closing the anterior fontanelle of the baby’s skull, of strengthening and making firm the bones of the skull, imparting vigour to the child’s mind, and of making the infant brave and courageous.”

Kringe gives a spiritual dimension when she explains that some of the father’s insila (dirt) was mixed with the medicine to give connection with “the iThongo or ancestral spirit of the grandfather and so of the clan”.

However, the Ndebele did in the course of time and due to geographic separation with the Zulu lose some of the elaborate processes of dealing with the care of a newly-born infant.

Other precautions to protect a child against witches and evil spirits are ukuthunqisela whereby a mixture of certain animal parts (always including hair) are mixed with certain herbs and animal droppings are burnt together to make desired smoke and the child is made to inhale the smoke. This is known as ukuthunqisela.

This is also frequently done whenever the child goes sick. Some families, as they administer the treatment, will call upon the ancestors to protect the child (bamvikele umntwana).

The most popular method of protecting the child against evil spirits was ukugqizisa intebe. Certain charms were prepared and rolled into a skin or cloth made to a string — like fashion long enough to hang round the neck of the child.

Thus it was hung round the child’s neck for a long time, maybe up to two years. This intebe was a charm against the evil spirits for fear that umntwana angawela inkanda.

In their religion, the Ndebele people strongly believed in the existence of spirits. To them there was a spiritual world beyond the mundane world. When Christians talk about the good and evil spirits, they are fully in harmony with the Ndebele.

Some Christians identify evil spirits as demons. Both the Ndebele and the Christians are unable to locate the domain of the spirit world. Both agree that spirits are active here on earth and operate among people so that some people become spirit-possessed and behave in an unnormal way.

The Ndebele and some Christian churches claim the ability to exorcise these evil spirits, the Ndebele by an inyanga and the Christians by a pastor (priest, etc).

However, there is no medical evidence that spirit possession is nothing other than dementia or some similar mental state. Jesus, of course, dealt with the Jews at the level of their beliefs.

The Ndebele and the Christians are at par in these beliefs, the difference being made only to despise or to denigrate one culture by another.

This question of the spirit poses a theological challenge and it needs to be debated widely both spiritually and intellectually.

God has revealed Himself to all cultures and, as has been shown in earlier articles the Ndebele experienced the presence of God in many ways.

If God (and because He is) a spirit the Ndebele had that sense of His being: Good spirit, beneficial (promoting a good and positive life); Bad spirit, destructive (destroying life, causing a miserable physical and spiritual life).

If anybody is interested in a joint venture and they have a deep knowledge and understanding of Ndebele religion, they are invited to join in writing about The Theology of Ndebele