The ancestors are dead. Let’s move on


The ancestors are dead. Let’s move on

Whether it’s called ancestor-worship, ancestor-veneration, the cult of ancestors, or simply leveraging the dead to authenticate whatever present or future state of affairs we hold dear, spirits of the pasts are difficult to prove, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


I HAVE been catching up on Sylvia Vollenhoven’s fascinating writing and intriguing explorations of her ancestral heritage. They revealed just how disconnected I am from things spiritual, supernatural, and from ancestral longing — which, I believe, is different from understanding one’s heritage and family history.

I first came across Vollenhoven’s book, The Keeper of the Kumm: Ancestral longing and belonging of a Boesmankind, a few years ago, and never quite engaged with the work. This is not to say the topic is not important; I just have not had the time to read it thoroughly, to situate it within the multiplicity of contexts that shaped Vollenhoven’s passages into her ancestral heritage, and to place it beside my own ideas about family, heritage and a lifetime’s senses of displacement, longing and craving for belonging.

Two things that have stood out, from her cross-platform initiative, are a type of ancestor-worship and a belief in things supernatural. I don’t have an interest in either, and without minimising Vollenhoven’s inquiry and findings, I am unable to understand spirituality and ancestor-worship.

There are too many questions about authenticity, meaning and the existence of human beings that make it difficult to consider spirituality with any seriousness. It is too similar to the belief that you either have faith or you don’t, and that that is why you are able or unable to believe in a supernatural god.

This is not to say that I am not moved when I look at the night sky, consider the way it all started 13.7-billion years ago, and remember how everything we are made of comes from collapsed stars.

I first met Vollenhoven in the mid-1980s when we worked as journalists on the stories of our times. I don’t think we have met over the past three decades or more. The Keeper of the Kumm reminded me of Vollenhoven, of our times as journalists. And last month, when the University of Cape Town’s Institute for Humanities hosted a launch of the book, I was reminded of my own searches for my family history and the story of my forebears.

My quest began when I was 12 or 13 and I resumed it about a decade ago. It has been more genealogical, and my files now include written and oral history, family and official records and DNA analysis. I rarely completely trust the stories told by my parents, grandparents and the extended family. I should not accuse them of fabulism, but memory is less reliable than official documentation. All of this is for another time, however; suffice to say, there are persistent and durable diasporic attempts to reconnect and identify ties to heritage and origins.

Ancestor-worship in practice

Ancestor-worship includes the belief that individuals or groups of individuals, or cultural groups, share a history and ancestry. The shared history and ancestry provide people with “common historical references and shared cultural codes” which, in turn, provide readily identifiable groups with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning.

That we have ancestors is not terribly profound. It's the worship part that is hard to understand. And communicating with them defies all the laws of physics. There really is nothing after death.

Ancestor-worship is practised across traditional societies, most notably, in my experience, across Central, East and South East Asia. In that extended region I have had encounters with communities that practise ancestor-worship, and I took part in rituals of ancestor-worship in Bornean villages and in Western China. It seemed, to my unscholarly eye, that ancestor-worship, especially rituals such as secondary burials, was deeply ingrained in communities. In most cases, prayers were offered to ancestors out of respect and gratitude, and in the hope of good harvests and protection of the living.

I should stress these visits were not anthropological, or part of the travels of some orientalist wanting to gaze at others from an occidental position. For what it’s worth, I have no knowledge of ancestor-worship in South Africa, but I can say with some confidence that it is practised within most religious and cultural groups around the world.

We should probably differentiate between people who worship the dead (in Mexico, and parts of South America, the Day of the Dead is a celebration of life) and those who worship their own ancestors (who are dead). In some communities the rituals of ancestor-worship are considered fundamental for “staying in touch” with “roots”. In Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, the indigenous people promote harmonious coexistence in a multicultural setting without ignoring their ancestors. Honouring their ancestors helps to strengthen “spiritual connections”, and tracing ancestral roots secures links to ancient civilisations.

I can probably be accused of imagining ancestor-worship, understood as a universal practice, as too mystical and associated with spirits, ghosts, souls or “visions” — and the dead. I will say this, though: it is almost never clear which ancestors we should worship. How far back does ancestry go?

All we can say with certainty is that ancestor-worship focuses on deceased forebears, but not which forebears. This makes Vollenhoven’s exploration and her work mightily intriguing.

Spirits in a material world

There is a cruel Promethean twist to ancestor-worship when it is inspired by communication with spirits and associated with people in a material world. You face the problem of giving life to an idea that is based on spiritual messages, or “spiritual healing”, and half-truths that are untested and confirmed as universal truths.

This is not to say individuals or groups of people do not have claims to ethnic, racial or religious identity. It simply is an expression of my  incredulity that words or messages from voices of the past are channelled through sorcerers, sages and sangomas.  

As with belief in a creator, it requires faith to believe in sangomas, or “traditional healers” who would have us believe the illnesses that befall us are because we have neglected ancestors. People can believe what they wish.

A website dedicated to Africa Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness, a performance of song and dance (for “Kings, Presidents and members of the public” around the world), describes sangomas and their links to ancestors in the following manner:

During times of celebration or an Initiation, the possessed sangoma is called to dance and celebrate their ancestors. The sangoma will fall into trance where the ancestors will be channelled, signified by episodes of convulsive fits, followed by the singing of ancestral songs. These songs are echoed back to the ancestor via the audience in a process of call and response. The possessed sangoma will then change into their traditional ancestral clothing and dance vigorously while others drum.

Vollenhoven’s book, it is said, “unearths a history that speaks to her: first in the language of a long, nameless illness without conventional cure, and then in the Calling of her Ancestors… The book… is a historic and modern quest, interwoven in a story that crosses the flimsy boundaries between worlds, in search of healing."

We should not traduce Vollenhoven’s search for healing. I have suffered a chronic disease from the age of three months, and no amount of prayer, shamanic ritual or any supernatural intervention can cure it. It is modern medicine and science that has made it possible for me to live something of a normal (healthy) life. It is the spirituality that is befuddling. Sangomas are umbilically connected to spiritualism. In defence of spiritual healers and spiritual healing, Gogo Dineo Ndlanzi self-describes as an “African spiritual healer, teacher and trained sangoma”.

It is this spiritual element that is hard to accept or even understand. Actually, I am unconvinced that the dead, ghosts, spirits or supernatural entities play any part in the material world, let alone actually exist. Given the toxicity of public discourse in South Africa, I should insist, over and again, that people can believe what they want to believe.

But whether it’s called ancestor-worship, ancestor-veneration, the cult of ancestors or simply leveraging the dead to authenticate whatever present or future state of affairs we hold dear, spirits of the past are difficult to prove.

(As a footnote, I have been following whatever progress has been made with “the grand unification” of physics and spirituality for at least three decades, and have yet to get past the pop-science of Deepak Chopra and his pseudo-scientific “quantum healing” — the new snake oil.)

There may be value in accepting that our circle of understanding and compassion, and our ability to embrace all living things in nature, can be enhanced by considering spiritual beliefs. I explained above the immense spirituality I feel when I look at the night sky and remember that we, human beings and everything that surrounds us, are made of the same stuff.

There is no evidence of ghosts, spirits or a supernatural supreme being. You need faith to believe that any of this exists. This immediately excludes the faithless, and is one of the most disingenuous conversation-stoppers. As a friend once told me, “you have to believe that it [homeopathy] will heal you for it to work”. That was the end of that conversation.

To suggest that we are able to communicate with the dead, or with spirits of our ancestors, verges on necromancy. It is simply delusional. It becomes more absurd when we use instrumental trans-communication; imagine having your god or an ancestor who died 300 years ago on speed dial. Never mind.

Vollenhoven’s work is important, socially and politically, in a country that is becoming increasingly fragmented. Fault lines run between races, ethnic and language groups, and minority groups — including people who self-describe as Khoi-San, coloured, mixed, Malay, Indian or white — are becoming increasingly marginalised. Though we should bear in mind power relations that continue to shape our political economy.

This is not a book review. I have tried to deal with two things which I think are problematic. The first is ancestor-worship, and the other is the claims of communicating with spirits of long-dead people. It is hard to be convinced of either.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you! 

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.