Bewitched Forests and Waters of the VhaVenda (part 2)

Also performed to honour the sacred python is the dance which climaxes the girls' Domba initiation rituals. The dance takes place in the spring of the southern hemisphere, but not at every village, as they have to wait until there are enough girls of initiation age. About thirty girls are needed to perform the dance, but on some occasions, hundreds have taken part. (I am indebted to Mr Victor Rambau for the correct TshiVenda spellings of some words and place names. For the benefit of visitors who may be searching by means of incorrect spelling that sometimes appear in literature, I shall sometimes put the incorrect spelling in brackets.)

The dance is performed in an open area of the village called the khoro. On the khoro is a ritual fire, which must be lit by a medicine man. At one time, the fire was never allowed to go out, but that tradition has fallen away. The master of ceremonies calls out "tharu ya mabidigami" ("the python uncoils"), and to the deep rhythm of the ngoma drum, and the smaller mirumba drums, the girls writhe in a slow conga, to imitate the motion of the python.

During initiation ceremonies, the girls wear only the briefest of loin coverings, as it is their purity, not clothing, which protects their virtue. This does not mean that they are not allowed to deliberately make themselves attractive. The area between the tops of the buttocks is called the mutja-mbelo ("heart stealer"), and when a girl sees an attractive man, she discreetly pulls down the back of her garment as far as she dares.

The main male initiation ceremony is the Murundu, in which boys aged about ten to twelve are circumcised and, over a period of months, taught manly behaviour. Among most tribes which practice circumcision, the boys know what to expect, and are encouraged to show their courage by lying still and not showing pain. This reduces the risk of rather nasty accidents. Among the VhaVenda, however, the custom has been to keep the practice secret from the boys before the rite, and to swear them to secrecy afterwards.

The ceremony has been described by the anthropologist Peter Becker. One by one, the boys in their ignorance are led to a bloodstained stone. The supervisors of the ritual make a loud noise, so that the screams of pain and terror are not heard by the other boys. While the writhing boy is held down, he is circumcised by a medicine man using a spearhead.

You may ask how this practice could be kept secret from the boys for so long. For one thing, in the past, the land of the VhaVenda has been relatively isolated, so the boys did not travel far. Also, they had little access to media from which they could learn the truth. More significantly, and amazingly, the Venda did not practice this ceremony, or even circumcision, until well into the twentieth century. It seems that especially in the early days, it was not even experienced "surgeons" who circumcised the struggling youths.

Hopefully, the inevitable spread of knowledge will wipe out the surprise, if not the circumcision itself. I have read that South African surgeons have had to perform more than their fair share of cosmetic penis-lengthening operations, after botched traditional circumcisions. To be fair, the VhaVenda were not specifically mentioned in the article.

Among the VhaVenda live the VhaLemba ( Lemba people ), who have always practiced circumcision. They have been called "black Jews". They have kosher butchers, and do not eat pork. They were valued by the VhaVenda for their skills in trading, mining, pottery and metalwork. They claim to have been the masons responsible for the building of the Zimbabwe structures. They believe that they came from a place across the sea, called Sena, via what is now the town of Sena in Mozambique. There is a Sena in Yemen, and in the highlands of eastern Zimbabwe are terraced structures which, unlike the Zimbabwe ruins themselves, are believed by archaeologists not to have been built by indigenous African people. There are identical terraced farming structures in Yemen. Less spectacular terraced structures are found in Venda itself. A few years ago, genetic tests proved that the priests of the VhaLemba ( BaLemba ) are indeed members of the priestly caste of Judaism, i.e. descendants of Aaron.

The VhaVenda are an offshoot of the Rozvi-Karanga people of Zimbabwe. There are ruins in the far north of South Africa which originated in the Zimbabwe culture. They are Mapungubwe, where a treasure of finely crafted gold artifacts was found, Verdun and Dzata. Dzata is said to have been built by Dzhembeu ( Ndyambeu ), also called Dimbanyika, whose father led the VhaVenda into the Soutpansberg. This was a golden age for the VhaVenda. However, according to one version of the story, Dzhembeu had three ambitious sons. While they were all out hunting, one of the sons trapped his father and brothers in a cave. The young men managed to dig themselves free, but they left their father behind. There he sleeps like King Arthur, his beard growing through the rocks, until his people deserve another golden age. His sons battled for supremacy. The victor, Phophi, called himself Thohoyandou ("head of an elephant"), and the present capital of Venda is named after him. When Venda chiefs are buried, their heads are turned towards their Camelot, the ruins of Dzata.

At various places near the Kruger National Park, from the Limpopo to Swaziland, are what appear to be giant human footprints. In at least one case, they cannot be engravings, or the result of weathering, as the prints are surrounded by solidified splashes, as though the feet had stepped on wet cement. The prints, say the VhaVenda, were made when the world was young, by a being called Khuswane. Animal prints also seem to be embedded in rock. These prints are found at Ha Luvhimbi, Makonde (next to the Mudaswali River) and Mphephu. A site that can be visited is Kokwane Prehistoric Footprints, on the R523 near Makhado, north of the Soutpansberg.

The number of alleged sorcerers (vhaloi) burned in South Africa's Northern Province (Limpopo) every year is cause for concern, but apparently it does not happen much among the VhaVenda themselves. However, vhaloi ( baloyi )are still feared. Some vhaloi are vampires. It is the job of ngangas (witch doctors) to identify vhaloi, so that they can be neutralised. Often, these sorcerers carry out their crimes while they are asleep, and are not conscious of their evil or their power. For this reason, the accused does not always dispute the findings of the witch doctor. A tip from a sorcerer: if you want clear skies, wave a hyena's tail. This will raise strong winds, and prevent rain clouds from gathering.

Although there is some overlapping of training and function, not all witch doctors are medicine men, or vice versa. Witch doctors rely primarily on supernatural skill, whereas medicine men are also skilled herbalists. Although witch doctors without herbal skills may be consulted by sick people, as sickness is thought to be caused by sorcery, real medicine men are usually more expensive. By appointment, you may visit the famous medicine man Tshikovha, at the village of Sagole. Some people go to Sagole for the hot spring. Also nearby is South Africa's largest tree, a baobab with a circumference of forty-three metres.

The baboons on Lwamondo Hill, on the R524 between Tshakhuma ( Tshakuma ) and Shayandima, are sacred. In times past, they warned the Lwamondo clan of approaching enemies.

North American visitors may be interested to know that early in the twentieth century, one of the policemen who patrolled north of the Soutpansberg was a native American called Billy Eagle. He came to South Africa to help his Canadian countrymen fight the Boers, but found a new wilderness to explore. A powerful man, he was especially admired for his tracking skills. One day, he was pulled from his horse by a lion. He killed the lion with his bare hands, but his wounds became infected, and his adventurous life came to an end.

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