Our African ancestors
Did you know?
The San and Tswana believe that the god Modimo freed Man from a waterhole in Botswana.
African ancestors, the predominant pre-colonial belief system across most of sub-Saharan Africa, is the veneration of deceased family members.
This is not the same as mourning or remembering the dead, but the belief that spirits continue to take an interest in the affairs of the living and possess the ability to influence events.
Ancestors and culture, however, is not a purely African belief system. It is found across the world from Asia and Europe to native Americans in the US and Canada. Common to all these are ensuring the continued well-being of those who have passed on so they in turn retain a positive attitude to the living for when intervention is required.
South African ancestors deal with the day-to-day affairs of the living, which is not to say there is no belief in a Supreme Being or creator. The Shangaan believe that the bird god N'wari produced the first man from an egg laid in reeds; and Unkulukulu (the old one) of Nguni belief emerged from a broken reed to create the universe, man and the creatures of Earth. One of the recorded Xhosa beliefs is that humans and animals first came from a cave 'in a land in which the sun rises'.
In most cases the Supreme Being is rather indistinct with no interest in his creation, leaving that duty to the African ancestors. For this reason the living seldom attempt to interact with or worship this deity.
An important aspect of ancestral belief is the role of the sangoma or traditional healer. Steeped in ritual, they play a central role in the health and spiritual well-being of the community. They are the interpreters through which the ancestors and the living communicate.
African ancestors communicate with the living by either possessing the sangoma or by channelling messages through thrown bones. The ancestor can also appear to the family member in dreams, but only the sangoma can decipher the meaning.