|CULTURAL HERITAGE with PATHISA NYATHI|
|Saturday, 14 July 2012 19:49|
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Babirwa: Thought behind some of their cultural practicesLast week we looked at the taboos pertaining to certain trees. We saw that the trees in question were never collected for firewood. We observed too, that some of them were trees whose thorny branches were placed on graves soon after burial. The dead needed protection from animals that might cause physical damage to the grave.
More importantly though, the dead, whose spirits continued to live, needed metaphysical protection from the malevolent persons operating at that level. The practice does appear to have been reduced in scale over the centuries. The idea was more elaborate and grandiose in the past. For example, among the Egyptians, before the arrival of the Arabs, the ruling Pharaohs built huge pyramids where their remains were entombed.
In addition to the massive and elaborate pyramids, the entrances to the pyramids were guarded by symbolic lions with human features (lion bodies and human heads). The lions kept guard over the entrance to make sure the remains of the Pharaoh within the grave were safe. The scales of operation may be different but the idea is the same — protection of the departed.
Often we fail to see parallels when we see them elsewhere in Africa. At the Khami monument a zoomorphic clay pot was unearthed within the royal enclosure. That the pot performed the same function as the sphinx at the entrance of a pyramid is never appreciated. Some Eurocentric guesses are proffered, some of them motivated by the desire to suppress the link between black Africa and early Egypt.
It will be observed that the trees used to protect the graves were not the only ones with thorns. There surely must have been some characteristics of the trees that were considered for them to be chosen. Be that as it may, the practice landed itself well as a conservational measure for the particular tees. Apparently, it was not the Babirwa only who tabooed the trees in question, other groups did so. As a result the tree species were spared by virtually all African groups.
Some Afro centrists such as Molefi Kente Asante a Ghanaian writer and thinker have argued that language essentially is the control of thought. There is some organic relationship between language and the oral traditions. The latter are passed down the generations through language, whether oral or written. The safeguarding of language, therefore, ensures the continued existence of oral traditions. Language finds continued existence when the oral traditions that it carries are safeguarded.
One of the trees is named, in SiNdebele, umlahlabantu that is, burial tree. The other is called, again in SiNdebele, isihlangu. A narrative emerges from the names of the two trees. One name gives emphasis to the fact that the tree is used during burials. Isihlangu is the SiNdebele word for shield that a Ndebele soldier used to defend himself. The said tree, therefore, provides a shield, protection, to the departed spirit, by keeping guard, like a sphinx, over the grave where the remains of the departed spirit are interred.
Let us now turn to yet another of the Babirwa practices with regard to the disposal of the umbilical cord. Different African groups dispose of their umbilical cords in unique ways. The idea is not just to get rid of the cord, but doing so in line with certain beliefs. African thought is usually exhibited through action or behaviour. This is an important duality which can be used to access the African mind by merely closely studying his traditional cultural practices.
According to Jeremiah Nyathi and Heellon Nyathi, their ancestors used to dispose of babies’ umbilical cords in the midden, esilotheni. The midden was, and still is, outside the perimeter of the homestead.
The perimeter wall or stockade as the case might be was in a sense the mark of territoriality. Ash together with household litter such as broken clay pots and gourds were collected together with the ash and thrown away at one place just beyond the perimeter wall.