Skirting the Ancestors

In the muggy heat of a summer’s day, we trekked along the gravelly hills of rural KwaZulu-Natal. Our destination was Emapepetheni, a village that welcomes visitors and educates them in the ways of traditional Zulu lifestyle. There, we danced to the drums inside the rondavels (round houses) and examined the intricate bead work, calculated how many cows it would cost to get married (it’s considerably more for virgins of high rank), took photos and heard stories. We also ate a traditional meal of some sort of deliciousness, which was greatly appreciated thanks to sweaty climbs up and down the many hills between each stop on the tour (the region’s not called the Valley of a Thousand Hills for nothing). Along the way, we also visited a traditional healer, known as a sangoma.

The sangoma’s rondavel had a certain eeriness about it. Alone on a hill and topped with a rubber tire, this was the home of the women with a direct link to the ancestors. We took off our shoes and sat on mats inside, women on one side and men on the other. A shy woman who never quite met our eyes sat between us with her legs outstretched, and in the quietness of rapt attention, began to tell us her story.


The sangoma’s rondavel.

She never wanted to be a sangoma, said the interpreter. It was a responsibility she’d rather not have taken up, but the ancestors, as they generally do, had other ideas. They afflicted her with terrible back pain until she finally accepted the task. Once she joined the ranks, the back pain subsided.

She now interprets between them and the living, much like the interpreter was doing between us and her. If someone’s cursed you, she’ll let you know. If you’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake for which there’s no medicinal cure, she has a remedy in a two-liter Coke bottle. If you’re having relationship problems and need a love potion, she has one for that, too. I was excited for the snake bite remedy, not so much for the love potion. After all was said and shown, we rose to leave… well, everyone except me.

Now I generally have poor circulation to begin with, but what happened was wholly unexpected. I had worn a knee-length skirt, which the laws of modesty required my legs to be folded to the side when we sat on the floor. This caused my legs to fall asleep. Really fall asleep. I’m talking overdosed-on-sleeping-pills, dead-on-the-floor kind of sleep. When I stood up, the blood rushed through my legs and I instantly collapsed. I felt nothing below my hips except an ethereal blend of wispy pin-pricks. It was an experience I’d never had before then and have never had since. In any event, I was stuck on that mat.

Two people helped me to my feet, and with their assistance, I hobbled from the sangoma’s hut. By the time I put on my shoes, my legs were awake and ready to hike as if nothing had happened. Life went on, as did the tour. Perhaps the momentary lapse of leg-life was caused by mischievous ancestors. Perhaps it was the skirt. If ever I were to go back, though, I’d probably wear shorts.