Bewitched Forests and Waters of the VhaVenda (part 1)

If you leave or enter the Kruger National Park through the Pafuri or Punda Maria gates, you will see the Soutpansberg, South Africa's northernmost mountain range. The name means "salt pan range", and refers to a salt lake in the west, but author T.V. Bulpin calls them the Superstition Mountains. They have earned the title at least as much as their American counterparts. Here are magical pools and waterfalls, and forests that Bulpin described as "reputedly so full of ghosts that few men dare to wander through them." Here live the Venda people, for whom, according to the traveller John Richards, "the mountains and streams - and even the trees - are inhabited by spirits." If you have driven through the Kruger National Park north of the Luvuvhu River, you have already travelled through country which the VhaVenda claim as their own. (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.)

Traditionally, Venda paramount chiefs swallow a white stone. When they die, their bodies are left to decompose on a platform until the sacred stone falls to the ground. The stone is then swallowed by the new chief. The old chief is then interred. Thus are some leaders made immortal.

The VhaVenda were the last of South Africa's indigenous peoples to lose their independence. Not until 1898, after the death of the powerful chief Makhado (Magato), did the Boer commandos finally relieve South Africa's "indomitable Gauls" of their freedom. Even this did not prevent the VhaVenda from burning the town of Louis Trichardt during the South African War of 1899-1902. When Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, the white people of South Africa had been in total control of South Africa for less than a century.

One of the Boer commandos was said to have been defeated by stone-throwing zwidudwane ( ditutwane ). Zwidudwane are half human. Literally. One half of them is in the spirit world, invisible to humans. Unless you are a priest of the Netshiavha ( Netshiava )clan, even to see their human halves means certain death. Zwidudwane are affectionate towards each other. So, if you give youself a hug, you could be mistaken for embracing zwidudwane, and cause a panic.

Zwidudwane ( ditutwane ) are fond of venison, and dig game pits. Having only one eye in the human world, however, they lack a sense of depth, and often fall into their own holes. You should, therefore, be very careful before answering calls for help emanating from holes in the ground.

On a flat rock above the Phiphidi Waterfall, offerings are left for the zwidudwane ( ditutwane ). They are heard taking the gifts to the pool at the foot of the waterfall, which is on the Mutshindudi River.At night, the sound of drumming and singing emanates from the pool, which is called Guvhukuvhu. Venda chiefs of the Sibasa (or Chivase) clan are buried here, and their spirits enter the birds and the fish. When war looms, the waters of the pool turn red as blood, and for the fey, the pool acts as a sort of crystal ball.

If you wander alone in the Soutpansberg, you may come across malicious zwidhanyani. These are spirits which appear as disembodied limbs, heads or eyes. In Venda folklore, a mischievous being called Sankhimbi is often the central character.

Among the VhaVenda, even beads may be sacred. They treasure glass beads which are undoubtably of ancient origin, as they were cut from tubes after they cooled down, a practice not used by skilled glassmakers for many centuries. Each such bead is said to contain the spirit of an ancestor. Sometimes, the spirit may be seen as a cloud inside the glass. Among the most valued are the Vhulungu ha Madi ("beads of the water"), the colours of which are various shades of blue, grey or green. Then there are the long, white Limaanda ( Limanda )beads. Limaanda means "the powerful one". In the most valuable bead strings, all of the beads were cut from the same glass tube, and the beads are strung in the same order that they were cut from the tube. The irregular sides of each bead can actually fit into its neighbours'. This results in a blending and merging of colours, as there were colour variations even within the same tube.

The chief deity of the VhaVenda is Raluvhimba, an eagle god or supreme lightning bird. During thunderstorms, Raluvhimba may appear as a fireball, speaking in thunder, but disappears if approached. Rainmaking priestesses propitiated Raluvhimba beneath a sacred marula tree, on the equally sacred Thononda Hill ( Tonondo Hill ), overlooking Lake Fundudzi. Perhaps they still do. Lesser lightning birds are sometimes the familiars of witches.

Surrounding Lake Fundudzi, on the R523 between Thohoyandou and Makhado, is the Thathe Vondo forest. Actually, some of the forest is now farmland, including a tea estate. In this area are the Mahovhovho waterfall and the often misty Sacred Forest, where chiefs of the Thathe clan are buried. The Sacred Forest is so full of spirits that few Venda people dare to walk through it. The forest's hauntings include a white lion, spirit of the chief Nethathe, and a lightning bird called Ndadzi.

Lake Fundudzi is the most sacred place in these mountains. It is so sacred, in fact, that when you approach the lake, your first view of it should be from between your legs. Permission to visit the lake shore is rarely granted to tourists, but the lake may be seen from one of the roads in the surrounding mountains. The lake, on the Mutale River, was formed by a landslide. It is said that the sacred water of the lake will not mix with normal water. Because there is no obvious outlet, the lake was believed to be bottomless as far as the human world is concerned.

In Johannesburg's Mail and Guardian of October 28,1999, Fundudzi is described as a zombie lake, where "buried ancestors are said to come alive at night and play drums beneath the water." Like the Haitians, the VhaVenda believe that a corpse has no shadow, and this is how the undead may be recognised. A village is submerged here, and the inhabitants may be heard going about their daily business. If the water is clear, their subaquatic activities may even be seen. It is said that when the waters of the lake were observed to be rising, villagers would leave the old and sick behind, and move to higher ground. It was believed that the spirits of the lake were claiming the frail villagers for a better existence beneath the waters.

The fish and crocodiles here are inhabited by spirits. At one time, one of the crocodiles was white.

The sacred python, bringer of fertility, also dwells beneath these waters. Sometimes, it is also described as being white. This snake once required human wives. When it lived on the surface, it visited them at night, when it could not be seen. One day, an inquisitive wife did see it, and her terror so mortified the python that it fled into the lake. This caused a terrible drought, which only ended when the curious wife walked into the lake to join her serpentine husband. To prevent more droughts, maidens in subsequent years were sacrificed in the same way.

Nowadays, I presume, the python god is more easily placated. Offerings of beer are still made, but those who take the offerings into the lake are tied by a rope. This is just in case the offerings are rejected and zwidudwane ( ditutwane ) try to pull the supplicants beneath the water.

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Bewitched Forests and Waters of the VhaVenda (part 2)


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