The Wisdom Of The Elders

Culture

The big day has finally arrived: your wedding day. Albeit with a backdrop of roaring thunder, gushing water and mud deep enough to submerge your Christian Louboutins. The throwing of the bouquet could end up resembling a mud-wrestling match and the scramble for shelter will also likely be coupled with that one aunt loudly reminding you that you, in fact, are the cause of this rain on your wedding day.

“We told you what would happen when you tasted from the pot at the reunion last year,” she exclaims. Setting the date during the rainy season obviously has little, if not absolutely nothing, to do with today's downpour.

Superstition is as ancient as the Egyptian pyramids yet, despite these beliefs coming from what could be termed "another time", some of what we call "old wives' tales" continues to endure. According to the New World Encyclopaedia online, “the term is also related to the Latin word superstes (outliving or surviving), and in this sense refers to the remains of ideas and beliefs that continued long after their original meaning had been forgotten.”

The popular, and the not-so-popular, superstitions we encounter throughout our lives as Africans seem to come from all quarters. In some ways, how we navigate our formative years and, later, how we "adult" is often subtly influenced by our encounters with a reprimanding older person’s wagging finger: “Salt must never be bought at night, or spilled, or run out at all.”

Johannesburg-based Dawn Ngwenya believes many of these superstitions, while practical, were infused with supernatural qualities to instil fear in the hope that they would later save us from harm.

“One my dad used to repeat was to not dish out of the pot while it is still simmering on the stove because your problems will always be hot and bubbling and you will never resolve them.” She adds, “The real reason for this is, obviously, that you could burn yourself while dishing from a bubbling pot.

“They also say that girls should not jump over stuff lying around and should rather pick things up in the house or they will never marry,” she said. Dawn believes that, apart from the obvious risk of tripping and falling, people felt that girls were not supposed to do things that may cause their hymen to break, as it had cultural implications with regards to "purity" before marriage. As far as Dawn is concerned, the reason why you are not encouraged to cut your nails in the evening is that, when it is dark, you may miss a clipped nail lying around and it would be unsavoury to have a visitor sit down on a sofa with bits of nail all over it.

“The funny thing is the superstitions that can be rationalised are the ones that I don’t adhere to," laughs Dawn. "It is the ones that aren’t logical that I heed. For example, because I cook a lot and consider myself a ‘foody’, I’ll often dish out from a simmering pot because what I have prepared needs to be served hot. Yet, if I sweep my home at night, I will not sweep the dirt outside. I'll park it by the door until morning. I was told growing up that, if you do that at night, you are sweeping your luck out. Bad and eerie things happen at night and if someone wanted to hurt you, that is when they will do it.”

Martin Letsie, a 25-year-old systems administrator based in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, says he absorbed these superstitions as a result of his grandmother's scolding when he was a child. “Koko was to, a large degree, spiritually gifted despite having rejected the calling to be a sangoma in her younger days. While I was living with her, she would sometimes get visions in her dreams and they would come true. Seeing that made me believe and rely on her knowledge and perspective on life.”

Superstition is as ancient as the Egyptian pyramids yet, despite these beliefs coming from what could be termed 'another time’, some of what we call ‘old wives' tales’ continues to endure.

Kwaku Gyante, a social media consultant in Gaborone, Botswana, admits that he keeps to most of the superstitions he was taught. He said that he was even told that if you wore one shoe, your mother would lose a breast. “I don't really believe in any of these but I comply with them because of how I have been conditioned," he says. "I don't think I act superstitious per se. As much as we may feel being ‘modernised’ is the best option in this age of borderless hyper-connectivity, people often cling on to traditional and cultural markers to retain their unique identity and feel a part of that identity, no matter how small.”

Superstition is pervasive in African cultures, but they are seen in all human cultures. Their spread may even be linked to migration, colonialism and transfers of customs between ethnic groups. David Chidester in his book, African Traditional Religion in South Africa (1997) claims that there are “similarities between Xhosa witchcraft beliefs and those of ancient Israel as they are recorded in the Old Testament." He thinks the two peoples may have had contact and exchanged beliefs. "Supporting this theory with reference to the history of gold mining in the region of Zimbabwe, which was supposedly undertaken by ancient Hebrews and Phoenicians, and assuming they acquired their gold in South Africa, the assertion is that the Xhosa people have, in the past, had direct connections with the Jews.”

Superstitions often centre around fortune, and how to achieve it, and misfortune, and how to avoid it. Superstitions were probably born out of a desire to make sense of events out of the control of the generations who came before us. At the same time, some continue to have a place in our world today. They obviously speak to a need, when you consider how pervasive they continue to be, even among the many modernised, educated Africans who continue to live true to the superstitions we were taught.

There are many dimensions to being African and if a respect for the lessons that the elders pass on – even if we don’t always agree – is part of what makes us African then, yes, there will be no buying of salt, from dusk ‘til dawn.

"As much as we may feel being ‘modernised’ is the best option in this age of borderless hyper-connectivity, people often cling on to traditional and cultural markers to retain their unique identity"