For the ancestors

Centenary horns

The horns of the cow that was slaughtered to celebrate Clara’s 100th birthday, on a fence-post in her yard

I have owed you some pictures for a while now. This relates to a ceremony held in Thabisa’s village, Corana, just the other side of Mthatha. Thabs and her cousin Mazwi had both been dreaming regularly of their great-grandmother who died, aged 105, a few years ago.

It was clear to Thabs and Mazwi (and everyone else) that a ceremony was called for. It took place around new year. I have delayed writing about it because I have not been sure how to handle it. It is difficult for me to relate these things without coming across disrespectful. Because, in spite of the fact that I don’t believe any of the superstitious or religious stuff, I love the people who do.

Sheep are very quiet in the boots of cars

“I’d like to buy the sheep in East London – it is way cheaper than in Mthatha,” said Thabs. “We can just take it with us when we go.”

That was in mid-November.

Mid-December, when the planning starts to really get underway I ask if the butcher will cut the carcass up or whether we will take it whole. Thabs gives me a look. “Gail, the sheep must be alive.” Of course. I knew that. But I didn’t actually relate it to our sheep.


Close-up of her great-grandmother’s house, where Thabisa and I slept. Mthata in the background.

“It will fit fine in the boot. The guys will tie its legs together – they are good at it. We can stop in Butterworth to give it some water”.

“There is no way in hell I am having a sheep bleating in my ear all the way from East London to Corana!”

Thabs cannot believe my ignorance. “Sheep are very quiet in the boots of cars. Goats… goats go mehhhh mehhhh all the way, but sheep do not.”


We bought the sheep in Mthatha and Thabisa’s cousin, Dali, took it in a venter trailer attached to a taxi to Corana. It was maaaarginally more expensive than it would have been in East London.

Gin, tobacco and impepho


Traditional Xhosa beer, umqombothi.

The morning before we left for Mthatha, Thabs and I did some grocery shopping. We started at the bottle store and bought a bottle of gin and some boxer tobacco for Thabisa’s ancestors. Then we went to Checkers. At the check-out, the woman in the queue ahead of us saw that Thabs was holding gin and boxer tobacco. “It is a lovely thing you are doing for your ancestors. You won’t regret it. I did it last year for mine and within three months I got a nice promotion at work.”


For the ancestors: umqombothi, gin, impepho, tobacco and snuff.

Thabs and I slept that night in her great-granny’s bedroom, with the carcasses of two sheep (Mazwi bought one too) on the floor beside us. On the other side of that, next to barrels of umqomboti (Xhosa beer), were the gin and tobacco and bunches of impepho – a herb burnt to drive away evil spirits and to communicate with the ancestors. The yeasty-meaty-impepho smells were almost over powering. Thabs slept like a baby. I lay awake listening to the pop-pop-pop of umqomboti bubbling, and the buzzing of the flies and pondered the meaning of it all.

The next day

Singing. Praying. Speeches. Laughter. Good meal. Big party.

Three months later

Thabisa was offered the job that she has been angling for for the past two years. This is a fact, but I am no way linking this to anything else in this post.

Herbert's baptism certificate

On the wall in Thabisa’s great-grandmother’s house, Herbert Mtolo’s baptism certificate.

Certificate close-up

Baptism certificate, close-up. Herbert is Thabisa’s grand-father. It is his mother, Clara, that we honoured that day.

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1 Response to For the ancestors

  1. Heidi says:

    such a lovely story.

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