Clarens - Ntate Taba Tsa Badimo (the ancestors’ messenger) emerges from his enclave at the sacred Fertility Cave situated at the Motouleng Heritage Site near Clarens in the Eastern Free State.
His long and unkempt beard is twisted in long knots. The endless contours of wrinkles on his dark, brown skin tell tales of longevity.
He walks at a snail’s pace and from time to time stops to catch his breath.
“I can’t believe this man is still alive,” a soft voice whispers among the group of intrigued journalists, eager tourists, traditional healers and queen mother Mathokoana Mopeli of The Bakoena Royal Household in Qwaqwa, who are attending SANParks inaugural African Spirituality weekend at the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
The weekend hosted at the mountainous region and the Golden Gate hotel was established by SANParks to promote the rich and diverse culture of African spiritual life, as well as to educate the public about traditional leaders and the communities they live in.
Guests who have been here before are still amazed that the man, who is well over 80, is still alive and has managed to exist in the wilderness for over two decades. With each step he takes, Ntate Taba Tsa Badimo evokes emotions around him.
Several sangomas mumble praises at the sight of him.
“Makhosi! Thokoza Gogo!” they chant and kneel before the shrine and call out the names of their ancestors.
Colour-coded candles mounted on rocks blow away in the dark, dingy cave.
An enigmatic energy reverberates.
Those present are somewhat fearful of the unknown. It seems as though everyone has been teleported to the Stone Age era.
“This is unbelievable,” one tourist says.
A small community of women and men emerge from clay and stone huts and straw grass tepees built within the cave. Dogs bark and roosters crow.
Women fetch water from a river bend at the foot of the cave, while some sit and cook around the fire. In one corner, men chop wood, while others grind traditional medicine from plants they have collected.
The fertility caves have become a sacred dwelling and space for these families. It is a place where women who wish to fall pregnant go. Young executive and traditional healer Thato Tshukudu explains women are prayed for and special healing powers are used by Ntate Taba Tsa Badimo to help them in their journey.
But it’s not a one-day affair, she warns.
“They come here for a period of time in which they have to offer sacrifices and also consult with their ancestors. They are taken care of by the women here according to the traditional customs and norms,” she says.
While the fertility cave has been known to help women, Tshukudu does not guarantee that one will immediately fall pregnant.
Tshukudu says while the cave is accessible to the public, it is also home for sangomas and religious groups, and paramount respect and consideration is required for the families who reside there.
More huts and tepees stretch to the far end of the cave.
Queen mother Mopeli comforts her daughter. Sangomas gather around. They know that look. She needs to release and allow the ancestors to speak to her.
This is only a portion of what the spirituality weekend has been for tourists.
Two days earlier, they were taken through a journey of burning impepho (African incense) during the umpahlo process (spiritual invocation).
This was followed by a hiking trail at the Basotho Cultural Village where sangomas spoke about the importance of traditional medicine and wild plants' healing properties.
The deep sound of drums and clouds of dust from dancing feet during the story-telling sessions at the cultural village provide insight into African folklore.
Guests sit around the crackling fire, eating traditional food and sipping traditional beer under the light of thousands of stars that line the sky. They hear of King Moshoeshoe and attentively listen to how zebras got their stripes.
Victor Mokoena, tourism manager at Golden Gate Highlands National Park, notes the importance of the public understanding what healers do.
The highly-qualified and highly-educated sangomas all seem to have one thing in common - a deep-rooted passion for their calling and their ancestors.
As we prepare for our return home to Joburg, many guests talk about their newfound respect for African traditions and cultures.
I’m reminded of the words of American writer Ellen Goodman: “Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of.”
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