...General Inheritance of cultural knowledge!

“Rutang bana ditaola, lo se ye le natso badimong.”  A Tswana proverb which means that elders need to teach the young while they are still alive about culture and customs so that they do not perish….

We often say, when someone close to us passes away, that he tricked us and left us without warning. Sometimes, we wistfully feel cheated by life on how they could leave us while we still need them. In our heartache and grief we make this about us and not the person who has transitioned. In exactly a month ago we have just laid uTatomncinci (my father’s youngest brother) to rest. On the day we arrived at his home to assist in preparations for his funeral, my sisters and I had a little private moment with our father to find out how he is doing, and of course to remind him to be careful and take precautions in these COVID times. We mentioned, as he is elderly, we are worried about him and assured him that we will ensure he takes all the precautions to keep him healthy while we are still there.

‘Bantwana bam, into esenqondweni yam ngoku kukwenza sure  nokwenza oko ndinako so that umfowethu angcwatywe kakuhle”,  (My children the only thing on my mind right now is to ensure I do everything I can so that my brother is buried well and in dignity) responds my father. He continued to say, “Just because sibhujele lonto leyo ayithethi into yokuba iCovid iphelile, kodwa ke umsebenzi funeke wenziwe, if andisukumi ngubani ozokwenza zonke ezizinto ezifuna ukwenziwa.” (Just because we are bereaved does not automatically mean there is no longer COVID, however the work needs to be done and if not by me then by who?)”.  He sees the worry on our faces and he hastens to assure us that he will be okay, that he is not going anywhere and further tells us how happy he is that we are here and are healthy. We carried on talking about general things and as he was about to leave he said, “yhini madoda umfowethu, ndimkhulise kanti ndizophinde ndimngcwabe. Ndishiyeke ndodwa qha ngoku.” (oh my brother, to have raised him only to bury him as well. I am now left alone), and he left the room.

I watched him the entire time, effortlessly and selflessly fulfilling his duties by ensuring everything that needs to be done before, during and after the funeral is done. I watched him sorting out things relating to the preparation of the grave, I watched him from a distance around the kraal for the slaughtering, I watched him welcoming and comforting close family members. I watched him eziko (outside open fire cooking area) with oomama, joking around with them. I see him coming to us all children cheering us up and making jokes. I watched him with Tatomncinci’s children consoling them briefly while he guides them on what needs to be done, guarding his emotions. I watched him advice and even discipline family members where he needed to. On the day of the funeral, he looks drained, “Tata utyile?” (Tata have you eaten?) I asked, he answered and I respond “Okay”. I am now not sure what he said but it was just too painful for me to look at him any further.

“Kwahlalwa phansi, kwahlelwa khona, kwagqitywa ngempilo yam” my father sings his favourite song, which means (My life was planned, perfected and completed before I was even born…) prior to delivering his speech on the day of the funeral on behalf of the family. “I am in so much pain as I am standing here but you will never see or realise how much because I am a  naturally a strong person.” I see him on stage again later together with two of his younger cousins to close the ceremony. As he does the announcements he apologetically explains that he is on stage with his young cousins to guide them on how to do things so that when his day comes they will know what to do for him and those that stay behind.

I pondered around that cryptic statement deeply and the reality of that message suddenly dawned on me. We are now adults and being an adult comes with a great deal of responsibilities. Responsibilities within our own homes, our immediate families, extended families and our communities at large. Some of these responsibilities will come naturally, some of them we learn as we go along and some will have to be passed on by our elders.

It’s time for our generation to be fully present when rituals, ceremonies and celebrations are being done as we will have to take over when our parents leave this earth. Most importantly we need to be able to pass on the knowledge to our own children and them to their own. This is the only way to make sure that we do not lose ourselves and who we are as Africans, that we keep our cultural values and traditions to pass them on to the next generations.

I believe that no matter what belief or religion you choose as an adult it does not take away the fact that you are African. Our cultural practices precedes most religions, you are African before you are Christian, you are African before you are Muslim and so forth. Culture and tradition is something that should come naturally and with ease through teachings from our parents by imitating what they do, paying careful attention to how they do things culturally. Many misconceptions about the African way of life is from our own ignorance and not being fully present to experience it, we miss out on the knowledge that we could and should have acquired through observing and assisting. We inadvertently end up losing ourselves and who we are. As Africans we share common cultural practices but there is always variances depending on many factors like geographical location, clan history, extended family and immediate family nuances. Knowing and learning general practices is equally important as knowing specifically how things are done in your immediate family as well as your extended family.

Something we have always discussed and questioned amongst ourselves as siblings and first cousins is what are we going to do when all our parents and elders in our families have passed on? Who is going to do all these family and traditional processes and works? The time has actually come now to stand and be those adults because we are now the parents and elders. We should be in a position to be able to do things our elders are doing while they are still alive, they should just be overseeing and correcting us on little details that we do wrong, all the basic things we should be mastering without guidance. Why should we only start learning on those desolate times when we have no option but to do because elders are no more, let us learn while we have the opportunity? My siblings and I are very fortunate to grow up in a family that have elders whom are well versed on the knowledge and customs of our African way of life and actively live it, and this goes for many African families. It concerns me how nonchantly we have taken this exceptional background and history, as a result we become so lost as soon as our elders depart with all that history. A history that some African children and adults are having to relearn without any elderly guidance because unfortunately that knowledge was abandoned a few generations back by intruders in Africa that deemed anything to do with African practices as immoral, uncouthed, ingenous and not to be tolerated. However, it gives me great comfort that it is never too late to learn from our elders. It is not only our parents obligation to teach us this sacred knowledge but it is also up to us to show interest, pay attention and appreciate our elders to ensure that this these sacred customs and practices are passed on to the next generation.

The past year and especially the last few months have been tough for most of us with the COVID virus tightening its grip. Everyone around me has been directly or indirectly effected by this virus, causing a lot of people to be vocally nervous and scared for their parents and beloved elders. Fearing loosing them prematurely, perturbed that they have not spent enough time with them, regretting not being able to do everything they have wanted to do for them, concerned about what will they do and how will they survive without them. My hope is that in all this anxiety and cognizance we also take responsibility to learn from them while we still have them so that we continue to live when they are gone. Let us take initiative and drink from their cup of knowledge, appreciate them, love them and ease their load of responsibilities.

“Imbila yaswela umsila ngenxa yokuyalezela,” is a Xhosa proverb which means that being lazy and waiting for things to be handed to you leads you nowhere and if you expect others to do things for you then you will get unfavourable results.

In loving memory of Mzwelanga Sodwele, phumla ngoxolo Njilo, Sgaya, Phutha, Mzwelanga, Manci, Mkhonde…..We will miss you dearly.

Leave a comment


  1. Rest “Mzwelanga” … as my Mom would affectionately call Him.

    A nice read,informative too. We keep learning Manjilo.

  2. so so many gems shared here. Rest in eternal glory to u Tatomncinci. Wc are so grateful to hear his wisdoms and your father’s passed down and shared through you Sis Thenji. Enkosi! God bless always

  3. Uphumle ngoxolo Malume…..never in my wildest dreams have I thought we will put you to rest the same year as uSisi(as you affectionately called my mother). Okwethu kukuzeka mzekweni silandele ekhondweni lenu and do even greater things.

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