My first memory of the ritual slaughter of an animal at my parent’s home is that the traditional ceremony was blemished by the presence of too much concrete in our backyard and the proximity of the “stop nonsense” that separated our new suburban home from our neighbours. The sheep were out of place in this space, in this neighbourhood where threats to the peace would be curtailed by calls to the police and what we feared on this particular day — the SPCA.
But the neighbouring children only stuck their heads over the wall in awe, watching my sisters and I on all fours, dress hems tucked under panties and fists clenched on top of the dead animals, separating the meat from the wool.
Slaughtering a sheep is a quick, effortless process out of which bleed easily attainable feelings of satisfaction. There are no difficult emotions to wrestle down because sheep don’t “speak’’ in an ancestral sense, the way cows, goats or even chickens do. So when my family slaughtered a cow for the first time in my adult life last weekend, I did not know what to expect. But I did not expect the tension would make us cry.
The ceremony was in honour of my father, who died 10 years ago. It was a gesture to say that, even though he is no longer with us, we are grateful for his and other ancestors’ presence in our lives over the past 10 years. The decision to sacrifice a cow, which was named Vumani, was my mother’s and we supported her in it, not knowing what this meant to the other side.
For the ceremony to be deemed successful, the cow has to bellow, which means the ancestors accept the gift. The beast is meant to fall early in the day in case the ceremony does not go well; that is, the beast does not bellow. If that happens, which is catastrophic, the elders will have time to consult igqirha (a traditional healer) to find out why the beast has not bellowed and to try again on the same day.
Because it is not unusual for the cow to not bellow, people were nervous that amaKhwane would not accept this gift for whatever reason. When my sisters and I arrived at our rural home, the mood was serious. We don’t have many men in my family — one male cousin is the trusted guide for family rituals that require us to speak to the silent people in a language and tones that they can hear. This time he, as the ntlabi, was responsible for stabbing the beast. If it did not bellow, his life was over, or at least that’s how seriously he took it.
The procedure started with a song about our clan amaKhwane — about how happy we are, about how good we are, about how strong we are — in a room where the tiled floor was covered with long brown wreaths of grass. Prayers were prayed. Statements were pushed out into the ether and grand declarations were made, for darkness to waiver and light to prevail in our name today. We went round and round in a circle singing one song, as if we were sewing a blanket that would cover the young man as he performed this ritual.
When a band of male cousins, whom I met only three years ago, dressed in white blankets and beads from head to toe, stood up to surround the ntlabi, whose face at this point was covered in an indistinguishable mixture of sweat and tears, we prepared to walk out to the kraal where Vumani was waiting for us. When we arrived, the beast stood alone in the huge kraal, tied to a piece of wood, horns ready for battle.
We, a party of about 30 people, continued to sing as my cousin, carrying the family spear, walked into the kraal followed by a group of men who would help him hold the beast down. There was a long silence as they wrestled the animal down, tying its front leg to its horns and positioning it on its side where its belly would be exposed.
The ntlabi approached the animal and started prodding it with the sharp end of his spear. It looked as if he was looking for the perfect place to pierce it but he was searching for the spot that would make the cow bellow. He pushed and prodded and the cow didn’t below.
Tensions rose around the kraal as mothers went back into the house in fear and the crowd murmured out of tune. “Uzawuvuma Vumani,’’ said members of the crowd and I joined in with “vuma Vumani’’. Then a chant started, “vuma Vumani’’, as my cousin tried to pull a cry from the cow. After a while, the cow let out a short cry, which sent the women shrieking.
I wasn’t satisfied. It was typical of my father to want to be begged and pleaded with.
When Vumani eventually let out a long, loud bellow, and then another, the tears fell from the men and women standing around the kraal, including me.
I think my tears came as a soothing relief that my life has this appendage. That in the moments when I’m in desperate disillusion with the absurdity of Jo’burg life, the pathetic paucity of joy in urban life, the misery of being a woke feminist slayer — at least I have an ancient repository of knowledge and life to which to anchor my desires for a more profound experience of existence.
Iimbali, a regular column by me in the M&G, is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis.