Complex Histories, Multiple Voices

Written by Heather Wares

IMG_5131In Venda mythology, there is a legendary drum, said to have been made powerful by the ‘God’ Mwali, which when sounded before a battle ensured the demise of the enemy. Mwali is said to have been a king who communicated with the people through a high priest. Before speaking, the drum of Mwali would sound releasing its spiritual powers. The legend goes that because of fighting among his subjects, Mwali punished the people by sounding the drum loudly, resulting in the death of many people. With continued strife, eventually Mwali is said to have left to live under the earth. On his leave, a smaller drum with the same name, was given to his son Tshilume and possessed the same magic and killing power of the big drum used by Mwali himself.[1]

In a time of human migration from North to South, it is this legendary magic and killing power of the drum that continued to surface within oral histories, explaining the force and power that leaders like Dimbanyika had when usurping territory from the Southern chiefdoms. It is also said that the original inhabitants of the country surrendered freely because of the fear instilled by the reputation of the drum for killing many previous communities merely by it being sounded.[2] Any battle lost was attributed to the drum falling to the ground, which was forbidden, or being stolen by rival chiefdoms.

IMG_4504The story of Dimbanyika and the sacred drum of Mwali illustrate how a historical narrative can be told in various ways. Venda history is complex, encompassing migration, mythology and the importance of deep rooted belief systems in the recounting of this history. It brings to the fore the importance of engaging with communities in a way that allows people to express their own historical narrative in their own way. So often histories are told through the official documentation and from the perspective of those in power at the time it is written. Although official records are useful and often a good starting point for historical research, as I found out with the research for this project, it often silences the voices of the individual community members. One of the objectives of the Lake Fundudzi Management Project was to collect these silenced narratives to better understand how the various villages regarded Lake Fundudzi within their own histories and belief systems. Was it a site of natural beauty, a site of historical importance, a sacred site or merely an important natural resource?

The approach to collecting these narratives was a relatively unique one in the case of heritage management strategies. A questionnaire was designed and then circulated in the various villages by practiced field workers. The answers were collated to provide quantifiable statistics which would inform a potential heritage management plan. To pull this off a team of individuals from varied expertise and backgrounds came together. This multi-disciplinary or multi-perspective approach created a platform from which innovative ways of thinking could emerge. As with any innovation, there were challenges which accompanied this approach. With many of the team members not from heritage backgrounds, in order to prepare the team to achieve the best possible outcome, my role as the historian providing a historical context became more central. I saw my role not only as providing an historical context of Venda and Lake Fundudzi but also how the heritage field had been involved. It is with this in mind that I first approached my role as historical researcher for the project.

It was clear from the beginning that there was a logical place to begin my digging, the registry at the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). My first encounter with Lake Fundudzi was in 2011 when I started working at SAHRA. One of my first assignments was to assist in the organisation of a public participation workshop in a town close to the Lake. I found myself entering into the last stages of a 15 year process of the declaration of a National Heritage site. My decision to begin with official records soon sparked a second decision, to start from the present and walk my way into the past. Better to start with the familiar with what I soon realised would lead me into a complex history of migration, settlement, and most glaring, conflict over territorial ownership and political leadership.

IMG_5072Through the public participation workshop I had experienced firsthand, albeit through a translator, the complexities of the issue of ownership surrounding Lake Fundudzi. The SAHRA records painted a similar picture, most interesting were the written objections submitted in the last few weeks of the process, after the official intention to declare Lake Fundudzi a National Heritage Site had been announced. These objections revealed strong opinions of the Lake being a sacred site of the Vhatavhatsindi royal family, a place to perform burial rituals and to communicate with the ancestors. The main argument of these objections was the incompatibility of a heritage site and a sacred site, stating that no sacred site could be a heritage site as it would be disrespectful to the ancestors. This posed many questions for myself and the team: why were these objections only surfacing now after all of the proper processes of public participation and allowances for objections had been followed? Which leaders and communities had been included in the consultation process? How do I better understand the leadership and ownership conflicts of the area? And where do belief systems fit into a historical context?

These questions lead me to start looking into the human history of Limpopo in general and Venda more specifically. As I read more, I began to realise just how complex Venda history is. The history was also difficult to follow as it was not presented as a linear history on a timeline. Rather the history was told as a series of significant events and achievements of leaders. It is this which has prompted, too often, the disregard of these historical accounts in official histories as they were deemed unreliable. Another feature of historical narratives, often recounted through the oral tradition, is the intertwining of mythology and history. The story of the drum of Mwali demonstrates this well, with the defeat of the great Dimbanyika explained by the drum falling to the ground. By attributing his defeats to the anger of a God-like power, the legendary power and strength of the leader is kept intact. Without rituals and taboos followed, the magic of the drum was evoked and the power shifted from one leader to another, explaining succession.

IMG_4644A respect for rituals and taboos seemed to be a constant theme throughout my research. It is here that it is important to point out that at first Lake Fundudzi was nominated as a natural heritage site, and only later as a cultural heritage site. This connecting of environment and culture is an interesting concept, as in other parts of South Africa it is clear that these are often seen as one and the same. When looking into research papers on Limpopo, Venda and Lake Fundudzi, it seemed that the environmental importance of the Lake and other natural environments such as waterfalls and forests started to influence cultural belief systems and the rituals performed. The argument to explain this states that in order to protect the natural resource from degradation, leaders introduced taboos and rituals restricting access or over use. Understanding this connection between nature and culture, gives insight into the strong place cultural belief systems and taboos have in the telling of a history and the governing of a territory.

The purpose of this short insert has not been to recount these various and conflicting histories, there is simply not enough space to do the history justice. It has been rather to make a comment, through my own experience, on the complexities and importance of historical research in a project such as this one. Although official records are available, I soon realised that even these were limited. In order to give the project team as informed a historical context as possible it was important to delve into the way in which local perspectives were produced. Understanding the way in which a historical narrative through oral history within Venda tradition is recounted, with non-linear timelines, the use of mythology and the interweaving of nature and culture, would best serve the team in the field. In this way they would have better insight into how and why local perspectives are produced. This in turn would help the team design an effective research tool in the way of a questionnaire which could result in deeper and possibly more accurate data. Of course I had no way of knowing if this would be the case or if I had taken the correct approach. As I handed my written historical context over and met with the various team members to talk them through my research, I hoped I had sufficiently prepared them.

[1] A.G. Schutte. Mwali in Venda, 112.

[2] A.G. Schutte. Mwali in Venda, 113.

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“Shooting at the Moon?”

Out very first ACHA publication is being released tomorrow during our round table event in Cape Town, The focus is on shaping the heritage agenda in the country by engaging in what sustainable heritage resource management can be. The ACHA team involved in the Lake Fundudzi project funded by the National Heritage Council will be sharing their experiences from this project with the participants. We look forward to having rich and meaningful discussions with fellow practitioners 🙂

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Statistical Story telling: Lake Fundudzi

Authored by: Ian Durbach

We’ve just wrapped up the final analysis of the data collected during the fieldwork component of the Lake Fundudzi project. As some of the previous posts have pointed out, the data collection was not without its challenges. Despite these, or maybe because of them, the results we’ve found are exciting, and tell a story that is clear without being, we think, overly simplistic. From the perspective of a statistician who has worked a lot with survey data, I’ve never seen such a consistent picture emerging. Every single person we spoke to was in favour of the declaration of Lake Fundudzi as a heritage site. Ordinary people in the area overwhelmingly see it as a means of economic upliftment. They are clear that unemployment is a massive concern, and given even our simple questions around economic activity it isn’t hard to see why. Unemployment in our sample is around 80%. More than half of households have no breadwinners. More than 90% of our respondents receive government grants, often as their sole source of income.

IMG_5080Intertwined with the main thread of this story though, is the story of the cultural significance of Lake Fundudzi. Of course it is much easier to express economic needs, which have to do with visible outcomes like food, roads, and water, than cultural ones, so one has to look a little bit harder for the signs, but not too hard. Only 10% of the people explicitly said the lake was culturally important to them, but this is something of a red herring, we think. Double that number voiced concerns that development may anger ancestors, and many more said that the ancestors would not be angered, but only because it was taken as given that they would be consulted first. Half of all respondents said that previous disagreements had concerned disrespecting the sacred nature of the lake. Nearly everyone said that the lake “needed protection”.

Thus while there is an unmistakable need for economic development in an area with little other immediate prospects for achieving this, any development must be done responsibly, with a clear understanding of the significance of the Lake for people in the vicinity. Quite how this is to be done can only be decided in consultation with those living in the area. But we are hoping that we might have, found some way of starting this process, by showing leaders in the area that, despite all the past disagreements and delays in deciding the future of Lake Fundudzi, there is, among the people themselves, a remarkably consistent set of desires.

 

Welcome back!

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The ACHA team involved in the Lake Fundudzi Management Plan project welcomed back a triumphant (if not travel weary) Lusanda from her 3 week expedition through all the villages in the Lake Fundudzi catchment area. We met for most of the day on Saturday to look at pictures and hear her stories about being in the field, the people she met, the situations encountered and exploring emerging themes around this very important and sensitive landmark in South Africa. It was a very successful field work trip! Lusanda will be working on her field work report for the next week or so and Ian Durbach will be analysing the data collected through the data collection tool that the team created for the purpose of this project. It is going to interesting to see what information emerges from the data analysis process and the field work reflection report!

Careful what you (don’t) wish for

On the other side of this hill lies Lake Fundudzi

On the other side of this hill in Tshivha lies Lake Fundudzi

Fully aware that I was going into an area that is steeped in tradition, the singular thing I was most nervous about (and extremely uncomfortable with) going into this project was the protocol involved when greeting traditional leaders. I have seen on television how women prostrate themselves in front of the chieftaincy in greeting. All hopes that this practice was only expected of local women was dashed by a colleague, who told me that she had to lie on the floor a couple of times when greeting traditional leaders during a past visit to the area.

After much prayer and supplication I was at peace with it. I actually started to imagine myself lying on the floor, on my side, in a semi-foetal position, with my hands  together. By the time I left for Limpopo it was no longer an issue. I had mentally prepared myself to ‘do as the Vendas do’.

As it happened, the first appointment on the morning after my arrival was with Chief Netshiavha (of Tshiavha village) and his advisers. Of all the villages surrounding Lake Fundudzi, the Tshiava royal family is the only one that practices rituals in the lake.

Me, Ramudingane, Queen (Nemakonde's colleague), 5th from the left is Chief Netshiavha,

Lusanda, Ramudingane, Queen (Nemakonde’s colleague), Chief Netshiavha (5th from the left), Nemakonde (3rd from the right), the chief’s entourage, and Dog

Prior to my arrival, my chaperone-cum-translator-cum-research assistant, Edward Ramudingange had informed the local economic development manager, Nemakonde about the project. Nemakonde set up meetings for us with the relevant chiefs so that we could inform them about the project and request permission to conduct interviews in their villages. His laying of the groundwork was really appreciated as it played a big role in speeding up the consultation process. To quote Nemakonde, “When you do things smart the result will be smart.” Smart move too on Ramudingane’s part to contact him in the first place.

Me and Edward Ramudingane

Lusanda and Ramudingane

So ready was I for the prostration that I wore my darkest sarong. (I’ve learnt from past projects where I’ve spent weeks doing field work in rural villages that the easiest things to pack/wear/wash are sarongs and tops. In the sarongs I have a sensible skirt, scarf, shawl, head wrap and shade – all in one.)

When we entered the chief’s kraal we were shown into an empty rondaval and offered chairs. This was unexpected as I’ve seen on television women sit on the floor while only the men took chairs. As I was about to sit on a chair Nemakonde stopped me and directed me to another chair. Only then did I notice that the chair I was about to sit on was the only one in the room that had a leopard print cloth over it. I nearly sat on the chief’s chair!

Some minutes later four men entered the room.  Everybody who was already inside sprung off their chairs and got on their haunches, hands together, and started murmuring something I could not decipher. I did the same, except the sounds coming out of my mouth were more humming (with lips moving) than murmuring. During the haunched murmuring, which seemed to last forever, I remember thinking, “Thank God I started exercising again last week after many many months or there is no way I would be able to stay on my haunches for this long!”)

We had a very productive meeting, where it was agreed that later in the week we would consult with the Lake Fundudzi steering committee, which is made up of representatives from some of the villages surrounding the lake.

The following day we were scheduled to meet another chief, so I wore another dark sarong in preparation for the prostration. Unbeknownst to me, he was the paramount chief, Chief Kennedy Tshivhase! I needn’t have bothered with the dark sarong because again there was neither prostration nor sitting on the floor for me. I was wiser this time though; when the chief walked in I was on my haunches, hands together and humming at the same time as everybody else in the room. Except they were praise singing (I still couldn’t make out what they were saying), not humming.

Nemakonde, Queen, me, Paramount Chief Tshivhase, Ramudingane

Nemakonde, Queen, Lusanda, Paramount Chief Kennedy Tshivhase, Ramudingane

That consultation meeting also went very well. Chief Tshivhase welcomed me and said he would inform the traditional council, which was sitting the following day, about the research project and my presence in the area.

After the final consultation, which was with the steering committee, I was more than ready to begin the interviews. And to finally see Lake Fundudzi, which I had only heard about and seen in pictures. The closest I’ve gotten to it is a view of a hill from Tshiavha village, behind which lies the lake.

Me, Chief Netshiavha, members of the Lake Fundudzi steering committee, ward councillors, Ramudingane

Lusanda, Chief Netshiavha, members of the Lake Fundudzi steering committee, ward councillors and Edward Ramudingane

It was only at the end of the consultation period that it dawned on me that I was disappointed that I was not required to observe the traditional greeting of the chieftaincy. I had not realised I had been looking forward to it until I was denied the opportunity. A classic case of, ‘careful what you wish for’. But in my case it was more like, ‘careful what you don’t wish for!’.

Lake Fundudzi Field Work begins!

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From left to right: Bantu Halam, Heather Wares, Ian Durbach and Lusanda Ngcaweni

The Lake Fundudzi project team came together at the end of last week to engage in the final preparations for the long awaited field work. Our focus for the past month has been preparing a questionnaire for data collection in the field. An initial draft of the questionnaire was designed by the team before being sent out for assessment and refinement by a group of external reviewers from diverse professional backgrounds. The feedback we received was extremely constructive! The outcome is a sensitive, detailed questionnaire that has the potential to meaningfully bridge the divide between the qualitative and quantitative needs of this project.

Based on the literature survey conducted and written up by Heather Wares, extensive work has already taken place around the establishment of a National Heritage Site at Lake Fundudzi through SAHRA and other institutions. These processes have not resulted in community buy-in or support. The outcome is a stalled process. It is our intention that this current research project sheds light on where there are opportunities for consensus between the vested stakeholders. It is our belief that where there is consensus between stakeholders, there is also an opportunity for action. The challenge for initiative that want or need community support and engagement is finding common ground that meets diverse needs. This is what we are looking for!

Lusanda Ngcaweni will be conducting the field work with the support of a local field work assistant from the Lake Fundudzi region.She flew out last Saturday and will begin posting blogs from the field this week. We are all eager to see what she discovers, encounters and shares with us during the process!