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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Talking about Sustainable Heritage

20141031_121027On October 31st, ACHA hosted a round table event focused  sustainable heritage resource management. A number of heritage industry practitioners joined the event and actively participated in the discussions that took place during the morning. The purpose of the event was share ACHA’s experience during the recent Lake Fundudzi project. Lake Funduzi has recently been declared a National Heritage Site for the country by SAHRA and it is important that such a declaration is supported by an effective management plan. The purpose of this event was to explore the potential implications for sustainable heritage resource management based on the project findings and the experience of the project team during the process and to make recommendations for the site management going forward.

The round table event began with a presentation from Jonathan Sharfman, the Director of ACHA and Robert Parthesius, the Director of CIE. Their comments encouraged participants to share their personal experiences in the field with one another during the session! They were followed by a panel of presentations from the project team. Heather Wares discussed the important of creating a historical context for such work by reviewing relevant background documentation. Lusanda Ngacaweni shared her experience of conducting the field work in the Lake Fundudzi catchment area, highlighting significant practical and theoretical considerations for meaningful field work of this nature. The third presentation was by Ian Durbach, He presented his perspective on the significance of including quantitative data into work of this nature and how to go about the process in a meaningful manner. The panel concluded with a presentation by Jonathan Sharfman outlining recommendations and potential strategies that would support sustainable heritage resource management based on his professional experience in the field and work through ACHA.

Following the panel of presentations, the group engaged in creative conversations around each of the four areas that featured. They looked at historical context, field work, data and strategy. The purposed of their conversations were to make specific recommendations that would support future work in these areas going forward. It was an exciting, information rich and at times emotionally charged conversation!

“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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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!’.

A new project begins this month!

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 A new project begins this month!

ACHA has started to focus on a new project for the National Heritage Council! It a research project focused on developing a heritage site management plan proposal for Lake Fundudzi in Limpopo. This is part of the team that will be tackling our exciting new journey – Ian Durbach, Heather Wares and Bantu Halam. Ian and Bantu are statistical experts that have joined the team to design a meaningful and responsive quantitative survey of the area. Heather is a historian specialising in Maritime Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH) – she has joined the team to provide a historical context and overview of the area.

NAS Training – A Community Workshop!

IMG_2925Written by Heather Wares – Selection from project report

As part of the agreed upon project outcomes, a five day community workshop was held in the week of the 26- 30 May. This workshop was mandated to include both a discussion around the importance of protecting Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH) sites and the teaching of basic archaeological survey skills through the Nautical Archaeological Society (NAS) courses. A team of seven people travelled to the Eastern Cape to present the workshop, including a SAHRA intern who participated in the NAS training.

The aim was to integrate the oral histories gathered over the course of the project within the structured topics of the workshop. In order to create an atmosphere of interaction and gauge the level of understanding, the participants were divided into three groups who would produce mini-projects representing a heritage site which they deemed important to the community and area. The resulting projects far exceeded the expectations of the project team and illustrated the outcome of the workshop as being one of mutual teaching and learning.

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NAS courses were originally designed for the United Kingdom and within South Africa shipwrecks have been a central focus for previous NAS training. While shipwrecks continue to hold importance, there is a realisation that many South African cultures attach intangible meaning to various bodies of water such as lakes and rivers. Thus, the NAS training was adjusted accordingly.

The design of the workshop was informed by the field work done over two ten day periods, giving the team an idea of what to focus on to serve the needs of the community and the project. Presentations were done on topics such as Introduction to Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH), Site Types, Site Survey, The Grosvenor Case Study, Heritage and Tourism, and Heritage and Legislation. Over the week these topics were introduced, explained and discussed.

IMG_2927The overall outline of the workshop was to present the basic idea of what an archaeological site type was, why they are important to preserve and how that preservation can be done through basic archaeological survey techniques. In the design of the workshop and the integration of the NAS curriculum, the team had to keep in mind that this was the first time that most of the participants had any interaction with the archaeology. In addition, all of the presentations and discussions were translated between English and Xhosa.

Thus it was necessary for the workshop to extend over 5 days. To best satisfy the objectives of the workshop the week was structured with theoretical and practical components. The mornings were dedicated to theoretical presentations and these were put into practice in the afternoons through group project preparation. This structure allowed the participants to use what they had learnt from the theoretical components to inform and mold their projects.

The numbers of participants varied throughout the week, due to other commitments, with between 13 and 19 attendees. However, with a core group in full attendance the combination of presentations and discussions provided the participants with a new understanding of Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage. The participants could then relate the concept of MUCH to their local heritage sites and implement practical ways of protecting these sites for the benefit of the community as a whole.