First Published in City Press, 21 July 2013
Some months ago I found myself in a really strange position, facing a rock wall whose bricks were separated by a strange sort of plaster – little pieces of paper!
I too had a little piece of paper in my hand on which I had surreptitiously written a wish.
It was the stock standard wish that I make whenever I am required to blow out candles, blow an eyelash or wish upon a star.
I was in Jerusalem, facing the wailing wall. All around me were the loud cheers of people who had congregated from all over the world to have their son’s and nephew’s bar mitzvah ceremonies in this holy place. Others were standing next to me, praying, and writing down their own wishes before sticking them in the crevices of the wall.
This, the Western Wall, of a temple said to have been build by Solomon over 2 500 years ago, is now a place of pilgrimage. Folks come to the wall, the last remnant of the temple, because the centre is a sacred shrine upon which Jewish people who aren’t cleansed may not walk. To be cleansed congregants would need to slaughter a red heifer. Which are extinct. So to the wall it is.
And that’s the closest to divinity for some.
It seems kind of fantastic, doesn’t it? Not unlike why we South Africans wash our hands in aloe when coming back from a funeral, or burn candles when speaking to our ancestors, or slaughter a goat or sheep after the birth of a newborn.
In Jerusalem people speak to walls and in another part of the city, some kneel in the direction of Mecca a couple of times a day, and the Christians line up to touch a hole in the ground that the cross of Jesus had been stuck into.
You see ultimately culture, tradition and faith are less about logic than symbolism, belief and most importantly, choice.
And my own choice, as an African man, in the practice of my traditions has been impinged upon at many times in history.
Flashback to 1884, when a hut tax was introduced by the British administration in now South Africa and Zimbabwe. Each hut in every homestead was taxed. The tax could be paid in monies or livestock or even labour, ensuring that hundreds of young men left their homes to work on roads, in mines and on farms.
Of course there were an exception – if the African family had a European-styled house, and only one wife, they wouldn’t have to pay the tax at all. And so the seed was sown: being African is costly.
Too often the relevance of a lifestyle has been decided for African people, not by African people.
This reality came to mind often in the past fortnight amidst the discourse on how chiefs and kings are appointed and deposed, of polygamy and of initiation schools.
The haunting question of “why do you still practice that?” loomed ever present in the ether.
Certainly there is much archaic with the world. Like the colour white at our weddings. And certainly culture is dynamic. But beneath these often archaic rituals lies conventional wisdom, and the soul of what defines a people. Mandela himself reflected that it was growing up exposed to the Bunga system of government that informed his staunch belief in democracy.
I dare say that as we urge each other to “let go” of ancient things, we also interrogate the rationale behind them.
And as we “modernify” our traditions, perhaps we can be more deliberate in what we’re changing and why.
In the matter of our initiation schools, I think again of those Jewish folks and their mohels, highly respected doctors or rabbis trained, accredited and supervised in the practice of circumcision. It is time to institutionalise andprofessionalise our practices; no lives are worth rhetoric.
Oh, and whilst we’re looking up other cultural practices, I’m hoping the recent resignation of the head of the South African Revenue Service could be the start of a arakiri trend. That’s the Japanese ritual where someone cuts open their bowels with a sword after having disgraced their family or community. Look, I don’t mean anyone should commit suicide, but imagine the culture that would be bred if our people exited stage left once mired in controversy.
I know my political family could do with that, cadres who fall on their swords and jump once the movement comes into disrepute, and not wait, and wait, and hope to not be pushed or reshuffled.