Are the olden African ways really just modern ways?

It is often argued that culture plays an important role in defining who and what we are, and so many still resort to the old ways of their ancestors, but are the ways we resort to really the ways of our first ancestors? If not, then why do we need to stick to these way?


While it is important to not forget the past and not forget where we come from, it should also be remembered that today, even the most traditional and deep rooted Africans, may not know where exactly they come from. From a historians point of view, there is no concrete evidence of the customs of the cultures of old which still play a role in today’s African society. All that is known and all that is done is based on one of the most unreliable sources there is: word of mouth.


Most of that which we know about the various cultures in South Africa is what has been passed down from generation to generation verbally. The knowledge of that which is supposedly the old ways is basically the echo of someone who comes from a previous and older generation, and that is the way it has been for over two hundred years. Who is to say that over the years, cultural knowledge hasn’t changed and being altered to suit the generation currently holding the knowledge. One way to display the unreliability of  verbal accounts is through a game of broken telephone. The message uttered at the beginning of the game is seldom the exact same as what is spoken at the end of the game. The conclusion we get from the example of the broken telephone, is that there is a chance that as modern Africans, what we call our old and cultural ways may not necessarily be our old and cultural ways, but rather a more modernised version, or possibly even the complete opposite.


Once again referring to the game of broken telephone, the conclusion we can arrive at is that basically, as modern Africans, we live our lives according to the final message spoken, which has changed and differs from the original, but for some reason, we as people blind ourselves and are convinced that it is the original.


A newer generation always seems to have different ideas from that of the previous. Let us just pretend that the verbal history and stories, cultural rites and beliefs passed down are accurate, the fact is no two generations are the same. A younger one will have new ideas and probably a “less closed-minded” ideology, certain cultural beliefs would contradict that of certain members of the generation, and thus they would probably not be passed down, so is this part of that cultures history not dead if less and less people pass it down.


Culture is an ever changing thing, yet many refuse to see that. From a personal point of view, there are a number of things I as an individual will not be passing down to my kids, simply because I don’t believe them. Would it not be hypocritical to want future generations to know and believe something that I am against.


Can it not be said that perhaps, our culture and where we come from is forgotten. This does not necessarily mean that our culture is dead however. Culture is something that we create and live out. Whether it be a system of morals and beliefs, we as a generation need to open our minds. The fact is, there is no point in resorting to the old to appease ancestors or to stay true to your culture, because we don’t know the old ways.

what liver

So, I am is’febe. At least I have been called that.
Once, dear reader, when we were much younger, a cousin of mine used that word: is’febe. Part of what it is to be as young as we were is learning to use language. Many times you get the structure right only to stumble over the particulars.
Having just slaughtered a goat or something else equally slaughterable, the men gave the older boys the intestines and the liver. Modeled on the existing dominant structures, white male dominance, the older boys’ responsibilities over the resources automatically extended over the younger boys. The older boys, perhaps testing their power, perhaps just salivating over the prospect of braai liver, dangled the meat in front of the younger boys. They, perhaps responding to that power, perhaps excited in their own right, extended their hands to touch the treasures of intestines and liver. My cousin, impressed by the weight and texture of the liver (and by how far it had travelled down the power structure to get to him?) said, “yho, sis’febe!”
Our mastery of language has since then progressed. That description is not, given a choice, one he would use to capture that moment. Nor, if it is at all up to him, would he now utter that word as loud as he did then. Then, caught in a moment that is eternal, the piece of liver suffered the indignity of being described as is’febe.
Perhaps I deceive myself, but I had not thought that there is anything substantially similar between a piece of liver and myself. If, then, I have been described as is’febe, and the piece of liver has also been described as is’febe, exactly what makes both the liver and I fit the description?
We could, of course, draw out an implicit assumption. We could argue that the word has been used incorrectly in either or both above cases. If incorrect in one of the cases, and we favor my young cousin with the error, then we could withhold this favor from the shadows. They, we could argue, understood and used the word as it was meant to. In this case I, but not the liver, come out is’febe.
If incorrect in both cases, both the liver and I are misfits to the description. In this case, more starkly than the first, we are left wondering who or what fits the description is’febe?


So, I am is’febe. Before being called is’febe by a shadow it never occurred to me that I could be one, let alone so much so that someone else could have reason to name me so.

See, dear reader, I was walking from the Hillbrow Shoprite to my cottage in Yeoville. I had a 500ml yoghurt, strawberry, in my hands, scooping the contents out with two forefingers. Just before crossing what I always assumed was the border between the two suburbs, I noticed three shadows behind me. Jumpy as a springbok, I hastened to enter Yeoville proper. I then found myself in a deserted stretch of road. The three shadows followed. They, I assume, found themselves in a stretch of road less deserted. Conscious (hahaha!) of nothing else, the stretch of road disappeared and became those three shadows. It could be said, without any hint of mysticism, that I now walked the shadows. They, I assume, continued to walk a road less deserted. The gap between us had, by now, lessened considerably. You, dear reader, could explain this closing of the gap physically. Physical explanations bore me. Locked as I was in the shadows, my movements were now a function of the laws that hold in shadows. If we isolate my movements, and explain them in terms of what directly controlled them, then it is to the shadows that we must look. Or, insofar as those shadows are ultimately abantu, it is to ubuntu that we must appeal for an explanation. Physical laws held sway over me only insofar as they held sway over shadows.

At any rate, when one of the shadows made a sudden move, perhaps to scratch an itchy bum, perhaps to pounce, I moved as suddenly. The shadow, perhaps having completed the bum scratching, perhaps aborting the pouncing, smoothly resumed its previous movements. I did not.

Heart pounding, limbs shaking, embarrassed that I had misread the move, I turned to them and said, in a second language, “Gents, I thought you were coming for me.”
The first shadow, perhaps starting the pounce, perhaps never having stopped from the moment he woke up, moved. I, despite my embarrassment seconds earlier, had never actually stopped my flight move. I narrowly escaped but the shadow almost caught me. Locked in that continuum, both of us recognized the moment. It is in that moment that he said it: s’febe.

Second seats and empty languages

So, I am in one of those cheap domestic flights, destination Jozi.

The aisle sit is mine, the middle sit empty, a nice mama has the window seat. I, following an example set by Usihlwele, a character in a short story, have constructed a porous but ‘imaginary’ wall around myself. I am sure Asiphe-a-psychologist, would say this ‘imaginary’ wall is created out of fear.

A first language speaker comes in all hurried and, to be fair, no time for self-awareness in relation to others. Or perhaps she had no time to perform self-awareness?

Since she is no African dictator in a post-colonial narrative, the kind that wins literary prizes for truth and daring, we will pursue this line of thinking no further.

The first language speaker, still several paces away, says to me, “You are in my seat.”

Now, dear reader, there is absolutely no a priori reason why she could not have been right. If the seat had been assigned her, and not me, and she had correctly matched her assigned seat to the actual seat, and I had incorrectly matched mine, and I were sitting in her seat, and…I am sure you see why in some possible world she is right, and therefore not a priori wrong.

My response was to stand up, move aside, so that she can take the empty middle seat. It was, I declare, a perfect example of a second language response. I sought to get her seated first so that I could whisper to her how wrong she is. Even when you know you are absolutely right, you recognize the right of the other person to be wrong. As such the fact that they are wrong is absolutely no reason to respond to that first. They will, once they realize it, have a choice to persist in their wrong or repent. Either one of those is a real choice, nothing about choices mean they should be right. Still, the first step is always to recognize umntu. The wrong or right might never even arise.

But the mama in the window seat, structured in a first language, had no time for my sensibilities or the sensitivity to stay out of it. Having helped me locate my seat earlier, she assured the first language speaker that she is wrong.

There, just like that, another second language response bit the dust.

Loved Lost

So, a loved one left us to go join the ancestors.

He was murdered, brutally and with unswerving intent. By the time the medics got to him he was brain dead.

It happened in an informal settlement, in a township. By the time medical help got to him he had been bleeding through his nose and mouth for well over an hour. Because of the tarred roads his blood had pooled around his head. It had not soaked into the ground, umhlaba.
Should we hope that his brain had been working such that he was capable still of great suffering, but ‘had the paramedics got there earlier they would have saved him’? Or should we hope that his brain went dead quite early on in his murder, and that even had the paramedics been as prompt as if he had been in the suburbs it would not have changed the outcome? Even our alternative worlds leave us anguished in the actual.

My loved one was murdered by an (South) African: young, male and by all accounts (certainly I, a black conscious theorist, must not escape this conclusion) a victim of his conditions. Where, oh where, is a clear and unambiguous villain when you need it most?

So, what am I dealing with here? This question is the conclusion I come to time and again. What, beyond the pain that constructs my reality, am I dealing with here?

Now, I am trained enough in formal logic to know that a conclusion is an element of an argument. All the elements of an argument are articulated in propositions. Questions, insofar as they are articulated to an argument, sometimes provide an occasion for advancing the elements of an argument, and therefore the argument. But questions are not, qua questions, elements of arguments. I should not, therefore, arrive at a conclusion stated in question form. I am, of course, permitted to restate my conclusion in proposition form.

But there it is, an element of a black consciousness: a conclusion stated in question form.
Released from sentences and propositions, with their drive towards clarity, symbolized by the full stop, my pain blurs at the edges. At the centre it remains sharply defined: I am bereaved and victim, the African male, by contrast, a villain and morally despicable. But at the peripheries, where my loved one has always resided (even in death he remains there) the pain requires active input from me to retain its character.