Ancestral design

Beads have become a tourist delight, but what about beads as a symbol of another reality, writes Moshidi Motshegwa.

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She sits at the supermarket till counter, hands dipping in and out of the cash register. Money exchanges hands, moving swiftly from product to carrier bag and back to register. Next, a receipt is produced and a sweet smile flashed to get you along the way with the next customer in tow. A cog in the well oiled machinery of capitalism's highest form of exchange, nothing tells us who she is and where she comes from.

Except the red and white beads that cling to her wrists. They are simple in design and finished off with a goat skin bracelet.

In South Africa, beads are used on everything of human necessity that one can imagine; bracelets, sugar bowl covers, teaspoon decorations, blanket and curtain trimmings. A common feature in the open summer markets, these trinkets are a tourist's delight, containing the memory of an 'exotic' place they came so far to see.

But what about beads as a symbol of another reality? Beads as worn by the locals and the meaning they hold for them as symbols of national culture and pride?

My turn at the register counter. Our hands exchange money like a greeting and in that moment my story and her story intertwine. The red and white beads remind me of a certain place, a certain time, a specific ritual. Simple in their making and bordering on what may be perceived as primitive (what with the goat skin finish) the beads symbolise her initiation into the process of becoming a healer / shaman.

Her symbolic wearing of them tells me she is in the last phase of her training. Her spirits are now settled! They have claimed her and, in turn, she has received them. Drums have been played for her, spirits awakened, and beats embedded in memory danced to all night.

Spirits of masculine and feminine have come through her body, communicating a thousand centuries old tradition and history. The experience has left her emaciated. She has had to live on a staple diet devoid of preservatives, additives and any form of spicing, the food cooked on slow fires with salt the only permissible luxury. In this state, when the things of the world have been reduced to the basic, the body becomes a vessel, a channel for the ancestors to come into this world and communicate with us through the healer / shaman woman that she is.

By publicly claiming her with the adornment of the beads, her history, and that of those who came before her, finds a voice not existing in the written word. There are no books written about the great men and women of her clan. However, through the different beads that she has acquired during her initiation, slowly but surely her people's record of existence is retrieved and its remembrance assured for many generations to come.

A closer look at the beads reveals the chronicle of her clan's integration with the water medicine people. The red beads symbolise life and the ability to transform into warriors. The white, separating the red, act as a neutraliser to passions often inflamed when the warrior spirit is awakened. The goat skin bracelet, composed between the beads, becomes the meeting point of the two natures that symbolise life and the ancestors themselves.

Hand made and simple, the beads detract nothing from the woman's beauty. Instead, I feel a sense of wonder around her, respecting the path she has travelled to be one with her people and their ways, subsequently writing and rewriting her story and theirs.

Our brief interaction at the supermarket counter, in the presence of crass commerce, unites our histories. Money changes hands and stories of old and ancient lineages are exchanged. My people have also worn these beads for centuries and passed them down from one generation to the next as a symbol of history. A history of a people is written in these beads worn simple, delicate, unobtrusive and undistracting. A powerful symbol of a specific time and a specific ritual.

Vumani bo! Siyavuma.*

*Literal translation - "Do you agree?", "We agree." Actual meaning - signifies the ancestors being consulted and giving their blessing.

Moshidi Motshegwa is an award-winning South African stage and screen actress who, over the past year, has been indulging her passion for writing by creating content for television and magazines. She has a special interest in 'telling real stories about real people.'

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