By Navdeep Jassal
Post News Group Contributor
Navdeep Jassal, has been traveling in South Africa for the last five months and recently had the opportunity to review a play in Johannesburg. Presented by Africa Creations Production Company, the play reveals the nature of African indigenous spirituality.
“The Rise and Fall of the African Gospel: Nongqawuse” was created, written and directed by Mbongeni Moroke who was inspired by the historic events of 1856-7 and the miseducation that followed.
Though performed in the Xhosa language, with a few short excerpts in English for non-Xhosa speakers, I had the opportunity to speak with Moroke — who portrayed Mhlakaza, a sangoma (traditional healer) and father to Nongqawuse. This article is gleaned from our conversations.
The play is about two well-known historical figures for the Xhosa: Their young maiden prophetess, Nongqawuse, and South Africa’s first Black Christian Presbyterian minister, Tiyo Soga.
For background’s sake, it must be understood that according to African indigenous spirituality, cows are slaughtered to summon the ancestors’ protection. In 1856, cattle represented the primary measure of wealth among the Xhosa, and the word to the king from prophetess Nongqawuse that cattle should be killed to hide the wealth from the arriving Christian missionaries was shocking.
The message came in a time when the Xhosa nations’ strength and trust in its leadership had been eroding after a great king had been assassinated by Christian missionaries in the early 1800s following his betrayal by his own counsel and other Xhosa leaders.
That “negative aura persisted around the kings,” making for a continual threat to Xhosa unity, Moroke said.
And unity is key: According to South African spirituality, God the Creator cannot intervene in a divided nation; therefore, after the slaughter, the rising of the ancestors foreseen by Nongqawuse did not happen in the way it was expected.
Enter Tiyo Soga, the son of a chief counselor to the king who had turned away from Xhosa tradition and followed in his Christian mother’s footsteps. He eventually traveled to Scotland to study religion and theology and returned as a Christian evangelist.
By then, Xhosa society was divided like never before. The Christian missions became the sanctuary and refuge for the hordes of hungry, famished people — their grain silos empty, their cattle no more, and their land useless.
While 16-year-old Nongqawuse was labeled a false prophet and scapegoated, Soga and lesser-known Black individuals spread the new religion by white Christian missionaries throughout Xhosa land.
Moroke’s inspiration is a righteous one: The spirit of God the Creator existed before the Bible in
Africa and Moroke speaks from and uses the African indigenous spiritual lens in his work as playwright, director, actor, and musician, demonstrating that spirituality in ancient Africa was powerful.
Through entertainment, Moroke strives to re-educate Black South Africans on the value of their own history, valor and spirituality.
The opening scene takes place on Robben Island more than 100 years before Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a political prisoner there. Three broken Xhosa kings shed tears as white Christian missionaries locked them up, thus destroying their ability to provide spiritual guidance to their tribesmen and women.
In his signature style, the first scene becomes the final scene as well, but for nearly two hours, Moroke takes the audience through the events that led to the kings’ capture.
“There are three things which control the world: economics, politics and religion,” said Moroke. “When a nation is ruling well within these three sectors, that nation becomes the most powerful nation in the world. So, white Christian missionaries took charge in Africa in these three sectors and used religion through the Bible to destroy and rule us.
“Every generation has its mandate and the last generation had politics as its mandate,” Moroke said. “As someone representing the current generation, the mandate is to revisit indigenous and spiritual history and go back to the core problems which led to apartheid. I am trying to answer a question of this generation in terms of what went wrong, and why are we here after all the struggles and voting in 1994.”
Although I could not piece it all together due to language barriers and lack of context, as I sat in the audience, I knew what I was watching was very moving and powerful.
There were some audience members crying because the play resonated with their backgrounds as African people. And, for others, the play resonated in terms of family whether it was family disfunction or affection.
Two Xhosa people said that when the ‘king’ was coming onto the stage, they had a vision of that actual king coming. Another sangoma said she learned many things from Moroke’s character about the discipline of a sangoma.
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