Meet the Venda – sacred people in a sacred place

Natty Samuel reflects on a scared place and sacred people. Illustrations by Jo Draper and Jessie Jones

By Natty Mark Samuels

Illustrations by Jo Draper & Jessie Jones

Sharing the mystical presence of Limpopo’s enchanted Lake Fundudzi – home to the white crocodile.

Cultural tradition often has a deep-seated root in the relationship between our ancestors and their physical environment, helping to continue the human roles as custodians of nature.

Living near the South Africa-Zimbabwe border in Limpopo province, the Venda people revere their surroundings as sacred – especially Lake Fundudzi, located in the foothills of the Soutspansberg mountains, 2, 838 ft (865 m) above sea-level.

Expanding settlements, land erosion from hillside clearance for tree-planting, cattle grazing, and the presence of invasive species vegetation all pose concerns for Lake Fundudzi’s long-term protection, and contribute to recent study results showing a deterioration in its water quality. It has been declared a National Heritage Site but some local campaigners fear this has been to promote tourism and job creation more than preserve the environment, and ignores the lake’s spiritual value.

The lake spans over three miles (5 km) and is home to the White Python: god of fertility, zwidutwane – mystical water spirits, and the white crocodile.

Natty Mark Samuels, founder of the African School, and a local historian who tutors at Abingdon and Witney college was born in Ashanti – Ghana  and feels a close bond with the lake and the Venda traditions honouring it:
“l was drawn to the Venda, by their love of lake Fundudzi, and the Phiphidi waterfall. A special greeting is required when approaching that body of water and young Venda women perform the annual dombadance at Mashovhela Pool – where it is said that a legendary drum can sometimes be heard – and the Phiphidi Falls, where the Ramunangi clan are the long-time custodians. These bodies of water are sacred to the Venda, as they believe they are the abode of their ancestral spirits.”

Venda legend tells how the lake was created when a passing leper was refused food and shelter. The angered man cursed the kraal (traditional African village of huts) and it disappeared below the waters of the newly formed lake. It is believed that early in the early morning you can still hear the sound of drums and the cries from drowned villagers and cattle.

The sacred white python dwells beneath the waters. In ancient times it lived on the lake’s surface, visiting the village at night under cover of the dark. One night a woman saw the snake – her terror upset the python so much that it fled to hide in the lake’s depths, causing a terrible drought. The drought ended when village women entered the lake to challenge the python. This is perhaps why Venda women are held in such high esteem, holding many important roles in the villages’ society.

More recently, the movements of the snake are echoed in the Venda’s ritual domba dance:  characterised by the sinuous swaying and writhing of a conga line in which adolescent girls of the tribe take part. The temper of the ancestors, and likelihood of rainfall are reflected for the dancers in the lake’s fullness and its colour.

When ancient Venda kings died, their remains were placed in the lake, so that the white crocodile would cough up a stone which the new king had to swallow. Returned to the lake, the spirits of Venda ancestors are believed to reside beneath its surface – guarded by the white crocodile.

New visitors to Lake Fundudzi should turn their back and then bend to look at it upside down through their spread legs, a salute known as the ukodola.

“When you think about it, we put up a building of brick and glass and call it holy ground” says Natty. “When looking at the magnificence of mountains, trees and lakes surely they can carry that hallowed labelling also. In learning about pre-colonial Africa, we learn more about its monotheism (belief in one god), amongst the Venda and the other peoples of the continent, long before the coming of Islam and Christianity: their name for God is Nwali. Their traditional belief is based around a deep appreciation and continuing respect for the natural world – and the blessings and bounties it offers.”

“I am a man who loves rivers and lakes – coming from the Ashanti people of Ghana, we also venerate certain bodies of water, such as Lake Bosomtwi. It was a special pleasure to write about the Venda: around a lake, a pool and a waterfall, that these people revere as sacred.”

Cultural beliefs are embedded in all of us, our environment has a huge impact not only how we view our own culture but also how we view the culture of others.

Despite tourism interest, swimming in Lake Fundudzi is still not recommended as it is full of white crocodiles!

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