Learning ancestor songs

Blessing Musariri Shelling the Nuts
I ONCE read a story that was originally written as a true account which was later disproved as a hoax and ultimately sold as fiction instead of the non-fiction it had initially given itself to be. This story was about a woman who went and spent some months with an aboriginal group in Australia, who live exactly as nature intended — without clothes and completely in harmony with their natural surroundings. The story, as fiction is meant to do, completely captured my imagination, one aspect of it in particular.

The aboriginals did not settle in any one place, but moved as and when they felt it was time — going on what is known as a walkabout.

They didn’t move aimlessly though, they had a pattern and followed a set of directions. These directions were not written down or based on any landmarks, instead, from the beginning of the journey they sang a song and it was within the song that the directions lay.

They knew that when you came to this part of the song, you took a turn and headed in a different direction. The leaders would change from day to day and everyone put their complete trust in them, knowing they all knew the same thing and there was nothing to fear.

There has, reportedly, been much backlash and outrage over many of the author’s claims in this book and her depiction of the aboriginal culture in question (so I won’t endorse it here) and of course, because of the controversy, the book has sold millions of copies.

However, the fact remains, that as someone who is living in a time of climate change and impending doom of our planet and the assault of global influences on culture, the life that was depicted in the story held an idealistic appeal and more specifically lead me to think of the songs I am now learning, the songs that are accompanying my steps through life. One could maybe call it a soundtrack, if they like, like in the movies — the soundtrack to The Life of Blessing.

This soundtrack would have to come in two parts though, the first part being the coming of age full of global influences and searching for self and identity in the world at large and the second part would be the years most recent, where there is a return to the beginning and the start of a new cycle with stronger connections to the root, an introspection of who I am in a place I have tried to escape so often, but to which I have always returned.

This part of the soundtrack in these last few years, would be punctuated heavily, with funeral dirges.

We sing them so well and so often, that they have eclipsed all the other songs I can sing in my mother tongue.

I don’t remember the first funeral I attended as an adult.

All through my childhood, we were shielded from attending funerals, always left at home while our parents went off to mourn people we may or may not have known. Funerals were extremely solemn with plenty of wailing and people throwing themselves on the ground at the feet of those bereaved.

This much I knew.

I remember the first time I heard the euphemism, kushayika. I thought okay so if the person is lost surely they will be found again. And how could anyone be lost to the point where everyone is called to cry about it.

Now I know better. I have written before I’m sure, about how I used to love going to church with my mother as a child because the singing uplifted me so much so that I felt like surely we would all be taken up to heaven right then.

They have since changed the tunes and I find that I am not learning new hymns instead I am learning funeral songs. These are the Shona hymns I am coming to know. “Ndiyeuke ndiyeuke, ndiyeuke Jesu”. “Hatina musha panyika”, this one I have always known, (but now I know all the words), and the final reminder to all, to remember that from dust we came and to dust we shall return — “Munhu yeuka uri huruva”.

These are the songs I have heard most lately at any gathering where cultural observations are still made. I have since verbally compiled a “playlist” in the event of my funeral, telling friends and family, “When I die, sing this one at my funeral.”

Maybe I will hear them, maybe I won’t, but those songs will be the last to be associated with the gathering of all who knew me.

This is one of the ways, like the clan on a walkabout, we sing the steps we take through our lives, marking the departures that take us to new spaces within ourselves, that change the direction and complexion of our lives, that remind us we are all walking together and headed to the same destination. There was and still is a procedure at funerals and a large part of that is the last story told, the narration of events leading up to the death of a person. Every one who arrives asks, what happened and that story is told over and over again.

This in a way, is a form of therapy already, a way of making something more and more real with each telling until everyone knows and it becomes the known truth of the matter.

There is no speculation and conjecture and there are no different versions, unless of course there are facts that remain unknown or if there are secrets which need to be kept.

People talk about it and come to an understanding of the sequence of events and together they sing the songs, to mark the departure, the new unknown journey and the change in direction for all those left behind. In this way our story is told and signposts marked.

We have marvelled among ourselves, my contemporaries and I, at how many funerals we have attended in the last few or so years, at how many of us have lost our parents, the people who lead us through this journey we’re on.

There’s no avoiding it anymore, there’s no one to shield us, we are the grown ups now.

We are the ones in the front and it is our turn to lead.

This is frightening. If we are the grown ups, who will teach our children the songs if we are only still learning them ourselves?

The world in which we are all living is changing so rapidly and so fundamentally we are all still adjusting and struggling to hold onto what we knew for sure and the things that still bind us together.

How long will we shield our children and are we even succeeding at that? Are we holding them back by trying to secure a base to which they can always return to the familiar, the home-space? What will it be like for them when it is their turn to take the lead?

Will they be prepared?

Will they know the stories that will remind them of where we’ve all been, where they are headed and will they be true? What songs will they sing of us, for us, their ancestors?

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