Jone Salomonsen viser filmen: Umemulo. A girls’ rite of passage in the context of Aids, South Africa
Foto: Jone Salomonsen
This ethnographic film documents how a township family in KwaZulu Natal and their extended kin and community adapt an old Zulu rite of passage to protect a 16 year old girl from the risk of being infected with HIV. Women cross customary norms and take ritual leadership by reference to the authority of Dr. Jesus and the calling from the ancestors, transmitted in dreams. Animal sacrifice and the mediated exchange of meat, blood, skin, grass, herbs, blessings, and honorary song and dance movements are integral to the rite which culminates in a big feast. The overall aim is to forge protection for the girl by invoking and memorizing a new-old bond between ancestors, humans, animals, plants and the land, and alternatively celebrating life and community. The DVD (31') was edited in December 2008 with video footage and still pictures from the actual ritual performance in February 2005.
More on implicit and explicit themes in the film:
Ethnographic fieldwork for the film was conducted in Mpophomeni in periods between 2004 and 2006. Together with research partner Sidsel Roalkvam, I lived in the household of Sbongile, the main character. We engaged with the young girls, mothers and the grandmothers that constitute the network of this extended house and interrogated how the women acted in response to Aids. What kind of agency was at their disposal when trying to save daughters from attracting the virus?
The film documents the audio-visual ritual process of a revised Umemulo. It shows that women, in order to perform this work, must cross customary norms and take ritual leadership, and that they do so by reference to the authority of Dr. Jesus and the calling from the ancestors. Their rationale for doing so is disbelief in the biomedical prevention and treatment policy (of HIV-Aids) because it forgets the time frame and obligations of kin and ancestors. Neither are they willing to legitimate sexual practice without offspring as an institution worth dying or living for. Marriage regularly puts girls at risk. In the marriage songs her family will sing, “Brother in law, send her back, permanently”, pointing to what they ideally demand if violence is an issue. Now Aids has become an issue and some women’s response is to withdraw virgins from marriage. As an alternative protective means, the mothers set out to enhance the fecundity of virginity, undermining the Zulu marriage institution.
Umemulo is originally a complex of passage rites aimed at presenting a properly ritualized and marriageable young woman publicly. Through the revised performance it becomes clear that the community too reconstitutes its own norms of what “properly” means. The practices performed, however, are not conceptualized as ritual in the community but as function. Neither are the five days of ritualization cast as religion but as customs, as gestures towards the ancestors that are required for well-being. Thus, to grasp the meaning of gender and of women’s agency in this revised Umemulo we have to pay attention to two intertwined ritual traditions, Zulu and Christian, and to two crossing legal traditions, customary versus common (or lineage obligations versus civil rights). According to common law, mothers and fathers “own” their children in common. According to customary law, however, only fathers or their lineage “own” children. Maternal rights have been compensated for in the marriage rite, through the institution of lobola, and in theory suspended forever (also in afterlife). In practice however, suspension may be cancelled if ritual laws are not followed, as happens with violence in marriage, and as happens with non-trust and spread of a deadly virus. But it takes courage to counter-act marriage, and the new fold does not open by itself. Women create it as they reinterpret heritage and act to revise and blend old customs, symbols and formative gestures for a new purpose.
The ambiguous meaning of heritage becomes visible in the dual ritual places performed in the Umemulo: the kraal is the homestead for ancestor veneration and has male lineage heads as priests; green hilltops and watery rivers are homestead for gods and goddesses respectively and have female and male sangomas (traditional healers) and so-called heaven-herders as priests. In addition, Christian women’s prayer unions pray at hilltops and in the house and create pathways between kraals. They use a certain interpretation of Jesus and strong prayer to legitimate new agency and new authority for women, just as they use a certain interpretation of Zulu traditional religion to reconstitute a social universe that is full of life and love, rules and obligation, promise and protection.
In the ritual process sacrifices of goat and cow are major acts. The powers of blood and consumption of these animals to create peace from violence were already prefigured in the reconciliation that took place at the threshold to post-apartheid South Africa. Reconciliation after the civil war in the streets of the townships took place in Mpophomeni in June 1996. Seven cows representing the seven major clans where sacrificed and consumed in fellowship for reconciliation, and one additional cow sacrificed for future hopes. Sacrifice is heavily theorized, and in this context Nancy Jay is relevant. She has shown by comparison that the intermediary logic of sacrifice is constitutive to the creation of the patrilineal descent groups. It functions as an intermediary “third” for the act of adoption, which is a main figure of social fatherhood as such. We should ask: Can the Zulus dispense from sacrifice and still inhabit the protection of ancestors? If they do, will they also have remade ritual from being acts of proximity to a way of life to being symbolic acts of visionary expression?
The film proposes that to create new ritual with sacrifices intact is sign that women embody ritual competence. The knowledge to do and to undo is constituted in the same skill set. There is neither consolidation nor subversion of old, but modification in order to transform themselves into the willing subjects of a particular moral discourse: subordination to the rule of the ancestors. The Umemulo ritual complex is not just reinterpreted, but re(per)formed due to responsiveness in a new context. The Myeza’s local community in Mpophomeni is engaged with exemplarity. The memory of and dreaming of ancestors is exemplary in that they are perceived to embody what it means to live in accordance with “real” Zulu values and traditions.
The Umemulo film is unique. The ritual was not staged for fieldwork, but we happened to be there with a video-camera, inside knowledge and permission when this once-in-a-lifetime ritual happened to be orchestrated as protection for a young girl. In order to be equally protective we must ask: What kind of power relations does the ritual produce? On what grounds may we offer critique and point to further transformation of the attachments, commitments and sensibilities that undergird the practices of Umemulo? How may the ritual of ethnographic filmmaking be described and how has the film been received when screened? To whom has it felt educational and to whom provocative? I reflect on these questions elsewhere helped by Ronald L. Grimes’ and Saba Mahmood’s theoretizations.