The Bird of Heaven
The Story of a Swazi Sangoma, by Peter Dunseith
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Extracts from
'The Bird of Heaven'

One Big, Important Thing

   When Mandla had finished telling Grandmother about his adventures, and proudly shown his muti bag with all its mysterious contents, the old lady put her large arms around the boy and folded him into a soft embrace.
   “You have learned many things, my child, and seen wonders that most tangoma only dream about. There are powers waking in you that will take you on strange journeys, and the ancestors have many tasks for you to perform. You are still a young boy, yet even the wizard has felt your strength and trembled. There is much you must learn to protect yourself and find your true path, but remember this: the jackal knows many things, but the eagle knows one big, important thing.”
   “What do you mean, Gogo?” asked Mandla. “What is the one thing that the eagle knows?”
   Grandmother released Mandla from her massive embrace and settled herself more comfortably on the grass mat.
   “The jackal lives by his wits, and he knows all the ways of the bush, the secret paths, the laws of nature, the habits of his enemies, and the art of thieving. He survives because he has mastered the rules of his life and he follows those rules, trusting nobody and depending only on himself and his crafty knowledge.”
   “But the eagle, Gogo, what is it that the eagle knows…”
   “The eagle, my child, knows that behind all this play of life there is one truth on which his life depends. The eagle launches himself from the edge of the high cliff, knowing that the air shall support him and guide his flight. Without that faith and trust, without that knowledge of the one big, important thing, the eagle could not fly.    “The men of this world, my child, have no trust and they have no faith. With their planning, and their rules, and their reliance on their own cunning schemes, they are like jackals. They hunt in the dark and they die in the dark. You must be an eagle, trusting in the power of the Great Spirit Nkulunkulu. If you spread your wings in His space, He will never let you fall. If you fly on the wind of His will, He will guide you to knowledge.
   “The path of the true sangoma is the flight of the eagle. It begins with faith and ends in sunlight. This is the one big, important thing I want you to remember always, my child, my thwasa.”

Challenge To A Stick Fight

   It was not far at all to the Komati River. After winding along through some hills the path descended steeply into the river valley and Mandla had to walk carefully to avoid slipping on the many loose pieces of shale. When he reached the water’s edge, he was astonished by the power of the river. The water was deep and icy-green, surging in a torrent through a wide channel carved into the granite ravine by centuries of floodwater. Mandla’s heart sank. No man or beast could hope to cross such a river without being swept away and dashed against its sculptured granite margins. He was sure that any journey to the other side of the river would have to be abandoned, or at least wait until wintertime when the waters had subsided. The river curved around the wall of the ravine and disappeared from view. Mandla followed the path downstream. When he came round the bend he stopped short in confusion. Before the bend the river was hurtling along in a torrent of impassable water. After the bend there was no water at all, only the dry rock bed of an empty river. When he came closer he saw the reason for this miracle of nature. In the middle of the granite riverbed there was a large section of black dolomite rock. The water had gradually eroded away the softer dolomite until a great hole had been carved in the riverbed. As the water whirled into this hole it continued to whittle at the softer rock, until the underground seam of dolomite had been eaten away to form a giant pipe. Now the torrent of water flowed into the pipe in a great whirlpool, disappearing under the river bed and reappearing about a stones-throw further downstream, leaving a wide rock bridge for travellers who wished to cross the mighty river.
   Mandla leaped from the path onto the dry river bed and walked across the bridge as it passed beside the great sinkhole. The opening of the pipe looked like the dark wet gullet of a snake, stretched wide open to swallow the thrashing, frothing river. A washed-away tree trunk had wedged itself across the mouth of the hole and the water struck against the log before plunging into the whirlpool below, sending up splashes of foam. He saw a large fish leap above the whirlpool before the water caught it and swept it down the pipe. He looked down the dark gullet and shuddered. When he looked up, he saw that he was not alone. At the end of the rock bridge, where it met the bank on the far side of the river, were three young men.
   The youths stood with their legs astride, blocking the exit from the bridge. Each of them carried a long fighting stick. They watched Mandla passively as he approached and made no attempt to move out of the way. When he got closer Mandla saw that two of the boys were of his own age. The eldest and tallest of the three looked about eighteen years. He stood in the middle of the group and seemed to be their leader. He held his stout wooden staff in one hand, planted solidly on the rock and angled across his body. “You cannot pass,” he said. “Here begins the land of the Ndwandwe. Chief Magudu does not allow strangers to travel through our land.”
   Mandla stopped and raised his hand in salutation. “Sanibonani, you people of Magudu,” he greeted them politely. “I am Mandla, of the Tsabedze clan.”
   The older boy scowled. “I have heard of the Tsabedze. Your totem is the leopard, that never likes to get its feet wet. That is why you dare to walk on our bridge.”
   “And I have heard of the Ndwandwe,” said Mandla. “Your totem is the fish, so you have to hunt cane rats in the marshes although you live beside a river full of food.”
   One of the younger boys, chubby with a fat stomach, gave an angry snort and bent to pick up a loose stone from the rocky ground. Mandla saw that his loinskin was made from the fur of a cane rat. The older boy put a restraining hand on his arm and muttered a sharp rebuke: “Not until I say you can, fatty!” He raised his voice to Mandla. “Where are you coming from, and what is your business here?”
   “I have come from the Mdzimba mountains, and I am journeying to the homestead of Lunwabu, the sangoma,” said Mandla.
   “He is dead, this Lunwabu that you seek, so your journey is wasted. Go back to your mountains, leopard boy.”
   “I have a reason to visit the homestead of Lunwabu. I have been sent to fetch something there, so let me cross in peace,” said Mandla.
   “Just as I thought, another of the fortune hunters,” said the older boy to his companions. He sneered at Mandla. “You are not the first dreamer to come seeking the treasure of Lunwabu. If the old sangoma hid gold coins and jewels in his spirit house before he died, do you think we would not have found them by now? But still you travellers come, dreaming that you are sent by the ancestors to fetch something that never existed. They even say that a wizard comes at night, riding on a baboon – if you can believe the stories of drunkards. So now Chief Magudu has given us the task to turn away strangers. If there is a treasure, it belongs to the Ndwandwe, not a stray dog from Mdzimba.”
   “Lunwabu himself has sent me to fetch his muti bag. It is not treasure I want,” said Mandla. “You must let me pass. I cannot return without the bag.” The chubby boy whispered something to the group, and the other younger boy guffawed and nodded with approval. After some urging and whispered encouragement, the older boy struck the ground with his staff. “My brothers and I have decided to let you pass ……. on one condition. You have to beat me in a stick fight first.”
   Mandla looked at the taller boy’s long arms and muscled legs and shoulders. He had fought many stick battles with his age mates at home, but he had never fought a boy so much older and bigger than himself. Yet he had to try, because he could not fight all three of these boys to get past them.
   “Alright,” he said, “I’ll fight you. But I don’t have a stick.”
   “You can use this one,” said the older boy, seizing the stick from his chubby companion and tossing it to Mandla. Mandla caught the stick deftly by its middle and swung it about to feel its balance. It was a good stick, supple yet strong. “Where shall we fight,” he asked, looking beyond the bridge to the grassy bank where the ground was smooth and even. He gestured with his head. “Over there?”
   The younger boys guffawed again. The fat boy pointed to the gaping hole in the river with its whirling commotion of water. “We call that the Gap. Did you see the log wedged across it? That’s where you are going to fight. Standing on the log across the Gap.”

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