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Mphatheleni Makaulule

Mphatheleni Makaulule, a South African activist, created the group Dzomo la Mupo to protect a series of sacred sites in the Venda region which are under threat from development

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Celebrating women activists: South Africa's Mphatheleni Makaulule

The Ecologist

8th March, 2011

On international women's day, a remarkable lady fighting to maintain the ancient traditions, local knowledge and sacred sites of one of South Africa's last indigenous clans talks to the Ecologist

Mphatheleni Makaulule was brought up in the VhaVenda tribe of northern South Africa. She has a deep passion for the culture and traditions of her people, the Venda. She has watched the fast attrition of her culture as westernisation and modernisation have engulfed her community. The corresponding erosion of the social fabric as well as the local natural environment is evident. While increasingly the local youth believe that the elders of the community are 'uneducated' in the western tradition and have nothing to offer them, Mphatheleni has spent countless hours sitting with the elders, or 'libraries of knowledge' as she calls them, learning about social and ecological governance.

In 1999 Mpathe built the 'Luvhola Cultural Village' with the help of community members. Then, in 2006, Mpathe met with the African Biodiversity Network and the Gaia Foundation who have been working together to seek African solutions to the environmental and socio-economic challenges that face the continent. A partnership developed and in 2007 the Mupo Foundation was formed and registered in order to further facilitate this work. By 2009 Mphathe, with other traditional women leaders called ‘Makhadzis' formed a group known as Dzomo la Mupo to protect a series of sacred sites in the Venda region which are under threat from development.

On 8th March it's International Women's Day. What does it mean to be a woman in South Africa today?

Mphatheleni: Today we, the women in South Africa, we have got our platform on which to raise our voices. As South Africa has been liberated from the previous colonisation, we have our own space now. We can now stand up as a woman. Which is what we mean when we say ‘women empowerment'.

But there is a traditional role for women too, Venda women like me. Traditionally women are the ones who accompany the family, who accompany the clan, who accompany the community and who help everything stay in good order, in the natural order. We have a word called ‘Mupo'. ‘Mupo' describes the origin of creation, the creation of the whole Universe. When we look at Nature we see Mupo. When we look at the sky we see Mupo. Mupo means all that is not man-made. Mupo gives everybody a space - men have their own space, children have their own space, women have their own space. Our role as women is to accompany all - from family, clan, community - to go back to that order. That is where we come to the name ‘Makhadzi'. Makhadzi is the name for VhaVenda women elders but it literally menas the space of a women's role.

That leads us to what it means to be a women in the Venda community and specifically what it means to be a Makhadzi. Can you talk about their particular role in the community?

Mpatheleni: In every family, when a girl is born, she has a space. This is where we got the Makhadzi role. A Makhadzi lives with a traditional leader, which today we call Chiefs. A Chief is not a Chief without a Makhadzi. Makhadzi is the one who guides the Chief. Makhadzi is the one who makes sure that there is order in the family, order in the clan, order in the community. And through her knowledge, which continues to develop within her, and which is brought to her by the ancestors, she becomes a guide. She is the one who is there to be the mediator for the whole clan and the whole community. The Chief cannot rule without the Makhadzi.

Now the Makhadzi's are more important than ever because our sacred sites, the Phiphidi waterfall and the Thathe forest, are being threatened and destroyed. The order is being destroyed. Buildings are being built for tourists on land that Makhadzis have been performing rituals on for centuries. For us, sacred sites hold the same respect as spiritual places like the church. We never hear that in a churchyard they are building a lodge or hotel for entertaining tourists so why do they think it is ok here? We are trying to fight them but it is difficult.

I am working with the Makhadzis, Chiefs, and the VhaVenda people who form a community organisation called Dzomo la Mupo. This means ‘Voices from the Earth', and the community are just that. They are the voices of Nature, of the land, of the people, of our culture and they are standing up to the bullies who are trying to take this away from them.

What do you think it will mean to the community and the environment if these sites are lost?

Mphatheleni: There are 24 rivers flowing out of the Thathe Holy Forest. If you cut it down, what then? That's the end of the farming system in Venda. Sacred sites are places that make evaporation that makes rain. If you don't protect the pools and waterfalls, where do the people get clean water to drink? Rituals aren't empty things. They're the Earth wisdom of hundreds of generations of wise people, especially Makhadzis.

My father would never allow trees or bushes to be cut down near a river. You can call that tradition but it's also good environmental sense. Without their shade the life of a river shrivels and dies. It can dry up or flood your land. The tradition of my people protects the environment. It comes from an understanding of the natural world, which people have lost. It is old knowledge but it's also future knowledge, because without it we'll kill everything. We're living in the time in between when people have turned away from caring for the Earth. But I think it's changing.

You mentioned your father, and he has been very important to you. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with him and how you are continuing his legacy?

Mpatheleni: I am the first born of the third wife of my father who was a traditional VhaVenda healer. My father was 74 when I was born, and I'm the 11th of 24 children. My father gave me the name of Mphatheleni, which means to re-build. I take it very seriously. He knew what he wanted me to do. My father's spiritual healing and practices were not accepted by many in the community once Christianity took hold, and I too have faced this challenge. This is why so many of the community feared standing up to protect their sacred sites, because the Christian order did not recognise them. But by working with the elders to record the traditional knowledge now Dzomo la Mupo are speaking out to defend their sacred sites and the old order.

With my father we lived culture as life. We lived tradition as life. My father never showed me another way of life. Culture or traditions, Mupo, this is all life for us. The cultural customs stay within us within our veins.

We didn't get law from the church, we didn't get law from the schools, we get laws of how to live, how to behave at home, from our Makhadzis, our Elders and grandparents. Our grandfathers gave us customs which stays in us. This is why it is so important that the younger generation learn from the Elders and do not lose these traditions.

Do you have a message for the young women on your community on International Women's Day?

Mpatheleni: The message which I say to the women is this. You younger women are facing a challenge today because of the modern world, you are going to be the big sisters to the younger women, ‘mukomana', you are going to be makhadzis, you are going to be mothers, you are going to be grandmothers. In 10 years to come, if you don't go back to learn from the elders before they die, then future children will be staying on the edge not knowing the answer to the problems they are experiencing. We see today that because of the lack of initiation schools, which is the rite of passage, you go to the towns and villages near towns, you see how the younger women are confused and frustrated. You see how HIV aids is eating away our younger mothers, our future mothers, future Makhadzis. A rite of passage is missing when a baby girl is born where a mother would learn the customs from the elder mother, and from the Makhadzis. We need to return to our roots and to remember our traditional ways.

You know if we want to save this world - especially people ¬- we need to listen to women, particularly elders. They're the bowls, the containers of life. They are food security. Even a king can't be a king without a makhadzi. You can't be a strong fowl if you haven't felt the warmth of a mother hen. We appreciate highly the role of men, but we are the cradles of the human world.

You were awarded a Bill Clinton Fellowship to study leadership in the states, which included some time at Harvard. How was it returning to your community after this experience?

Mpatheleni: When I returned people said: 'You, you've been to the United States and now you're a millionaire. You must start a business.' But that's not what I was preparing myself for. Money doesn't interest me. I went back to what I was doing.

You can find out more about Mphathe, The Mupo Foundation and Dzomo la Mupo by visiting the Gaia Foundation and watching the short film Reviving Our Culture, Mapping Our Future.


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