The remains of last season’s mielies stand tattered between rampant blackjacks and pumpkins, wood smoke drifts across the ordered disorder of plastic bowls and pots that guard the fire between corn store and hut, an old woman endlessly shells roasted peanuts.

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Time steadies to a slow beat as the women chatter, stirring, picking, plucking, peeling the feast that awaits. Dogs scratch and stretch, slinking underfoot, chickens disperse in clucking scuffles, pecking around the cooking pots. The men lean into conversation.

The procession of food is carried in, delivered on bent knee, respectful hands clasped to one side and deferential heads bowed to the men. Silken pap, pumpkin mash, blackjack spinach fried chicken, Tilapia fish, Mopane worm stew – the food is organic, foraged or cultivated in a permaculture style of farming, unprocessed and fresh to the table. We eat with our hands, sensing feeling respecting the food as it coats our fingers.

I’m staying in the rural village of Makwarani, in Venda (Also known as Eastern Vhembe), historically a tribal homeland under Apartheid, situated in the remote North East corner of South Africa.  The week-long trip, organized by Jeff Rink of Ecopsychology Africa, is taking us on a journey into the forested hills and valleys of Venda’s Soutpansberg, staying in villages, visiting sacred sites and being absorbed heart and soul into the fertile landscape and rich VhaVenda culture.

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After dinner as the evening settles, the drumbeats deepen and the women rouse, sinuously wrapping their half naked bangled bodies into the long writhing coil of the Python dance. Young and old they stomp and gyrate emphatically, entranced as the drumming intensifies into a hypnotic beat.

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The next morning, I awaken rudely from vivid dreaming as the last stars are drowned out by strident incessant crowing – the valley soft pink and blue in the pre-dawn. I stretch out in my sleeping bag, having slept deeply on the unaccustomed comforting discomfort of the floor, only stirring fleetingly to turn my mildly bruised hips that still resist the reed mat. I am deeply peaceful and completely present in this foreign place.

As the sun warms the manured walls of the kraal, the morning routine of bucket washes and pit toilets, kettles on the fire for coffee refreshes us, and we gather for a breakfast of avocados, steamed sweet potatoes, fruit, baobab and sunflower seeds.  There is no rush, everything happens as it should.

We climb up through indigenous bush, our guide Edwin distinguishing a multitude of bird calls, and highlighting medicinal plants used by traditional healers.

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We stop to look at dung beetles and butterflies, Nguni cattle intercept us and a local farmer offers us freshly cut sugar cane sticks to chew on, we find a grove of citrus trees, resting in the shade we suck on the sweet fibres and pucker our mouths at sour lemons.

The river rushes and bubbles into swirling cauldrons and throws itself over ledges. The Tshatshingo Potholes drown with the ghosts of witches and criminals.

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We’ve come to the river to meet the charismatic Dr Mashudu Dima (Sangoma, medical doctor, historian and part-time radio station host) and his wife Mphatheleni Makaulule, who is an indigenous knowledge practitioner and environmental activist in Venda. Brought up in the Vuyha village, Mpatheleni has a deep passion for the traditions of her people, and is fighting the fast attrition of her culture and desecration of sacred sites as westernisation engulfs the communities.

They share stories of traditional medicines, the sanctity of scared spaces, cherished rituals, the threat to culture and their love of Venda.

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Although he’s in his eighties, Dr Dima speaks energetically, vital as a young man. He’s walking proof of the health-giving powers of this environment. Could rural Venda be a Blue Zone? (Regions of the world where people live much longer and healthier lives than average, including Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy and Icaria in Greece). Every day in Venda, we meet wiry geriatrics, carrying wood, tilling fields, stirring pots into their dotage, our guides tell us its commonplace for people to live to over a hundred.

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We spit on leaves and toss them on the pile of stones, marking the place a corpse paused on its journey to its final resting place. That death is respected, and ancestors revered is evident in the VhaVenda culture, from the funeral home calendar replete with limousines in the chief’s parlour to modern gravesites that are ornate monuments to the dead – granite slabs surrounded by burglar guards and tiled roofs. Even the long dead are sometimes exhumed and the bones taken by virgins to the sacred forest for reburial among ancient trees.

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We visit the Thathe Vondo sacred forest, guided by Chief Netshidzivhe, of Tshidzivhe village, where we’ve spent the night.  As we enter, a bank of cold mist rolls down the path, the trees dripping with old man’s beard. We tread lightly, walking in stillness, the forest breathes around us.

IMG_0957We meditate every day, in the forest, next to healing springs, alongside rushing rivers. As Jeff takes us into trance/meditation, I become weightless, present, vacant, time evaporates, I let go. Coming out, I’m aware of cold earth, stones prodding my body, numbness, cold. The process is deeply restorative.

As we walk between the villages, we are affronted by the alien symmetry of acres of pine plantations, encroaching on rivers and lakes, invading the indigenous forests. Another Apartheid legacy, left by the Nationalist government, these water-draining wood factories greedily support no other life, poisoning the soil and causing erosion that silts the rivers and lakes.

Our guides Nelson, Thamba and Roli talk to us about Venda cultural practices, the rich biodiversity of the area and the environmental threats to all of it, from industrial forestry to insensitive tourism development to pending mining rights to the urbanization of younger generations.

I  look down at Lake Funduzi from between my legs. According to tradition, visitors to the area must immediately bend over and view the lake from between their legs, the first time they see it.

IMG_0986This is the first of many traditions linked to the lake’s folklore, that we will have to adhere to. The largest inland lake in South Africa is sacred, and local tribes have struck a deal with the crocodiles that live in the lake to leave the villagers and their cattle alone. Although word is that the local dogs aren’t so lucky. Stories of “half-men” coming out of the lake and ritual sacrifices send shivers down my spine in spite of my scepticism.

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When we walk down to the lake, it’s the most tranquil place, the silence broken only by the cries of a fish eagle. Across the lake the Soutpansberg mountains are covered in forested wilderness. My adventurous spirit begs for the opportunity to go there.

The children of Tshiheni village squeal and giggle in the late afternoon, posing for photos and showing off their excellent reading skills as we relax with our books and journals outside the huts.

The full moon is rising. We sleep outside. I wake up in the middle of the night, silver light defining the valley in sharp contrast, the air breathless at the beauty of it.

Venda isn’t paradise – rural poverty is widespread and modernisation is eroding culture. Its capital Thohoyandou is a sprawl of Tuscan inspired housing, roadside food stalls manned by stoic women selling generous piles of fruit and veg and crates of live chickens, funeral parlours, car washes and an ugly mall with usual bland array of chainstores. The city is lively and vibrant, but traditional Venda culture is only evident in an enormous clay pot at a roundabout intersection, and a collection of magnificent art and craft gathering dust at the Thohoyandou cultural centre.

As we return to our starting point at Mukambani, I feel unsettled and reluctant to leave. My body has relished the hike and the simple, healthy food, and my mind feels detoxified. A week away from technology (Very little signal and limited access to electricity has kept me offline) and the warmth of the Venda people in welcoming us into their private spaces and sharing their lives has been overwhelming in its generosity.

DSC03138 (1)The experience has been complex and layered, and our immersion in the ecology of Venda and the intimacy of sharing the experience with a small group, opened and shifted me, leaving more questions than answers, questioning my own values and what western society considers worthwhile, how we live, how disconnected we are from the earth, why we live in insular nuclear pods and don’t talk to our neighbours, don’t live in extended families. Venda gave me a sense of community.

The Ecopsychology walk is as much a journey within as it is an exploration of an environment. Our group is small and the self-examining, healing space the walk creates, forges bonds that make us friends for life. We are all unexpectedly confronted by things within ourselves that are difficult, and the group holds the space to process this. Nothing is forced, it is the reflections on the experiences we have every day and the way they resonate with us, lead us within, to discuss the deeper issues.

As Jeff said to me at the outset, the walk isn’t meant to be comfortable, it’s challenging and transformative – an unsanitised path to sanity.

About Ecopsychology:

The Ecopsychology retreats are facilitated by Cape Town based clinical psychologist, Jeffrey Rink. Ecopsychology is a medium for integrating psychology, ecology, wilderness, community culture, conservation and meditation towards transformation and healing. Participants gain insight into nature, human nature and their own nature through the process. The adventures are authentic, fun, enriching experiences.

Upcoming retreats:

  • Retreat to Okavango Delta & Khwai River 17-26 June 2018
  • The Venda Sacred Walk, 8-15 July 2018

For more information contact Jeffrey Rink: shrink@tiscali.co.za tel 083 632 3039

www.ecopsychlogyafrica.com    

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