If one has had a childhood similar to mine, then ancestors have consistently been associated with terror. My post-apartheid/colonial upbringing cemented in me a fear of those that came before me - the African colonial library positioned them as ghosts and ghouls reaching ashed fingers across the material-divide to haunt me and make demands of my life. My Christian upbringing affirmed this by categorising these ancestors as demons - dangerous to encounter and consider in my identity. Adopting the faith meant that the dlozis (ancestors) were foe, not friends and my history as a 'son' (not daughter) of God meant that the lineage detailed in the gospels was mine; regardless of how indirect it was: it was mine by virtue of the proverbial blood that I drank at communion and body that I ate.
In his article, Ancestors in all aspects of my life, Shaka Sisulu re-positions the ancestors in a more nuanced and inviting light. He chronicles the shift in perceptions of his ancestors through the journey into fathering his second child, recalling the invitations of his grandmother to spend time and receive the blessing that only intergenerativity brings - through time and ages, it weaves a story of coherence from the past through to the present. Sisulu recalls feeling un-whole in the absence of this part of his life and seeking to piece together an identity not just for himself, but for his son too.
This journey into understanding one's past deeply resonated with me. I grew up in a strong patriarchal family reminiscent of the neocolonial black middle class of labour reserves across the continent. In particular, my grandfather enjoyed afternoon tea and often dissuaded me from reading Ngugi Wa Thiongo before I read Jane Austen and Shakespeare. I was a confused child, questioning my identity as I searched for coherence and lessons of wisdom in a society that was fragmented. As I grew older, so too did the yearning within me to make sense of my past and to have a personal history of my people and my life. Being fearful of the journey into knowing my ancestors, I decided with great conviction to become an Africanist. I made the presidents, scholars and revolutionaries of the struggle against colonialism my personal history: Nkrumah was my grandfather, Sankara - a family friend, and Biko - my favourite uncle.
This process provided me with temporary coherence as I navigated my first years in university. My goal in life was to be like them in thought and purpose. However, I was left wanting for a model for action. When I came face to face with my personal imperfections, as I'm sure those numerous African leaders did, I swayed fervently back to Christianity to be made 'perfect' by the blood of the lamb.
Now into my mid-twenties, I am still asking questions about the behaviour and decisions of those before me. How their lives resulted in the perfect circumstances for my life to come into existence. I agree with Sisulu, that there is personal value in knowing where one comes from, but also in sharing that knowledge with those who come after:
"Fast forward to my 20s, and there is an uneasiness about me. As if I'm not quite whole. I started to take an interest in my lineage. Where I come from.
It was uncanny; I'd seen my uncle go through this years before. He recorded everyone's details and put them into a family tree on his computer.
It was cutting edge at the time, and he beamed. I just thought this was the kind of thing that old people do – look at family trees.
But as I grew in my knowledge of my parents and their parents and their parents' past I began to feel more comfortable in my skin. I began to feel as though I understood myself better, the better I understood my ancestors' choices."
Sadly, for many in the developing world, this story is only partly understood. Many decades and histories prior to the 16th Century are still neither fully understood nor appreciated. And many traditions have given way to popular culture as new forms of coherence fill the gap. This is not to say that this historical unknowing is exclusively an African experience, instead I write from my vantage point with the impact on my own personal life. Neither is this to say, that cultural norms and traditions are wholly good. I am fully aware of the immense sacrifice made to allow me to read, vote and marry whom I choose.
These nuances, however, do not detract from the importance of knowing one's ancestors and respecting one's traditions. If anything, the journey may help form a sense of ownership and responsibility for the world and the life that bubbles within it - this, for me, is the true key and keyhole to intergenerativity: both opening doors on the journey of development.