Land of Mysteries and Almost Forgotten Legends

The VhaVenda are involved in the Fundudzi Camp, and the Fundudzi Tshivhase Tourism Primary Co-op Ltd is responsible for this camp.  They are involved also in the Mutale Falls Camp, for which the Mutale Falls Primary Co-op is responsible.  The language they speak is Tshivenda.

In the north between the Soutpansberg Mountains and the Limpopo River, the Venda settled after having migrated from the central lakes region of Malawi between the 14th and 17th Centuries.  The Pafuri gate of the Kruger National Park is the closest gate  to the Soutpansberg.

The Venda were influenced by the Shona in Zimbabwe and had close associations with those living at Mapungubwe.  In the area were the Ngona an aboriginal stone age people and the Sotho-Tswana who had settled there many centuries earlier.

The Venda lost their independence only in 1989 long after the other African groups in South Africa.  The death of chief Magato (Makhado) finally allowed the Boer to take over the Venda.  However in the war of 1899-1902, the town of Louis Trichardt was torched by the remaining Venda.

The Soutpansberg area is fertile and mountainous with many rivers, lakes, forests, waterfalls, and pools. The Venda believe that all living things have a spirit and are protected by the ancestors.  Spirits like the water snake, the white lion and the white crocodile inhabit these sacred sites where communication happens with the ancestors. These have been described as so full of ghosts that few people would dare to walk in the forests.  The Soutpansberg were named after the salt pans to the west but are also known as the Superstition Mountains.

According to legend, a Boer commando was defeated by stone-throwing zwidudwane, who are half-human, with one half in the spirit world and invisible to human beings. Only the priests of the Netshiavha clan will be able to see the zwidudwane as seeing even their human halves will bring death. They are believed to be very affectionate towards one another so giving yourself a hug can cause a panic if you are believed to be hugging a zwidudwane. They love meat and dig game pits to trap the animals.  As only one eye is human, they lack depth perception and can fall into and get trapped in their own pits.  The Venda believe that it is dangerous to answer calls from help that come from holes in the ground.

There is a flat rock above the Phiphidi Waterfall where offerings are left for the zwidudwane. The gifts are collected and taken to the pool at the foot of the waterfall on the Mutshindudi River.  Drumming and singing have been heard from this Guvhukuvhu pool. Chiefs from the Sibasa clan re buried at this pool and their spirits enter the birds and the fish.  During wars this pool turns red and for others the pool acts as a crystal ball.

To walk alone in the Soutpansberg can lead to a meeting with a horrid zwidhanyani, which appears as heads, eyes or body parts and is called Sankhimbi in most Venda folk tales.

Even beads are held to be sacred.  Glass beads made from a tube that is cut after it cools down are treasured because they use a manufacturing process that is centuries old.  Each bead contains the spirit of an ancestor as a cloudy inside the glass.  The most valued are the Vhulungu ha Madi (beads of the water in blue, grey or green) and the Limaanda (Limanda or white beads) representing the powerful one.  The most valuable bead strings consist of beads cut from the same glass tube and strung in the order they were cut in – each bead fits into its neighbours and a blending or colours results.

The Venda use drums for many purposes in their cultural practice.  These are large and exquisitely carved.  The Ngoma drums, which symbolise the pool of creation, Lake Fundudzi, are used by the royal house for ceremonial purposes.  Smaller muruba drums are used for dance and entertainment. Both are used for initiation ceremonies like the domba dance.

The Domba drum is delicately carved in wood with a cow’s skin stretched across its mouth and is a highly valued possession. There is an open air workshop near Mutale where drums take shape made by carvers in the traditional manner.

The pottery of the BaLobedu derives from practices in the past where traditional pots were used to store food adn liquids.  Decoration is engraved geometric designs with a graphite and red ochre glaze.  An unusual texture is produced by firing the pot on an open grass fire.

At Dzwerani, sisal is grown and used for weaving masks and baskets coloured in deep earthy hues.  Baskets with well-fitting lids are traditionally used to serve food to chiefs and other important people but are now used by everyone. Mats are woven at Tshakuma from wood and cotton while in the north in the Masisi area, mats are made from reeds gathered from the Limpopo River.  Again  in the north at HaManezhe, the Lalla palms are used to make delicate bowls and baskets.

Iron smelting is no longer a traditional Venda activity as it was in the past. Old mines at Tshimbupfe, have old clay furnaces and smithy that can be visited.  Teh furnace has a hollow clay structures with buttressed walls adn a circular opening at the top to load charcoal and iron stone.  The actual technique used included bones and blood as has been shown in research but no-one knows any more how to regulate the temperature.

The most important god of the VhaVenda is Raluvhimba, a supreme lightning bird or eagle god, that appears as a fireball and speaks in thunder but vanishes if people go near it.  Rainmakers made sacrifieces to Raluvhimba underneath the sacred marula tree on Thononda Hill overlooking the Lake.  Smaller lightning birds are believed to work with witches.

The Thathe Vondo forest surrounds Lake Fundudzi and includes the Mahovhovho waterfall and the misty Sacred Forest where the chiefs of the Thathe clan are buried. Local people refuse to walk through the Sacred Forest due to the haunting by spirits like the white lion (spirit of the Chief Nethathe) and Ndadzi, a lightning bird.

The phiphid waterfalls always have offerings of food and beer in the hollowed out stones.  This is the place that the zwidutwane live in, the water spirits with one eye, one arm and one leg.

Rewrite – the lightning bird, Ndadzi, as it flies on the wings of thunder. Its eyes flash lightning and in its beak it bears the rain. When it drops its egg at the foot of a tree, the tree will burn up instantly. At Lwamondo hill a troupe of sacred baboons keeps watch. Their task is to warn the Lwamondo of intruders. The baboons are protected by the VhaVenda.

At Sagole Spa in the North of Venda there is a python deep under the earth. Hot mineral waters flow from its belly and rise through its mouth to the surface. In a nearby reedbed lives the harmless and friendly woolly-headed snake whose task it is to pacify the natural spirits of the spring. Visitors can bathe in the natural hot spring. Another spa was developed at Mphephu.

The Venda consider the Fundudzi Lake to be the most sacred place in this area.  As a visitor, it will be greatly appreciated if you show respect, by doing the traditional Ukodola salute  when you first see the lake. This consists of turning your back to the water and bending down to look at the lake upside-down through spread legs.  Lastly pluck a few hairs from your head and throw them into the water to please the gods of the lake.  Further tradition holds that visitors need permission from the chief and must be accompanied.  Nothing at the lake must be spoken of directly as this is unlucky.  The chief believes that the lack of respect for traditional values has resulted in environmental damage to the lake and surrounding area.

The lake is a holy shrine where tribal ancestors have been buried for since earliest memory. They are first buried near the chief’s kraal and then after a number of years, the bones are cremated and the ashes scattered on the lake. The Chief Ntsandeni Netshiavha of the Vhatavhatsindi or People of the Pool are the traditional custodians of this lake.

Lake Fundudzi is the only natural inland lake in South Africa and according to scientists was formed by an ancient landslide which blocked the flow of three rivers.  The VhaVenda have a legend that claims that the lake was created by a leper who was refused food and shelter when he was passing by.  Taking revenge, he cursed the kraal that had turned him away and it disappeared beneath the waters of the lake as it formed.

As with the zombies of the Haitians, the VhaVenda believe that dead bodies have no shadows and this is how they can tell who the undead are. The Venda still believe that in the early mornings you can hear drums and cries from the buried people and cattle. And on a clear morning, they believe you can still see the people living at the bottom of the lake.  Sometimes one can hear singing although no-one is present.

The Venda people believe that the Mutale River flows under Lake Fundudzi and not into it, which is why you cannot see movement on the surface water. They cite the three rivers which flow into it and do not leave as being evidence that the water itself has been there since the time of creation, which is what gives it, its magical properties.

Another legend says that a man who had a broken heart due to a lost love walked into the lake and turned into a python, and is now the god of fertility and watches over crops. This python-god protects the sacred Lake and the ancestors.  In the past, young girls were sacrificed to the crocodile to prevent an illness from attacking the tribe. They were dressed up and sent into the waters with a woven basket filled with impala meat on their heads.  Apparently they would disappear under the water which would turn red in the full moon.

An alternate version describes the python as requiring human wives.  When it lived on the surface of the lake, it would visit the wives at night when they would not see its true shape.  When an inquisitive wife did see the snake, she was so scared that the python was shamed. It fled into the depths of the lake and a terrible drought occurred until the same wife walked into the water to join her husband.  It was to prevent further droughts that maidens in the following years were sacrificed by waling into the water.

The python god is pacified by the sacrifice of beer into the water every year at the same time as the Domba-python dance is performed by the initiation school.  Nowadays, the python god still receives his beer but appears to need fewer maidens.  A rope is tied around the waist of the person taking the offerings of food into the lake so that they can be rescued if the zwidudwane reject the sacrifice and try to take the person instead.

Rain-making rituals are based around the python god and all natural features such as waterfalls, forests and alkes are sacred places for different elders to talk to ancestors and sacrifice for a good rainfall, thus ensuring a good harvest and fertility.  The ancestors make sure that their people are healthy and happy in return.

The ancestral spirits in the lake are guarded by a white crocodile, which may well have existed in the past as the lake still has many large crocodile and an albino might have once been born. The level of the water and its colour are said to reflect the mood that the ancestors are in and when the rainy season will come. No-one washes in the lake but the spirits are not unhelpful.  If you throw something into the lake, the spirits will bring it back and throw it onto the bank to be found the next day.

The lake measures about 5km by 3km and the breakdown of the local traditions is has allowed for practices that cause erosion, the build-up of silt and destruction of wetlands and forest on the shore is starting to impact the lake negatively.  The Chief discouraged the planting of mealies on the wetlands as it would cause erosion.  Peatlands are also burnt and while the Chief has some control over his own people’s usage, he has none over the land of other chieftains higher up the river catchment area for the lake.

Recently roads have given visitors access to the lake that the chief cannot control and this results in unsound environmental practices.  When conservation was in the hands of the Vhatshiavha people, cutting down trees was something that could be punished. The land is owned by this tribe and they can theoretically take people to court for trespassing.  Over-harvesting of the lake has been discouraged by the Chief who allowed only line fishing from the shores to occur.  The roads have made the lake accessible by boat for net fishing.  People do not respect the custodial tribe and do not ask permission anymore.  The fish from the lake taste different to elsewhere due to a sweetness that is imparted by the soil of the region.

The Chief favours tourism but only if it is controlled.  He believes cars should not drive down to the lake and is not happy about the badly made roads that have added to the problem of siltation.  The  silt in the lake is accumulating at 1cm a year which is a sharp increase on previous siltation rates. The Chief would prefer to see hiking and donkey cart trails, which would provide further employment for his people and prevent erosion. Visitors could be accommodated in the traditional villages and not right next to the lake.  No nets or boats should be allowed and all stones, wood and vegetation should be left undisturbed.  He believes that the practice of taking a small amount of water and sand from the lake for medicinal or ritual purposes should continue.

The Chief has agreed to allow the development of tourism to help create jobs but does not want the traditional value of the lake to be threatened.  Vendan guides could be employed to explain the lake to the visitors and to let them know about the conservation and traditional uses of the local trees.  Guards and signboards to prevent abuse of the lake may be necessary.

Religious ceremonies take place at Lake Fundudzi, Phiphidi waterfalls, the Mashovhela sacred pools and others at shrines and sacred places.  The rituals, venerations and sacrifices performed allow for interaction with and appeasement of the ancestors.

The guardian of the Venda tradition, is mostly the older sister of the father or Makhadzi and she is the upholder of community values and performs the family rituals and ceremonies. She manages the rain-making and fertility rituals at the sacred sites and mediates with the ancestors for the family.  

The paramount chief of the Venda traditionally swallows a white stone.  When death occurs the body of the chief is left to decompose on a platform until the sacred stone is revealed.  This is then swallowed by the next chief, making the chief immortal.

The Domba-python dance imitates the movement of a python and is performed by the girls as their final dance before adulthood during their initiation school. This dance is performed in the southern hemisphere spring but not in every village every year, as there must be 30 girls of initiation age at a minimum to perform the dance.

The dance is performed in the open yard or khoro at the centre of the village.  There is a ritual fire in the middle that must be lit by a traditional healer.  The fire was once kept alive at all times ut this tradition is no longer followed.  The words tharu ya mabidigami (the python uncoils) have been called out by the leader of the dance, the young girls with in a slow conga movement to imitate the python while the throaty ngoma drum and smaller mirumba drums provide the music.

During initiation, carved clay figures, matano are used to illustrate the metaphors and symbolism behind the milayo or Venda stories told to teach values and appropriate behaviour at initiation schools. The figurines are animals such as the crocodile, goats and python and human figures that are important to the mystical and religious ceremonies of the Venda.

The girls are dressed in small loin clothes to illustrate the meaning of the initiation ceremony, that their purity protects their virtue better than any clothing. They are not however allowed to deliberately be attractive.  At most they may discreetly pull their loincloth down at the back to show their mutja-mbelo (heart stealer) which is the area between the top of the buttocks.

The boys initiation ceremony or Murundu is a period of months during which they learn manly behaviour and are circumcised. Nowadays the boys all know what to expect during circumcision and are taught to lie still and not show emotion to illustrate their great courage.  In earlier times however, this ritual was kept secret until the rite occurred and then the new “men” would keep the secret in turn.

The ritual was carried out in the past using a bloody rock and a spearhead as the frightened boys were held down and the supervising men made loud noises to cover the screaming.  It was easier in the past to keep the secret as the people did not travel much from one village to another and the villages were far apart. The African practice of circumcision dates only from the early part of the twentieth century and is still today frequently botched resulting in cosmetic penis-lengthening surgery.

One sect of the VhaVenda are the VhaLemba or Black Jews, who have been shown to be genetically linked to the priestly caste of Judaism.  They have always kept kosher, refused pork and practiced circumcision.  They were valued for their metalwork, trading, mining and pottery.  The VhaLemba believe that their people built the Zimbabwe  Ruins and came from Sena, a town in Yemen.  Archeologists have found terraced faming structures that are very similar in Yemen, Vhenda and the highlands of eastern Zimbabwe.

The VhaVenda are descended from the Rozvi-Karanga people in Zimbabwe.  The Mapungubwe Ruins were built by early Zimbabweans.  Many fine pieces of gold jewellery were found at Verdun and Dzata.  The latter was built by Dzembeu, whose father was the chief who lead the Venda into the Soutpansberg. Today Dzata is an important archeological site and museum. By the latter part of the 18th century the great Thoyoyandou, the “Head of the Elephant” descendant of Dimbanyika united all the migrant clans to form the Venda nation.

Along the northern border ancient fortifications can still be seen, built to stop invasions in the land of the Venda.  Venda folklore has many stories of the heroic deeds of this time. Bushman paintings show how old the area is and as one walks around the area, there is a sense of being present in the far distant pasts as steps lead past crumbling walls, sand stone caves and the remnants of old grain stores and other signs of early human habitation.

The Vhavenda have a rich background of myths and legends, that have been adapted over the centuries to reflect their changing social and physical environment and which still influence their lives even today.  These stories are used by the society to maintain the status of certain classes of people in relation to others, they also adapt people’s behaviour to suit their situation.

The first Vhavenda chief, Dabanyika settled in the Njelele valley about 800 years ago.  The Vhavenda had moved down from the area around the big lakes of Central Africa to set up homes in what is now Dzata 1 and Dzata 2 ruins. Dzata means “a good place” and they clearly thought they had found their promised land.  Dabanyika went off with a dog into a cave in the Soupansberg and was caught in a cave-in. The dog had been outside and went to fetch the son and heir, Thoyandou.  When Thoyandou reached the cave, it was impossible to free Dabanyika but he was still alive.  They discussed what to do and Dabanyika made Thoyandou to unite the different tribes in the area and build a great nation.  Thoyandou followed his father’s instructions and went on to become one of the greatest leaders of the VhaVenda.  Thoyandou means “head of the elephant” and African mythology in general considers the elephant to be a symbol of strength, greatness and leadership.  This symbolism is still found today when leaders are greeted with “nda ndou”, which translates as ‘good day, elephant”.  No other leader as ever been called Thoyandou, the next one was a Mpephu and this name is still carried forward today.

The sacred Mpephu village is near Hangklip but westerners and non-Venda people are not allowed to enter the village, which is looked after only by VhaVenda women.  This is where the previous Mpephu’s and other Chiefs are buried. An interesting myth concerns the VhaVenda tendency to re-bury their chiefs. One of the VhaVenda Chiefs once swallowed a small white rock.  A white crocodile used to live in Lake Fundudzi, and this crocodile was known for its strength and because it swallowed small rocks to assist their digestion.  Perhaps the tradition for the Chief to swallow a white rock occurred because the Chief wanted to injest the strength and the symbolism of the Lake Fundudzi white crocodile.  A deceased chief is placed on an elevated wooden platform until it has completely decomposed.  The white stone will then be retrievable and would be swallowed by the new Chief to enhance his power.  Only women are allowed around the bodies as they are not allowed to become Chief and would therefore not swallow the stone in an attempt to usurp power.

The Lost Valley has been terraced by the VhaVenda over the centuries that they have lived in this area.  None of the Khoi, San or other indigenous southern African tribes ever used the terrace method.  The tribes in Central Africa used this method and the VhaVenda brought it with them.

The lost tribe of Israel – or the Balemba – are linked to this Valley.  They have elegant eastern features and research is being done to see if there is a link between them and the Israelis. The Lemba were very strong culturally and only Venda men can marry Lemba women and not the other way around. The Venda man still needs to do a ceremony before he is eligible. A fire is made on top of an anthill that a man can fit beneath. The Venda man then has to climb through this hot anthill.

The original African dog or Nguni dogs and the Nguni cattle are also found in the Lost Valley.  Both species have adapted to the harsh environment and are able to easily withstand African diseases.

Dzata 2 is a set of ruins that come from the Thoyandou era. Dzata 2 was built with hard blue rocks that are not found in the area, giving rise to theories that the rocks were carried on the heads of slaves from Central and North Africa.  Parts of the ruins were reconstructed by archaeologists and although some of the original ruins remain, the site is very different to when it was discovered.  By contrast, Dzata 1 is in its original state and is research is currently happening here.

In the Thathe Vondo Forest is the smaller “Sacred Forest”.  The Thathe Vondo forest has many giant hardwoods like jakkelsbessie and yellowwood, many types of fern, creeper and other plants.  It is almost impossible to get through all these plants on foot.  The Sacred Forest is guarded by two mythical animals; the white lion or the spirit of Nethathe, an important chief, and the thunder and lightning bird called Ndadzi, which flies on the wings of thunder.

This bird and other mythical birdlike figures from North Africa and Egypt are similar and raise the question again of the true origins of the VhaVenda people.  Ndadzi’s eyes flash lightning and from its beak, pours rain, and if it drops an egg at the foot of a tree this will be destroyed by fire. These two animals appear to date from teh time when important chiefs from the Thathe clan were reburied in a cave in the forest to be protected by the white lion and Ndadzi.  Giant mushrooms that grow to 300cm on top and can be eaten are also found in this forest.

This period was one of the most successful for the VhaVenda.  Dzhembeu has a legend about him in which he and his sons were out hunting when one of the sons trapped the father and brothers in a cave. The young men escaped but the father was left behind and accordint to the legend he sleeps there still with his beard growing through the rocks. The sons battled with each other for power and the victor was named Thohoyandou (head of an elephant) and the capital of Venda is now named after him.  The Venda Chiefs like the sleeping knights and king of Sir Arthur’s court have their heads towards their own Camelot, Dzata.

One of the attractions in Limpopo are the giant human footprints scattered about the place.  They are not the result of engravings or weathering as the footsteps are surrounded by fossilised splashes as though the very large person had been walking through wet mud. The VhaVenda believed that the prints were made by a person called Khuswane when the world was young. Kokwane Prehistoric Footprints can be found near Makhado to the north of Soutpansberg.

Many ‘witches’ are burnt in Limpopo every year but not so many among the VhaVenda.  The vhaloi or vampires are still feared by the VhaVenda and must be identified by the ngangas so that they can be neutralised.  To complicate matters the vhaloi are often not aware that they have done evil things as they are asleep when doing them!  The accused can therefore not deny the witch doctor’s findings as he cannot be sure whether he is guilty of not.

A witch doctor is not the same as a medicine man.  The former deals with supernatural phenomena and the latter are herbalists. Sick people still consult the witch doctor as the belief that illness is caused by sorcery is common.  There is a famous medicine man, Tshikovha, at Sagole village.  In the same village are a hot spring and the largest Baobab (43metres in circumference).

Venda women are famous for their pots, bartering their wares to many neighbouring groups and influencing other potters.  They produced many household utensils.