Week Six: The Symbolic Burial

This week, I was extremely fortunate to have been included in one of the most unique events I have ever been to: a symbolic burial. On Thursday, four of us from Khulumani drove to Komatipoort, a town located on the border of Mozambique. 25 years ago, this was the site where 3 men were tortured and killed. Khulumani is working with the family of the deceased Mr. Johannes Sambo. Mr. Sambo was an underground ANC operative who was detained in 1991. He suffered such a violent interrogation, including “tubing”, that he ultimately died. His body was taken and repeatedly blown up with explosives until nothing remained.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, burial in South African culture is extremely important as it provides the means by which the soul can finally rest in peace. When a body is destroyed, it is believed the spirit is trapped and cannot move on to the next world. In cases like Mr. Sambo, where the body has been destroyed, families are required to do a type of symbolic burial in order for the soul to finally be released. These become quite problematic for families though because they must know where the individual was killed in order to perform the ritual. Fortunately, there is an organization who works to find the locations of those killed during that era.

This symbolic burial was divided into two parts. The first part consisted of each family visiting the exact site where their loved one was killed. The Sambo family consists of three young adults, the youngest girl was my age. It was devasting to see the agony they each experienced as they were shown the cell where there father had been tortured to death.  After seeing the cell, we gathered in a circle where a pastor prayed and spread water along the ground as part of the ritual. The group then continued with a traditional song/chant which included dancing in a circle. Some people were even “overcome” by the spirits.

We did this for each site. One of the sites actually took us up into the mountains that border South Africa and Mozambique. This was a treacherous dirt road which required us to get transported in military vehicles. We bounced around in the back of a military truck for about an hour, getting covered in dust, as we climbed slowly to the site. I could look out the back of the vehicle and see the fence which divided South Africa from Mozambique. Yet another new experience!

The second phase of the burial process required the families to return to Freedom Park, a memorial located in the city of Pretoria, another 5 hours from Komatipoort. The families bent down before the gates of freedom park, did another chant, and spread water over the ground, before making their way up to the memorial site.

This site consisted of a circle of large stones, each from a different province in South Africa where a horrible massacre occurred. Three different men, representing different religions, got up to speak, while the families kneeled down before the circle. They then began to sing while a woman took different liquids and poured it on each of the large stones.

The two-day adventure concluded with a wonderful dinner, consisting of traditional African food that I had yet to try since arriving here. The families each were relieved, finally able to experience some closure after the loss of their loved one.  I am so grateful to have been included in this process. It allowed me to truly get a glimpse of the real South Africa and it is something I will never forget.