Religion and Beliefs of Tsonga People

Ancestral Worship

©Dr Peter Magubane
Some Tsonga people identify as Christian, but others still have a more traditional and ancestral-based religion.
Today over half the Tsonga belong to Christian churches, particularly the Independent Churches or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, former Swiss Mission. Christianity is attracting increasing numbers of adherents among the educated in towns, but in rural areas traditional beliefs still have a strong hold. Traditionally many Tsonga believed in a supreme being, to whom the creation of man and the earth was attributed. The beliefs of the Tsonga lie in ancestor worship.

They believe man has a physical body 'mmiri', and a spiritual body with two attributes, moya and ndzuti. The moya, associated with the spirit, enters the body at birth, and on death is released to join the ancestors. The ndzuti is linked to a person's shadow and reflects human characteristics - it is that person's 'understudy' who, on death, leaves the body in the spirit world.

The spirit of the dead 'swikwembu' is imbued with the individual and human characteristics of the person. Not only is there life after death, but on entering the world of the dead the individual retains links with the living. For many Tsonga today 'society' implies an all-encompassing entity, including both the living and the dead. In order to ease the entry of the spirit of a recently deceased person into the ranks of the ancestors, a welcoming ceremony is performed shortly after the funeral. The death of a member of the muti causes all relatives to become ritually unclean and cleansing rituals are performed at different times of the day over a number of months.

Worshipping Process

Ancestor worship, still practised today, requires the performance of rituals, particularly during crises, under the direction of a nanga 'diviner'. The family gathers at the gandzelo - set aside for rituals and sacrifices - to pay homage to their ancestral spirits. Food and drink are placed in sacrifice to the ancestors who are normally thanked for providing for the people. Requests are made for their intercession with specific problems and during times of crisis. Ancestral spirits can also be approached informally and without sacrificial ceremony, through prayer.

The Tsonga also believe in good and evil spirits. Good spirits bring rain and make good happen. Evil spirits 'buloyi' are manipulated by sorcerers 'baloyi' who can bring great harm to the community. A sorcerer may be aware of the evil spirit within himself and use it to his advantage, but usually buloyi possess an ordinary person without his being aware of it, and leave his body at night when he is asleep.

The presence of baloyi is usually associated with persistent illness and bad luck. Occasional illness is accepted as a natural part of life, and many Tsonga believe that a sick person will heal on his own in time. Recovery can be hastened through medicinal compounds administered by knowledgeable members of the household. However, if the sickness is more serious or the cycle of bad luck persistent, it is indicative of intervention of evil spirits and a cure must be found through divination.

Divination of buloyi is done by a nanga or a mungoma, who consults with the ancestors through bones, shells and other artefacts, tinholo or mavula. The tinholo are thrown like dice onto a mat from a container; depending on the positions in which they land, the diviner determines the cause of the ailment and the course of action to rectify it.