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Ukulanda – the use of Ziziphus mucronata

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What is ukulanda?

The Zulu term “ukulanda” refers to a ritual practice that is performed by different cultures throughout Africa, where it goes by different names. The term can loosely be defined as a ritual that involves the process of fetching or retrieving a deceased spirit from their site of passing to their place of resting.

God forbid, but suppose that someone is involved in a fatal car accident on the N1 highway and passes away on site. After removing the body and cleaning the accident debris, the deceased person’s family will typically come to the site of the accident to help guide the recently deceased person to the place where the other deceased members of the family are resting. 

It is believed that when this rite of passage is not performed for the person that has passed on, it denies them their place in history and ancestral lineage. 

I asked someone about ukulanda, because I’m a Christian and believe that to be absent from the body is to be present with the lord, 2nd Corinthians 5: 8. The person referred me to the stories of different people who died in the bible and how they were sent to join their families. One example was of Moses in Deuteronomy 32: verses 48 to 52, where God tells Moses to go up to mount Nebo to see the promised land because he will not go with the children of Israel. Here God tells Moses that on this mountain you will die and be gathered to his people just as Aaron died on mount Hor and was gathered to his people. In the New testament Luke 16: verses 19 to 31 tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In this story both men died but Lazarus was carried to Abraham’s side while the rich man went to be tormented by fire in Hades. 

According to African tradition and belief, there are different ways of retrieving a spirit. The method used will depend on the family, their beliefs, and cultural practices. One of the most common methods is the use of Ziziphus mucronata (umlahlankosi) where the twigs (ihlahla) are used in the ukulanda ceremony.

An example of ukulanda

The following is a story from interviews done on family members that have performed ukulanda explaining how did it.

This story is by an anonymous a guy in Port Shepstone, in KZN and it reads: 

In 2017, when my nephew passed away in Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal, I was given strict instructions by experienced elders on how to undertake my first performance of ukuLanda. Being my mother’s only son and eldest male figure in the family, the sacred duty of ukuLanda fell on me. The instructions from the elders required me to connect with my nephew’s spirit through the spoken word. This was to bring him to the awareness that I would lead him home. During this journey, I became a character playing a role in the drama of speaking to the departed. This journey began at the mortuary after the men that accompanied me had finished cleansing his body. They sang as they washed his body. I had to first present myself to my ancestors. The men stopped singing, and I called to each of my ancestors with umlahlankosi in hand. I proceeded to explain to them the nature of the activity about to be performed. Finally, I spoke directly to my nephew’s spirit, explaining to him that we were going home. The men started singing. I started leading my nephew. I notified him when we exited the mortuary and entered the hearse. We left the men behind. Only the sound of the vehicle and rubber rolling on the tar enveloped my voice as I narrated the directions to him. We left everyone behind and went to the hospital, in which he took his final breath. As I stood beside the hospital bed where he had slept, I explained to him that this is where his spirit separated from his physical form. Then we proceeded to a momentary stop at the house he lived in, in Port Shepstone, for the community to pay their respects. The men had gotten there before us and sang with the community. Once this was done, we commenced with our journey to our family burial grounds at home, in Empendle. I relayed every minuscule detail of the journey from each geographical location we entered to every river we crossed till we entered the round hut in Empendle. We entered to wailing and singing. He was placed at umsamu and I placed umlahlankosi on his coffin. With this ritual or with this act or through this journey, I had brought him home to his people. 

What is the purpose of umlahlankosi?

In this case, ihlahla or the twig of umlahlankosi is used as a medium of communication between the living and the deceased person’s spirit. The assignment of carrying the twig and communicating with the deceased person is assigned to a close family member, usually an elderly person who is familiar with and understands family tradition. 

What happens after ukulanda?

Ukulanda is usually followed by a cleansing and purification ceremony (umsebenzi). In spirituality, principalities (spiritual laws) are underpinned by principles (beliefs). It is believed that whenever you have an accident at a particular place and a person dies, if that place is not purified with prayer or a cleansing ritual. That accident set the stage for a principality of accidental death in that particular place. 

A month after the burial, another purification ceremony is performed called inhlambuluko. It involves the slaughtering of a goat and cleansing with herbs. Inhlambuluko is performed by a priest and church members on the living members of the deceased family.  

Reference and further reading:

  • Edwards, S.D., 2011. A psychology of indigenous healing in Southern Africa. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 21(3), pp.335-347.
  • Hlophe, N.S. and by Coursework, M.A., 2021. Afro-surrealism in theatre making: An exploration of how Afro-Surrealism can influence the making of the South African play Ngilande (2019) written, directed and performed by Sizwe Hlophe (Doctoral dissertation).

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