Miss Duduzile Zwane was feeling unsettled. She didn’t know why. She was puzzled because there was nothing in the world to trouble her. Her father was rich and she was beautiful. At thirty-six, Dudu had an absorbing, well-paid job in a public relations firm, and a flat in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg valued at over R2 million.

            She had an occasional boyfriend, a fast-track young executive like herself, who left her plenty of personal space because he travelled a lot. Willie Gaza was attentive and affectionate, even if he did lack passion for Dudu. But she saw this as an advantage in a satisfying relationship. She had been stung badly in the past by unfaithful lovers and broken promises. In her mid-twenties she vowed to become an empowered woman who called the shots.

            And she had achieved that ambition. She felt smug considering how her school friends had faired in life. They were all married, and their husbands dominated them. They were tied down by domesticity and children. Even Patricia Zulu, the head girl who had married a millionaire, was kept constantly on the run by the demands of her five children – in a Pajero with a bumper sticker reading: Mom’s Taxi.

            Duduzile, who wasn’t the maternal type, didn’t hanker after kids. She was nobody’s slave. She had no children to make demands on her, no bossy, philandering husband who had to be asked for pocket money. If she wanted to buy a dress, get a pedicure, read a book, see a movie or take a holiday, she could suit herself. And whenever she was in the mood for a little male companionship, the intermittently-available Willie was usually in town; condomised, considerate and convenient. 

            Duduzile had the perfect life, and she knew it. Yet she felt uneasy. There was a shadow in the corner of her vision, something that threatened to spoil her mood, but she couldn’t place it. This is ridiculous, she thought. Why do I feel dissatisfied when everything is going so well for me? I have a fascinating new campaign starting at work next Monday, Willie lands at O.R Tambo International tomorrow, and tonight I’ve got the latest novel to read.

            My life is a paradise, so why do I feel so discontented?  She put the thought behind her, read the book, had a relaxing weekend with Willie and launched the campaign on the Monday. But a week later, the feeling was still hovering.

            That evening Duduzile sat in her comfy leather armchair, took a sip of Meerlust Rubicon and closed her eyes, trying to concentrate on the elusive feeling inside her, trying to isolate it, to put a finger on it. She could feel the rich aftertaste of the wine on her palate as she sat there, breathing through her nostrils, with the sensation that her entire being had withdrawn behind her own closed eyelids. Dudu imagined that she was very tiny, no bigger than an ant, and that she was inside her own skull, up under the bony dome, slightly to the left of centre.

            Looking down from her vantage point, she was able to see the contents of her own head; like the interior of a vast building. Duduzile noticed that the building had a smooth glossy floor with a swirling pattern worked into it. Then she became aware that the floor was transparent, like thick plate glass, and that the pattern was created by swirling strands, brown and red, of what looked like multicoloured gas or smoke. Somehow she knew that pressure was building up under that shining floor, and that if it shattered under the strain, the swirling substances would rise up and fill her skull.  At that moment she heard a voice quietly addressing her inside her own head.

            It whispered: “Ntombazana yami…” My daughter…

            Duduzile snapped out of it. She’d had enough. She recorked the wine and turned the TV up loud. There was a game show, but it was so stupid that she was soon out of her flat and driving her Alfa GT to the 24-hour gym where she had a contract. Thoroughly spooked, she climbed onto a spinning bike and tried her level best to exhaust herself over the next two hours. Her strategy worked; that night she had a deep unbroken sleep.

            However, the unease was still hovering; during her working day she was too busy to concentrate on it, but the feeling came back as soon as she was alone. Duduzile went to her doctor, and described the symptoms, which the good medic told her were extremely vague. He offered her a prescription for tranquilliser pills, but she turned him down, having once known a woman who was hooked on such medication.

            Her leave was coming up. She decided that a complete change of surroundings would put her in a better mood. Ten days later she was lying on a lounger under shady thatch, contemplating the blue of Lake Malawi, and sipping a pre-lunch cocktail. After lunch there was an excursion by bus to visit the people of the nearest village, who lived on fish from the lake and sold their handicrafts to tourists.

            One of the tourist attractions was a man billed as the local fortune teller. For a handful of small change, he looked into the future for visitors. He was a slim fellow of about forty, wearing simple khaki clothes and dreadlocks. Dudu smiled and handed him a few coins. He  asked her to  kneel on a reed mat in front of his carved wooden stool.

            He looked into her eyes and began to speak in Chichewa. The hotel tour guide translated his words for Dudu, saying that the man had a message for her.

            “He says that you must serve the ancestors,” said the guide. “You must go to the place where you were born and kill a snake. It must be delivered to a woman in a cave that you know about.”

            Dudu looked at the man, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. The soothsayer smiled, indicated that she should rise, then shook hands with her. On the return journey in the hotel minibus, her mind was churning. At dinner she couldn’t eat the delicious food on her plate, and in bed she couldn’t sleep. The feeling was there all the time, oppressing her. It was as bothersome as a bad headache, even though there was no physical pain. At lunchtime the next day she snapped – and checked out of the hotel. Within 12 hours she was taking off from Chileka Airport, bound for Johannesburg.

*

Like a woman possessed, she drove south east in her Alfa. Dudu went through Ermelo, then bypassed Ghost Mountain, where lightning flickered in the hills, and went on past Pongola.  She was heading for her birthplace: Emanguze in remote northern KwaZulu-Natal.

            The feeling had become heavier, more oppressive by now, as if she were being driven by a force she could not understand. Obedient to the commands she could sense, Dudu took a detour along a dirt road into the bush, heading for a sacred cave she remembered visiting with her grandmother at the age of six

            She saw something move quickly out of the bushes to the left of the road, and hit the brakes in an emergency stop. The car’s bonnet dipped and the front wheels crunched to a dead stop in the gravel.

            Frowning, Dudu got out and gingerly stepped round to the front of the car, to discover that she had crushed a large python to death. She got back behind the wheel and reversed a couple of metres, switched off the engine and burst into tears. She cried for what seemed like a long time, then took a deep breath and removed the sharp penknife from her keyring.

            It was almost as if someone else was in control of her. She was detached and perfectly calm as she cut the dead snake down the length of its belly. Without being told, the young woman knew what to do; it took her an hour to remove the skin, roll it up, and bury the remains of the reptile by the roadside.

The oppressive feeling was very strong now. She drove on, looking for the cave she had last visited thirty years before.

            It took her another hour to reach the foot of the mountain path that led up to the cave. As in a dream, she locked the car and started up the path, walking slowly with the oozing roll held in front of her. At last, she reached and recognised the rock overhang – but not the old woman who seemed to be waiting for her, perched on a boulder in the shade of the cliff.

            “So here you are at last, ntombazana yami! And I’d begun to think that you weren’t coming at all. Let’s have a look at that skin. Now isn’t that a beauty! I’m very grateful for your trouble, my daughter. And now I’d appreciate a lift back to the village, if you don’t mind. After all, it’s on the way to your grandmother’s place.”

            Dudu and the old woman, who introduced herself as Gogo Zodwa, walked back down to the car. The young woman felt as if she had woken from a dream, but the odd sensation was still there, as if a third person was walking behind them. She dropped Gogo Zodwa off and drove on to her own grandmother’s house in the village, and a great welcome from the grey-haired lady who seemed no older than she had been on Dudu’s previous visit, one year before.

            The exhausted granddaughter washed the snake’s blood off her hands in the bathroom, then joined her gogo, who had made a pot of tea. When Granny enquired how she was getting on, Dudu released a flood of tears. She told the whole story: the strange feeling, the words of the serene soothsayer in Malawi, the skinning of the python.

            Granny listened carefully, and when Dudu fell silent, she began to speak slowly. “You are going to become a sangoma. That’s what it all means – “

Dudu interrupted, “But Granny, I’m in public relations! I’m a modern woman. I’m not traditional at all. I cannot be a spirit medium . . .”  The old lady held up her hand for silence. “The ancestors will not be denied. Our family used to be famous for female sangomas in the old days, and it’s their blood that has come out in you, Dudu. It’s your destiny!”

            Dudu cried herself to sleep, then she had her old dream again, in which a whispering voice called her “daughter”. In the morning the feeling was there, stronger than ever, piling up like the dark clouds she could see gathering to the west on the escarpment.

            Granny was sympathetic. “This calling does not mean that you will have to live in a cave, Dudu. You can even have a happy marriage if you want, and blend the way of a sangoma into your modern life. And that will be an improvement, I’m sure. The two things need not be in conflict. But the ancestors will not be denied. They have chosen you for a purpose.

            “What I advise you to do is seek out a sangoma in Johannesburg, and undergo training. When you are ready, you can serve the ancestral spirits and the people they have in their keeping. But be modern as well! Go on being yourself, my girl, and find modern ways of being a sangoma. Would that be such a tragedy? “

            Maybe not, Dudu thought. Maybe I could combine the two ways of life into a whole, that would bring the ancient powers of Africa into harmony with progress and modern city life. And she reflected: If that is actually possible, then perhaps I could be fulfilled in ways I cannot imagine.

            Dudu smiled and said, “Okay, Granny, it’s worth a try. I shall take your good advice very seriously.”

            It was only then that she noticed the shadow was gone. The only things she could feel were a great lightness and a flood of joy.

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