The Makhadzi - Defenders of the Sacred Sites

Photographs by Will Baxter

If we look at the ancestral way we find the solution to rebuild what has been destroyed.Mpatheleni Makaulule, Director of the Mupo Foundation

Venda, in Limpopo Province, South Africa is famous for its biodiversity and cultural richness. Its sacred sites are watched over by special custodians, the elder women of the community, known as Makhadzi. These women have come to be known as the "rainmakers" of South Africa, due to the capacity of their cultural rituals to invite rain to the area. For the people of Venda, practices such as these play a vital role in maintaining the health and integrity of their local ecosystems and of the wider community.

The Makhadzi are the matriarchal spiritual leaders of the community. The Venda people have come to understand their land through a philosophy called Mupo - meaning all natural creation, all that is not man-made. Mupo refers to a great order of things, of which human beings are just one small part. Mphatheleini Makhaulule of The Mupo Foundation explains "Mupo is a word that describes the origin of creation, of all creation, of the Universe. When we look at Nature, it's Mupo."

Today, the traditions and practices of the Makhadzi are coming under increasing threat as the sites within which they carry out their traditional practices - and have done for hundreds of years - are now being brutalised by construction projects. During 2007-2008 a road was built across a sacred rock and the river near to the Phiphidi Falls. Phiphidi Falls is one of the sacred sites where the Makhadzi carry out their rainmaking rituals and their celebrations around the fertile, life giving qualities of seed. The sacred rock was broken up in order to make way for the road, and most recently, a series of chalets for tourists have been constructed beside the falls. The Makhadzi are deeply pained by the destruction of their traditional territory and especially their sacred sites.

When I look at this map we are drawing, I feel I could cry. Our territory has been badly hurt. Our lives as elders will soon end, but I cry for the coming generations. How are they going to live when this country is destroyed? I'd like to see something change so that our children can have a new life.Joyce, Makhadzi elder

In light of these increasing threats to the traditional Venda way of life, the Makhadzi and a number of members of the community came together to form a community organisation. They named it Dzomo la Mupo or Voices from the Earth.

In 2009, in order to help rebuild the confidence of the community and their energy to fight for their rights and their sacred spaces, an eco-cultural mapping exercise was carried out with the Dzomo la Mupo. Makhadzi were joined by representatives from across the Venda sacred sites network and by indigenous groups from as far away as the Altai and Colombia - there in solidarity having been through similar processes in their own cultural contexts. The eco-cultural mapping process was co-facilitated by The Gaia Foundation and marked a significant turning point for the community. A renewal of confidence and identity, the mapping process restored the communities faith in the need to stand up against the forces which threatened them.

We must stay patient. Even if people would choose to criticise us. We must hold onto our culture. We were born into this culture, and it will continue.Chief Vhutanda, Venda community

Find out more about the process by watching our short film Reviving Our Culture, Mapping Our Future.

Since the eco-cultural mapping process, the Makhadzi and the wider community have continued to develop more detailed maps around their sacred sites. Reflecting on their landscape in the past, present and future, the Dzomo la Mupo have used the maps as supporting research and evidence to challenge the development of the tourist lodges in court. You can follow this story and find out more about the inspiring determination of the Dzomo la Mupo and the Makhadzi by clicking here.

You can support the Dzomo la Mupo to fight the Phiphidi falls development by clicking here to donate.

Related articles and sites:

In Pictures: South Africa's 'Women of Power', BBC News Africa, 14 October 2010

Defender of the Sacred Sites by Don Pinnock, Mail and Guardian online, March 11 2011