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In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic in rural South Africa, families are faced with the challenge of rebuilding their lives against a backdrop of devastation and death. In these landscapes, families look for signs of hope – opportunities that will trigger the possibility of renewal and rebuilding. In rural homesteads these signs are often associated with movements at the cattle byre or kraal (ebuhlanti) where the ancestors visit. Today, most kraals stand empty, but they are retained by families as places to engage with the ancestors. Since Covid, many rural families have been watching these spaces for signs of movement, evidence of hope. In this context, the presence of bees in the kraal can be meaningful.
The Bosnian anthropologist Larisa Jašarević claims that in her country bees are believed to be divinely inspired with knowledge. They do not just assist with pollination and produce honey to eat. They are a species that imparts knowledge and sustains human life. There are many references to bees in Islamic scripts, in which bees are associated with well-being and long life. Invoking bees often raises profound questions for Bosnian Muslims, such as whether the end is near or whether humans will continue to thrive as a species? They are present in the public imagination at times of death and crisis, including after the civil war in Bosnia in the 1990s, as well as in cases of death in the family (see Jašarević 2023; forthcoming 2024).
In Xhosa (Bomvana) culture, bees appear to have similar spiritual qualities. Their comings and goings are meaningful in ways other than their capacity to perform botanical functions. They convey a message to families about the spiritual state of the world, and the needs of the ancestors, who watch over the living. In both Bosnia and Bomvanaland in the Eastern Cape, bees are active in spring when flowers bloom and temperatures rise. These days they enter the empty rural kraals, which are now often overgrown. Their arrival is always carefully watched.
The calling of bees in Dwesa-Cwebe
In August 2022, a swarm of bees flocked in the yard of a large homestead in Dwesa-Cwebe that had suffered much hardship during the pandemic. The bees gathered at a spot in the kraal where older men usually sit to deliberate on family matters in the presence of the ancestors. From there, the bees moved to the kraal gate as if to block entry and remained there for some time. They eventually left, while the family spoke of their coming with interest. In the month that followed, a hive was spotted in one of the homestead sheds. The initial visit was suggestive, but the construction of the hive seemed conclusive.
The bees’ arrival clearly expressed a desire of the ancestors to communicate and was not a sign of their desire to admonish and scold the family for not holding customary ceremonies during the pandemic. They had something to convey and this meant that the homestead should prepare umqombothi (a maize-based traditional beer) and plan to host a clan ritual to give thanks to the ancestors.
To this end, the family called a meeting to discuss the timing of the ritual. However, due to the impact of the pandemic on family finances, they lacked the means to respond immediately because such an event required that they invite all those with the same clan name in the village as guests. However, their situation changed in January 2023, when one of the daughters in the homestead got a job as a nurse in a nearby town. This job offer also made things much clearer for the household, suggesting that the bees had come to announce the imminent gift of employment. The organisation of a substantial ritual to give thanks was now urgent.
In April 2023, when we visited the homestead, it was clear that something was afoot. There had been no formal announcement of any event yet, but drums of water were assembled in the yard and women from the family were visiting. On the Tuesday, the women mixed mealie-meal, water, salt and flour, leaving the dough to soak overnight. The word was now spread that the family would host a ceremony at the weekend. On Wednesday, the women woke up, boiled water and poured it over the mixture to prepare it for fermentation after cooking. On Thursday, they cooked the mixture; and on Friday, sifted the liquid to make traditional African beer. They also baked bread on that day to be served with a meal the following day. All of this is done by women who are married into the family. Everyone who is related to the family through marriage was also informed that they were expected to attend the ritual. On the Friday evening, all those who could make it arrived and the women slept in one rondavel. The significance was that the ancestors would visit them at night to thank them for their labour.
During the week of preparation, the married women who helped wore umbhaco, the traditional African skirt for married women. They also wore a certain type of doek (headscarf) known as ukuqhina. On the day of the ritual, and after everyone had eaten breakfast, the African beer was taken to the kraal where close kin gathered to have a sip. With each sip, a small amount was spilled on the ground so that the ancestors drank with them. During this time, an elder was nominated by the family to ask the ancestors for clarity as to what was expected of them as a family. Once this was done, the alcohol was given to the rest of the people in attendance.
In this case, the meaning of the bees’ arrival was not mysterious but had been revealed in the good fortune of the daughter. The mother in the household explained that due to the work of the ancestors, someone had approached her asking whether her daughter was available for a new contract as a nurse at the hospital. This temporary position was later made permanent. For the family, this was a great blessing and a gift of good fortune.
The calling of a ritual in this homestead was not only a significant milestone along the route to post-pandemic recovery but also a reminder to the community that there was still hope amid poverty, hunger and unemployment. The central role of women in the interpretation of the arrival of the bees and the preparation of the events is significant. As custodians of their homes and homesteads, they are often the ones who operationalise hope.
In the post-pandemic landscape of the Eastern Cape, hope is being rebuilt in small ways though reading the landscape and by re-convening assemblies of various kinds. This process of building from below is led by women. In Dwesa-Cwebe, there were many rural development initiatives that had promised hope before the pandemic, including municipal and government plans for infrastructure delivery and rural jobs, which have now been suspended or delayed (see Bank and Sharpley 2022).
The collapse of these schemes, including the closure of the local Donald Woods Foundation offices in Dwesa-Cwebe, left many bereft of hope, leaving their families swirling in a sea of uncertainty, spiritual insecurity and despair. Their predicament was exacerbated by Covid-related bans on assembly and the harsh restrictions on rituals and religious gatherings under lockdown.
In the wake of the pandemic, families in the Dwesa-Cwebe are now coming to terms with this reality by building hope from below, through small acts of mutual aid and cooperative labour. The return of bees to the kraals gives them hope that shattered rural lives might yet be rebuilt.
Leslie Bank and Nelly Sharpley, 2022, Covid and Custom in Rural South Africa: Culture, Healthcare and the State. London: Hurst.
Larisa Jašarević, 2023, ‘Time to dread’, Anthropology Today 39 (2): 1-2.
Larisa Jašarević, forthcoming 2024, Beekeeping in the End Times. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
*The research that produced this piece is done with the support of the IDRC Women RISE programme