All must be bare foot on the church grounds so l had pulled off my tights and shoes in the car and went around with nothing between my sacred place and the cool summer air. Trousers are taboo but Yvette, who is in lovely white linen pants is exempt. l am seated with mothers while Yvette will sit with the virgins. I too wanted to sit with the virgins but l did not think an Immaculate Conception argument would hold water.
Yvette asked the gorgeous young women she sat with if they were virgins and how virginity was determined. The girls giggled and piously told her that one’s conscience is the arbiter. I noticed that all men sat together regardless.
The church is a huge concrete slab with high roof, big windows and doors. There is no furniture save the altar; the exposed beams are lined with pigeons who fly almost choreographed across the hall every minute giving the place a timeless quality. The virgins are seated to the far left of the altar and the men to the right in accordance with notions of seniority. All married women wear beautiful beaded headgear and ankle beads.
We sat quietly and waited for the Amakhosi whilst the pigeons flew by, babies cried and people coughed or whispered, the echoes bouncing around us. After forty minutes, my back was in agony so l hugged my knees but was sharply admonished: women can only sit legs out stretched or knees bent at forty five degrees. I badly needed to pee so l insisted on going out. My hostess led me out to disapproving stares. There was no nearby toilet so l squatted by the footpath and did my business like the children and babies. We returned to see the Amakhosi had made his appearance. He was a surprisingly slight 30-year-old man in papal dress with one bodyguard in black on either side of him.
The Amakhosi never looks at the virgins, and he talks slowly and deliberately in a hypnotic monotone broken only by melodious hymns, which he leads. No one else speaks except a periodic guttural cry from the male corner.
Two hours later, l’d begun to have fears about my sanity. l was starving, dehydrated, needing the toilet again and dizzy. I tried to catch Yvette’s eyes in the virgin corner but she was doubled over. I looked at Straun in the male corner and he was rapt. My head pounded and l felt a scream coming. Mrs Ximba whispered that it was almost over but she was lying. I opened the bag of macadamia nuts l had thankfully snuck under my tent dress. I found out later that on Saturdays everyone fasts except children and the infirm.
I asked Ximba when we were reunited why there are no seats in the church, he tells me it is to punish the body to purify the soul. I ask him how they prepare an Amakhosi for leadership considering the immense amount of power he wields, he says it is the work of the chiefs but senses my doubt so he declares that this Amakhkosi is divinely knowledgeable albeit young and that all bow to him only because of the spirit of God in him. I can’t argue with God can l? I question his own devotion to the church having known nothing else and he tells the story of how he was a prophesy child gifted upon his mother who had lost many before him.
So finally l ask him about the vuvuzela controversy. The vuvuzela is said to have originated from the church.
According to Ximba, once there was a crippled Shembe member who had a vision from God to remodel the kudu horn traditionally used in their services and music into a more accessible product. He made it into a long giant stainless steel object and showed it to Isaiah Shembe 1. The prophet liked it and thought that the church must adopt it to provide support for a crippled man who cannot have a wife or children to support him. The church adopted it and the members then started to buy it so it became a popular tool used in worship in the church until a certain man came around, saw it and decided to make plastic versions for sport which then became a worldwide hit and best selling icon of south Africa’s world cup. Recently the courts judged in favour of the church for compensation for the product so it would seem there is some substance to the story.
Mr Ximba invited me to come back the next day for the musical performances and I was tempted but have had enough religion for a while. As we drove away, I noticed the giant cow tied to a stump on the grounds and wondered if he was food or sacrifice. I would love to come back one day but only to film a story as l must admit that l sort of like taking my psychic cues from more material spirits, especially edible ones like Paul who brings me visions of scrumptious calamari rings and sea food paella.