Umsamo – The Hub of Ancestral Wisdom
(How do we meet the challenges of having Umsamo in our Modern Homes?)
Umsamo is a special and sacred place inside a traditional Zulu hut that is at once an altar and a repository (ithala) of a family’s precious and spiritually significant items. Umsamo is also a physical manifestation of the interconnectedness and special bond that exists between the living and the dead. It is a metaphysical and physical space in which the living conduct family ceremonies, be they large or merely concerned with the simple act of burning the impepho/ incense. This centre provides direction and a meditation platform from which pleading and prayers are offered. These acts and duties are held not because Africans worship the dead, but simply because they want them to act as intermediaries between themselves and the Almighty. Although Umsamo as a term has a particular Zulu linguistic connection, the concept of a family shrine is not unique to Zulu speaking peoples or Africans for that matter.
Umsamo is founded upon, and governed by, four pillars: i.e. Umuzi, Ikhaya, Iziko and Amathongo. Umsamo is the core of all the four pillars, and without umsamo these pillars are meaningless. and useless. Umsamo is always found, not inside the house, but at the back. It is demarcated by means of a small line of wall, thus indicating that in this place no one may simply just walk unless there is a pressing need. Ithala, which comprises the top part of umsamo, is where all the precious items are kept, along with those for future use and consumption.
Today thanks to the trappings of modernity and urbanization, it is no longer practical to have a traditional physical manifestation of umsamo in most households., The key challenge is how and where do we build an Ancestral Hub for our connectedness with our Amathongo? Certain African socio-cultural groups have devised or identified special places like certain trees as their Umsamo. Meanwhile others choose special places where they will always go and connect. The Shangaan peoples for example, have what they call Gandzelo which is specially built at the corner of the ‘yard’ where at certain times they go and connect through l ‘ukuphahla’ – a spiritual way of arriving a at diagnosis or communicating with one’s ancestors.
In brief, I strongly suggest that so long as we alive we can all individually have our Umsamo, if we believe we need it. One can build Umsamo by either using an object like a plastic or enamel container or dish and add a particular muthi which will act as umsamo. Such muthi is especially for the ancestors and such a ‘dish’ is often located somewhere in the house where and its location is known only to the immediate family members of the household.
In conclusion, so long as we are called upon to erect Umsamo for our living-dead no manner of physical space should make this demand impossible. We are Umsamo and without Umsamo so much may go awry in our methaphysical universe.