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Shembe on the Mountain

21 January, 2004

Walk up Nhlangakaze MountainI walked up Nhlangakaze Mountain in the verdant, hilly countryside of KwaZulu Natal province north of Durban, South Africa, with more than 100,000 Shembe worshippers. Barefoot.

The climb up takes about one and a half hours. The track is very steep, mostly a soft, red sand packed on rock, worn smooth by generations of pilgrims.

And thousands and thousands of people are walking up the mountain this morning, barefoot. The men carry staffs and wear leather skins under flowing white robes, beaded leather anklets and always a ring of fur on their heads. Some wear a shirt and tie under the robes and carry briefcases, and many will have a cell phone discreetly buried in their clothing. The young bloods wear sunglasses and carry sport bags.

The women wear long skirts under their white robes and a beaded, pillbox hat. Once on top of the mountain, all the virgins must cover their heads, making a mass white fluttering, like a colony of pure white birds about to take flight.

In 1911 Isaiah Shembe was directed to this mountain by what he believed to be the voice of God. He suffered trials and temptations over fourteen days and then created the rituals of the church, which yoke together two very different traditions: Zulu music, drumming and dance, and an Old Testament theology, centred on full immersion baptism, miracles and healing.

The church's current leader is Isaiah's grandson, Mbusi Vimbeni Shembe, a man in his 70s, who claims to have between one and three million mostly Zulu followers in South Africa. Hence this annual two-week pilgrimage to the sacred mountain.

Walk up Nhlangakaze MountainThe climb is slow, arduous. It is hot. Everyone, including me, carries bunches of wild flowers that we purchased on the drive to the foot of the mountain from young children clustered by the road, waving small fragrant bouquets. At certain points on the trek, everyone kneels, prays, and puts a few sprigs on what have become large piles of scented, drying flowers, that will be set on fire on the last day of the pilgrimage. At the first such altar, senior priests in blue robes perform a kind of cleansing, or confession. Each of these points marks a moment of revelation in the first journey up the mountain by the founder.

On the way up, people sing, a soft call-and-response hymn, led by an elder, repeated over and over. The Zulu sing beautifully, with rich, natural harmonies. There are only five white people in this broad, flowing mass, but we are greeted warmly. Old women take me by the hand and through a mixture of words and gestures, attempt to guide me in the rituals of worship. Kneel, here. Walk there.

The top of the mountain is a flat, sweet-smelling, grassy meadow. The Shembe himself wears a stiff hat and robes passed down from the prophet. "I hope I am not offending" says one woman to me, in the courteous South African way, but I'm not waiting for Jesus to come back. The Shembe is the Black Jesus." He speaks to the faithful from under a canopy, and at the end of a service retires to a tent to meet with dignitaries: this morning, a Hindu priest. This afternoon, the leader of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party, the Zulu political party currently in control of Kwa Zulu Natal province, will come to the mountain.

Politicians acknowledge the power of the Shembe, while he claims to be apolitical. At the same time, his church is front and centre in discussions with the government on HIV/AIDS, speaking adamantly against what is referred to here as "condomizing." I cannot imagine what this is actually doing to the spread of the HIV infection, which is higher in this province than anywhere else in South Africa.

Instead, the Shembe men preach abstinence and tell me about the healing power of Vaseline, which is blessed by the leader and then swallowed with holy water. They say that HIV/AIDS is a punishment from God, just as predicted by the founding prophet.

But Shembe women go to clinics and take medication which, according to Violet, the Shembe's own sister, was created by God and therefore is acceptable, when combined with prayer. Violet's intense, serious daughter, the Shembe's grandniece, is a psychiatric nurse and HIV/AIDS counselor who quietly admits that yes, on occasion, she does recommend the use of condoms.

But, says Violet, a woman will never lead the Shembe.

This remains a culture of spear-carrying men, and this religion is one that attracts the rural poor. In the historic battles for which the Zulu are famous, they moved thousands of warriors silently over this same terrain that we are walking in peace and fellowship today.

But they will not wage war on the scourge of HIV/AIDS. The Shembe have chosen not to set aside their ancient traditions in order to save their people. It's a tragic paradox.