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21 March 2020 | Story Dr Stephanie Cawood | Photo Charl Devenish
Dr Stephanie Cawood.

Credo Mutwa, renowned African spiritual leader, diviner-seer, healer, mystic, author, poet, and artist, died on 25 March 2020 at the ripe old age of 98. He died on the eve of South Africa’s entry into unchartered lockdown territory due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. His death will forever be intertwined with the seismic shift in South African society. Credo Mutwa was born on 21 July 1921 in Zululand (as KwaZulu-Natal was known at the time), just after the life-altering ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic ravaged the world and South Africa (c. 1918 to 1919) at the end of the First World War. His birth and death book-ends a storied life filled with equal parts reverence, controversy, and hardship. Africa Day, this year, takes place during a time of great uncertainty and it seems fitting to remember the life work of one of Africa’s greatest storytellers, Credo Mutwa, and how important storytelling is for resilience during times of great upheaval. 

Storytelling is integral to human life. It is more than a mere frivolous or meaningless pastime. Storytelling connects us with our human world, helps us to make sense of it, and leads to understanding and reaffirming our common humanity. Indeed, Frederick Turner argued that aesthetic pleasure is crucial to maintain our complex human lifeworld. In this way, storytelling and the pleasure created by its ritualised performances are vital for our survival. Credo Mutwa understood the importance of storytelling in how it connects the past with the present and future, and people with the land of their birth. This is how the wisdom of the ages is transmitted to the next generation. He used storytelling – oral and written – as a means to “lay the foundation for better understanding between … human beings”. 

It was a gift and responsibility he inherited from his maternal grandfather and took seriously. In his epic tome, Indaba, My Children, Mutwa proudly affirmed himself as storyteller, planting his work firmly in the roots of the oral tradition of which he became a custodian. Through his work as author, Mutwa acted as interlocutor between the oral and written word. Throughout his life, he adopted the persona of metaphysical and material traveller. In his own words, “I was not travelling for enjoyment; however, I was travelling for knowledge, in search of clarity of mind and in search of the truth about my people”. As traveller, Mutwa was on a lifelong journey to other worlds and ideas. In African literature, journey is an important trope and marks a path towards wisdom and enlightenment; but a journey also represents a mixing of traditions, and, as traveller, Credo Mutwa bravely inhabited the intersection between African orature and literature – a position fraught with controversy at times.  

In a time where we bear the burden of separation, storytelling has the power to reconnect us. The human need for this ancient ritual is as strong as ever, although the “spark-wreathed fires in the centres of the villages in the dark forests and on the aloe-scented plains of Africa” may have become virtual in the form of social media and web-based platforms. Storytelling remains a powerful means for human connection and, during this time of physical immobility, has the power to let us roam free, to transform us into virtual co-travellers on this shared journey. Indeed, we need storytelling to thrive as fully formed ‘humane’ beings. Celebrate Africa this 25 May by sharing her and your stories. Answer the clarion call of Credo Mutwa to come together, in spirit if not in body, and make meaning in alternative ways to re-forge our human bonds, to “Indaba, My Children”.  

This article was written by Dr Stephanie Cawood, Director of the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies at the University of the Free State.

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