INTERPRETATION OF THE STORY OF THOVHELA AND TSHISHONGE
It is tempting to compare the drama of Thovhela and Tshishonge with stories which it resembles from other parts of Africa, with oriental dramas, with Zoroastrian myths, or with mediaeval mummers' plays. But it must be seen in the context of Venda culture: the Venda do not, for instance, interpret it as a symbolic expression of a contest between good and evil, life and death, or sacred and profane, although it may suggest such themes to an outside observer. For the Venda, Thovhela and Tshishonge are not opposite, but two aspects of the same order, just as are Dzimani, Madavhula and Mashashule representative of three aspects of the Venda medical profession. The version of the story which Stayt gives makes Thovhela a man and Tshishango(sic ) his wife, but even in this the emphasis is not really an opposition between male and female. Stayt (1931:112-13) maintains that the "two mythical heroes are vaguely considered to be the originators of the BaVenda," but I could find no confirmation of this view. Because Stayt's book is not always easy to come by, I give his version of the story in full:
There are certain common features in Stayt's account and mine, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that an unenlightened spectator of the drama might have described what she saw in the way that Stayt reports. The death and resurrection of Tshishonge occurs in both versions, and also the consultation with diviners; there are three women attendants, as there were three medical experts in the version I saw, and there are two murders; and in both versions Tshishonge is driven out.
I have heard a variety of explanations of the story from the Venda themselves, and as far as I can gather no official version is given at the initiation. There are certain milayo of tshikanda which are given at domba, but they do not explain the drama of Thovhela and Tshishonge.
Some say that Thovhela is a chief and Tshishonge his younger brother, and that this is illustrated by the fact that Thovhela is protected by an umbrella and Tshishonge is not. The story is supposed to depict a recurring theme in Venda history, the rivalry of brothers for the chieftainship. However, if this were so there ought to be three, and not two, figures in the drama, because it was the Venda custom to allow only three sons of a chief to live (van Warmelo 1932:15). One master of initiation was adamant that Thovhela and Tshishonge were princes of the N (Vha) clan, children of the same father and mother, who were 'fighting for the crown'.
The mistress of initiation at Lukau explained that Tshishonge is Thovhela's father's younger brother (khotsi munene), and that he was chief of the district of Mukula long ago: the people of Thovhela were the people of Tshivhase, who collected an army to overcome Tshishonge. The people of Tshishonge were defeated, and Tshivhase (i.e. Thovhela) took over the country of Mukula. Now it is true that Ramaremisa, a chief of the Tshivhase tribe, installed as headman at Mukula his relative Takalani in place of headman Mamburu; but this occurred in 1912, and without bloodshed. It is unlikely that an important Venda initiation school should pay special attention to one particular example of a frequently recurring pattern of political change, and in any case the drama of Thovhela and Tshishonge was being acted at tshikanda long before the change of rule at Mukula. I believe that the old lady gave me a particular example as her own personal explanation of a story which has much wider implications. It is interesting that she interpreted it by referring to a relatively recent historical event.
The ruler of Mukula whom Ramaremisa supplanted in 1912 was not, of course, called Tshishonge, but he was a senior representative of the Ndalamo clan, of whom Tshishonga (sic ) was an illustrious ancestor and chief. It is recorded that the Ndalamo had a special relationship with the ruling clan of the early conquerors of Vendaland, and in fact some claim that they were the ruling house of the Senzi (e.g. see van Warmelo 1940 :9). At any rate, they were often king-makers, if not kings themselves, because the women in charge of the sacred objects of the ruling clan, the senior makhadzi (father's sister) who was instrumental in choosing a chief's successor, was expected to marry a man of the Ndalamo clan. It was in this role that the Ndalamo clan hero Tshishonga distinguished himself after the defeat by the Tavhatsindi of the Senzi chief Dyambeu and his followers: he organised the counter-defeat of the Tavhatsindi, primarily because of power derived from his ritual attention to the high God Mwali whom Dyambeu had neglected, and then made Bele chief of the Senzi.
Tshishonga subsequently fell out with Bele, whom he attempted unsuccessfully to poison. Then he and his followers were driven out and settled in another area. Bele tried to defeat him, but failed because of Tshishonga's superior magical power. A second battle took place: the mountain of Tswime, near which Tshishonga lived, was consumed by fire, and Bele was killed, again because of Tshishonga's superior magical power. After another period of unrest without a chief, Tshishonga installed Dimbanyika and ruled the country through him until his own death. His descendants installed Dimbanyika's successor, Thoho-ya-Ndou (see van Warmelo 1940 :26-30, 127-31 etc.).
The Ndalamo clan, the people of Tshishonga, are held in high esteem, although the political chiefs of the Venda are not chosen from them. There is a saying, "The rulers are Thovhela and Tshishonga" ( van Warmelo 1940:29 and 130), which means that the country has two chiefs, although there is apparently only one. At no time did Tshishonga, or any other member of the Ndalamo clan, attempt to take over the chieftainship for himself.
Thus the drama of Thovhela and Tshishonge can be interpreted at many levels. As a lesson in Venda political history, it may be regarded as a dramatisation of the mutual co-operation that existed between the Ndalamo and the ruling clan. The power of the Ndalamo depended on their magical knowledge, and in order to maintain this it was essential that they did not become directly involved in government. Similarly the power of the ruling clan depended on the assent of the Ndalamo, and this was cemented by a marriage arrangement between the two clans. The particular case of the Ndalamo headman being ousted from Mukula is an example of a situation which might not have arisen if European influence had not undermined the magical power of the Ndalamo. In the drama of Thovhela and Tshishonge, when Tshishonge says before the second fight that he has an official letter from Government headquarters in Sibasa authorising his ownership of the beast, he is attempting to compensate for his loss of magical power by invoking another type of power that is beyond the range of normal politics - the power of the very institution which had deprived him of his magical power.
Alternately, the story might be interpreted as a dramatisation of the submission of the early hunters of Vendaland, symbolised by Tshishonge with his bow and arrow, to the conquering ancestors of the present ruling clans, symbolised by Thovhela with his knobkerry.
It also expresses a number of features of Venda culture. The relationship between Thovhela and Tshishonge could be said to typify the division between members of ruling and commoner clans respectively (vhakololo and vhasiwana), or the chain of relationships that exists between wife-givers (vho-makhulu) and wife-takers (vhakwasha), or the complementary jural and ritual influences of the father's and father's sister's husband's lineages. The main theme of the drama, the ultimate supremacy of Thovhela, expresses both the dominance of the ruling clans and an important aspect of the tshikanda initiation school, namely that it is for the benefit of girls of the ruling clans. But the secondary theme, the efficacy of divination and medicine, which are crafts practised mostly by commoner, stresses the limitations of political power and expresses the balance of secular and magical power between chiefs and medicine men, emphasising their complementary, rather than their opposing interests. The efficacy of the three types of medical practitioners is also emphasised by the appearance of nanga, mungome and maine, each of whom practises effectively within his own field. The constant resort to divination at moments of crisis; the use of medicine to influence social relationships; the diagnosis that the 'stranger' in the homestead as the cause of trouble; and Nyamuophe's desertion of her husband because of Dzimani's prowess in singing and dancing: all these elements are characteristic of Venda culture.
I could not discover why the doctors should have been cripples: the only explanation offered was that their physical disability emphasised their special powers, because it clearly had no ill effect on their success as healers and diviners.
The drama has something for everyone, and although it justifies the current relationships between the conquering clans and the conquered clans, and between rulers and their subjects, it is framed in such a way that rulers shall remember the conditions of their domination and subjects shall not feel oppressed. As the final act of tshikanda, it is an emotional climax to a month of close associations and initiation into the traditional Venda women's world. The chief actors are senior women, who during the last twenty-four hours of the school seem to become almost hysterical with excitement and enjoyment of their social position.