A South African pilgrimage: walking with the Shembe

Posted on 13 October 2015

It started in the Mahatma Gandhi Heritage Centre, in Inanda Valley. I was photographing the Heritage Stories of Us assignment when a faded black and white photograph on the wall caught my eye. In it were thousands of distant pilgrims clad in white and streaming up a towering, dark mountain like a flock of sheep.

‘Where is this?’ I asked Mr Mthembu (otherwise known as Bongani). He runs the Heritage Centre, and is full of useful information.

‘Nhlagakazi. That’s the Shembe pilgrimage. It happens on the first Sunday of the New Year. They walk barefoot, following in the steps of Isaiah Shembe.’

‘Can I join?’ I asked, ideas burgeoning in my mind.

‘Yes. But can you walk 60km, barefoot?’


SHembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

Maidens watch the distant congregation, reading from their prayer books.

60km over three days? That’s easy. Or at least, that was what I believed prior to 4 January 2015. Freshly fattened from Christmas lunch and New Year’s celebrations, I felt vaguely concerned about the upcoming pilgrimage I had wormed my way into – but nowhere near as worried as I should have been.

The first Sunday of the New Year dawned, and saw me squeezing my way through rows of dimly-lit shacks built high up on the spiritual town of eBuhleni. Londi’s brother, Mlu, asked me what country I am from. I told him I was born in Durban. We rounded a corner and were abruptly halted by a large, milling crowd of women and girls. Hushed conversations became still. We stood around, quietly shuffling and pressing forward to see what was happening. A wave of song erupted in the dimly lit distance, spreading goosebumps across my flesh. The first wave of sound rolled past, closely followed by another. We moved forward, slowly, until we reached a circle of maidens kneeling around the base of a tree, offering small donations.

‘Give what you want to give,’ Londi told me, as she kneels and places 50c. I followed suit, my coin accompanied by the flowers we had plucked on our way in. ‘We pray for cloud cover, and safe passage.’


Shembe Pilgrimage - TeaganCunniffe

The start of the walk, at dawn at eBuhleni.

Soon after that the sun broke through the canopy of trees above us, and with elated praise all around we began our journey.

At 7am, the plasters I had strategically placed on my feet were already falling off.

‘I need to stop,’ I told Londi. She looked back, towards the oMama streaming towards us.

‘Hurry,’ she hissed. ‘We can’t let them overtake us. It’s bad.’

9am. We’d been walking for 4 hours, and I began to realize I am carrying too much. My heavy backpack, which a few hours before felt light, was weighing on my joints, pounding its weight into the soles of my feet. The pace hadn’t eased; if anything people were finding their stride. There was barely time to watch where I stepped on the stony road and I blindly followed, pushed on by the swell of people around me.


Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

Throngs of people placed rocks down on the ground. These rocks are carried on your head for the first half of the walk on Sunday.

10am. I felt a surge of energy, and with it, optimism. I tried to eat most of my food, and then tossed out non-essentials from my backpack. I was left with a tent, medical equipment, change of clothes, camera gear and sleeping bag.

11am. We started on an excruciating downhill on a road in the process of being resurfaced, and were forced onto a slanted cement path. My legs were shaking and my confidence flailed. I can’t do this.


Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

The halfway mark on the first day.

12pm. We reached the bottom, the half way mark, and Londi and I flopped down at the side of the road without speaking a word. I told Londi that I can’t go on, my legs are too sore. She agreed and we fell into a half-doze, reality flitting by.

‘I’ve been looking for you!’ It was Mlu, looking far too chipper. ‘Why aren’t you walking? We’re nearly there!’ At that my ears pricked up. I asked how much further we have to go.

‘It’s only a kilometre. I will help you with your bag.’

A kilometre? I could do that. I agreed and swapped bags with Mlu. He had left his rank, the amaKhosana, to find us and we were now in a mixed group of men, women, maidens and elderly, at the back of the horde.

1pm. ‘Is that it?’ I asked Mlu.

‘No… just a bit further. Around the next hill. We’re halfway there.’

By 2pm, I was hobbling. We stopped for a break, collapsing on long grass and sharing Mlu’s lamb chops from the night before. We all fell asleep.

2.30pm. I tried to stand and found that my feet had seized into tight, painful stumps. I stood on the balls of my feet, carefully putting pressure on each foot before attempting a lurching step.

‘Ohh my baby!’ called out a lady from the side. ‘You must rest. Sit and put your feet up for a while.’ The women fell away as we got into step with the crowd again.

Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

I couldn’t see where I was walking, except that it was on a painful slope. A hand reached through the crowd to grab mine, pulling me into her wake. Tears of gratitude broke out as she gave my hand a squeeze.

5pm. Finally, 12 hours and 35km later, we reached our first night’s stop. Just as we were about to unpack, word filtered through the crowd that the Prophet had decided to move on, to combine day one and day two into a day’s walk. Londi and I unanimously decided to pay for a lift with a passing truck, as did many others. We sat in traffic for hours, slowly inching our way uphill. It had started to rain.

We arrived at our overnight stop at 9pm. Londi and I piled into my kiddies two-man tent and fell asleep.


Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

Evening scenes and cellphones lighting up the dark.

I was awakened the next day by two girls bathing outside my tent and bumping the walls, laughing loudly as they briskly scrubbed a foamy sponge over their shoulders and legs. This was a rest day now, since day one and two were combined. I took the opportunity to ask about the Shembe religion.

‘It’s Christianity, but with respect to the ancestors,’ said Mlu. ‘Isaiah Shembe, the first Prophet, was told by the voice of God to walk to Nhlangakazi mountain. At first he refused, but one by one, his children began dying, until eventually he listened. He began the 60km walk to Nhlangakazi, evading wild animals and dangerous terrain. Once he arrived, he stayed on for 12 days. Eventually members of the Church came to find him. This was the start of the pilgrimage.’

He paused, looking to see if I have taken it all in before continuing. ‘Since last year though [2013], we have not been going to Nhlagankazi. We have been walking to eKhenana instead, because of the problems.’

The problems are the split in the Shembe Church. In a very complicated series of events, four factions of Shembe have risen and claimed legitimacy. The main group, led by Vimbeni Shembe, was further confused upon his death. The son of Vimbeni, Mduduzi, has claimed leadership based on written document, whereas Vela Shembe (cousin to Vimbeni), claims he was verbally confirmed as the legitimate leader.

Practically, this meant that I had to dismiss the idea of my magical mountain, and get used to the idea of eKhenana. It’s a mountain in its own right, but becomes a vast plateau once you ascend.

I travelled ahead of the pilgrimage to get to eKhenana. When I arrived, the blue skies and searing heat made shelter a necessity. I sat, shaded and cross-legged, among Londi’s family. Londi’s aunt came over to me and placed a blanket over my legs. At the time I thought it simply an act of kindness, but afterwards found out that the way I had been sitting was considered inappropriate.


Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

Gathering at eKhenana. The elderly, young and those transporting tents and food go on ahead of the pilgrimage.

Mlu had told me that Prophet Mduduzi ‘Unyazilwezulu’ Shembe was named after thunder, rain, mist and lightening, all symbols of his power. At the time, I passed this off as superstition.

However the blue skies rapidly clouded over at about 9.30am on Tuesday. In the distance we could hear thousands of pilgrims, their thudding footfalls, carried in the breeze. Mist began to form, limiting our line of sight to around 15 metres. I hurried up to the road to try get a photograph of Mduduzi arriving. Everyone around me was kneeling, and frantically gesturing for me to do the same. I complied, tense, waiting for the shot in a half crouch.

The Prophet Mduduzi arrived in veil of mist, the leaders of the church surrounding him and warriors pushing at his back. I scurried between cars, avoiding pointed stares and whispers to kneel as I tried to get the shot. Mduduzi soon passed, and the trail of followers began. I could tangibly feel the energy in the air as each ecstatic wave of amaKohsana passed, jubilant at their arrival.


Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

The Prophet Mduduzi.

Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

So much elation as the pilgrims arrive at eKhenana.

Behind the amaKhosana walked the amaKhosazana, and the oMama. Mixed ranks pulled through for the next hour until finally everyone had gathered on an open field to listen to a sermon. Tents sprung up out of nowhere, clever contraptions using long, willowy sticks and plastic sheeting. The land around me transformed from open grass to a city in the space of a few hours.
Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

Youths as young as 12 embark on the journey. Most have to attempt it a few times before finishing it in its entirety in one go.

Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

Pilgrim in the rain and mist.

We greeted the mountain on Thursday. The rain had dissipated into blue sky once more, and we walked to the highest point on eKhenana. We carried flowers with us and placed them at the feet of church leaders before breaking away and forming circles of prayer. Emotions were high and tears ran freely down many faces. I stood to the side as everyone gathered for a sermon, clouds appearing overhead once more. The maidens had all covered their faces, but a few were sneaking smiles towards me and waving. After four days of being in their company, I had made a few friends.


Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

Greeting the Mountain.

Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe
My part of their walk was over, and I sadly stepped away to leave them to a morning of worship. They would remain on eKhenana for the next two weeks, immersed in song and prayer.


Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe

AmaKhosazana make their way to the Greeting of the Mountain ceremony.

I walked away from the group, barefoot over the soggy green grass and through the makeshift town. It was empty now, with a just a few late faces rushing to get to the sermon. As I got nearer to the main road which would lead me out, I heard the swell of song coming once more from the hill behind me, a farewell from a journey I will never forget.

Would I do it again? Most definitely. It was undoubtedly one of my hardest, yet most rewarding experiences. Next time though, I’d train barefoot for at least three months beforehand.


Shembe Pilgrimage - Teagan Cunniffe


See the portfolio in its entirety in the September 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.

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