Ayesha Ahmad: Where Our Ancestors Walked (Danced)

I recently attended a performance by choreographer, Gregory Maqoma, from South Africa. I was not aware of the profound reflections that would occur during the movements of his dance; a depiction of the life-story of his great-grandfather.

The stage transported us to the landscape of Xhosa terrain, and in my mind, I too, felt back there, where I knew I was treading on a story but I did not know whose it belonged to.

“I hear the sights of those tending to the cattle” . . .

When the ground is alive with those who have passed, where must we search for the narratives of the befallen, buried and blessed in the soil that held them as they walked?

Gregory danced to meet where his great-grandfather’s footsteps ended and find where his – and his own – spirit began.

We seek temporality for our meaning; for the places we rest in, and for refuge to exist in a place.

Our surroundings are detrimental for who we are; who we become, and what parts of ourselves fall into a death, raining onto a new terrain where we nurture and toil until we have a home.

Our bodies; they define our suffering.

Gregory’s dance was a cry; a yearning for the sights, the sounds, the understanding of our Ancestor’s knowledge to pacify the mind’s memory; we breathe yet without the heart of those who gave life. The dance was a physical language, beckoning the movement of the ancestors, and bearing a symbolism borne from ritual.

Sigmund Freud, argued that we are always in a state of dialectic turmoil and change because we are trying to return to the mother-child illusion; a state of unification between our internal and external worlds. In a parallel, modern medicine focuses on achieving unification by neutralizing the disparity between health and illness. But what if our balance for peace, in the depths of our internal and physiological dispositions, are disconnected from the lands that carved our first sight of the world.

A patient in the medical setting has a shared experience with their healer; travelling through the patient’s language of their symptoms, navigating to the source of pain, and a teleological treatment for terminality of the object – the differentiated essence of one’s suffering from whom oneself exists as.

And it is the land that is the fundamental framework for our births and our deaths; it holds the place of our birth and the grave of our death. Births and deaths define our temporal existence, though the paradox is, as put by, Jean-Luc Nancy, only through knowing the births and deaths of others. Without this cradle of these two momentous events, what is our spatial existence? How do we fit this change into the narrative of our culture; our land and our being, during the instances of a rupture both in our own story and also that of the story of the land?

What is the relevance of this cultural narrative from the heart of Xhosa for our hospitals; neutralising and sterilizing the human body from all what has embraced its being?

Gregory Maqoma danced where his ancestors walked; he healed and understood, and embodied their flow of blood into his veins.

I learnt that time, and space, fall. Our medicine is not solely to heal from our wounds; our greatest wound that of death. Our medicine is wholly to bury unto our birth, and carry forth who we are; to present, and to express how the suffering of our legacies haunts. And every patient has a legacy.

A link to Gregory Maqoma’s Exit/Exist performance can be found here:



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