Let's talk about African Spirituality: communicating with your ancestors

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Ukuphahla is a small ritual that can be done on a daily basis that allows one to communicate with their ancestors. There are traditional methods of ukuphahla that have been kept and passed down many lineages in Africa. Though different tribes and families in Africa vary in their methods of ukuphahla, the foundations of this ritual are the same. It combines the four elements of life (earth, fire, air and water) in order to connect to spirit. 

The tools may vary amongst cultures, but according to the lessons I’ve learned, as a descendant of the Nguni tribe, from the spiritual healers and teachers that have crossed my path, the tools needed are as follows:

- Impepho 

- Snuif 

- Candles

- Clay or enamel bowl

- Small grass mat (optional)

- Cup of water (preferably enamel)

The most important tool to have on this list is snuif. If you have nothing else on you, at least have enough snuif to toss a few pinches on the ground for your ancestors. The main component that activates this ritual is you. It is up to you to engage with all of your heart and your mind in order to summon your people.

Clan names

The first thing to have in mind before you phahla is your lineage. What are your parents names, their parents and the parents before them? Do you know your clan names? Its important to state who you are when you open the portal to speak to the ancestors. You want to call on the right people and you want those people to know exactly who you are.


The second thing to have in mind is your intention. What do you want to say to them? It’s important to ensure that, whatever you are asking for, you start your phahla with gratitude and you end it with gratitude. Thank them for their presence, their peace, love, guidance, and their protection. It also is a great gesture to give offerings, if you have an idea of what some of them liked when they walked the earth. Some general offerings include alcohol, tobacco, tea and cake. The more you know about them, the more personal your offerings can be. It’s about building a personal relationship with them.


It’s also important to make sure you don’t phahla only when you want to ask for something. Expressing gratitude is the best way to honour them. Express your needs and desires, but prioritise the thanksgiving because they are already constantly doing things for you that you are not aware of, and we tend to take that for granted.


When I phahla, I start by lighting candles. Candles are a fun part of it for me because I learned how different colour candles give off certain vibrations and can intensify your intention. I’ve heard some spiritual teachers give strict instructions on which colours to light when you phahla. But these logistics depend on which traditions you are keeping. I personalise my phahla because of the relationship that I have with my ancestors. I, therefore, trust my intuition enough to tell me which candles are necessary for which times and intentions. However, the most important candle to light is a white candle.


When my candles are lit, I pop a small bundle of mpepho into my clay bowl and burn it. I don’t set it ablaze for too long because the goal is not to spread black smoke but for the mpepho to emit white smoke.


As soon as the smoke is rising independantly, I pick up my snuif container and begin my phahla by tossing pinches of snuif on the little grass mat as I call upon my ancestors. I state my full name and call upon all my descendants as far as I can name them. I call upon the good ones who walk with me in love and light. It is important to remember to call on the good spirits, because in all life, there is good and bad. We have the spiritual authority to set boundaries and protect ourselves from negative energy, as long as we remember to do so.


After I have called on them, I allow myself to settle. This is a time for me to meditate on their presence and feel their energy. Sometimes, when I have had my own ideas of what I want to say, the meditation and their presence changes my mind about what I thought I originally needed to pray about. They can present you with more important things to discuss, they may impress upon you that they already know what you need and its already been taken care of. It’s important to keep your heart and mind open to their messages. Allow your intuition to guide this process.


The glass of water is an offering of sorts. It completes the incorporation of all the elements. Water is a highly spiritually charged element that cleanses and gives life through hydration. You can set the glass of water down on your grass mat after lighting your candles and have a sip when you’ve completed your prayers. In this act, you’re sharing the water with them. You can also pour it on some grass/under a tree afterwards. This process is also referred to as libation by many African cultures.

My phahla can be anything between 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how busy I am that day and how much I have to say. If it’s cut short in the morning, I try to phahla again in the evening just to thank them for their protection throughout the day.

The disclaimer that I got when first learning about our indigenous spirituality was that this form of prayer (ukuphahla) is not the worship of ancestors but an act of honouring them. This communication is the best way for your prayers to reach Umvelinqandi (God) as your ancestors are the angels that carry your prayers to “heaven”.

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