Toka Hlongwane

Moya waka o fatse (my spirits are down) is a common phrase among the Bantu and Nguni people of southern Africa expressed in their various languages. This often describes feeling sad, down, or general unhappiness.

I have always been intrigued by the physical and metaphysical, especially from an African point of view. I have come to understand that moya supersedes my flesh. If things don’t sit well with my spirit or astral body, I don’t engage with them, or I do so precautionarily. Most beliefs and religions in the east, like Buddhism or Hinduism, have a similar concept that alludes to the energy body. It has become somewhat of a terrain surveyor that experiences my life before I do. It all happens in yoctoseconds, be it my interactions with people or space, moya waka encounters it first and therefore informs how I perceive the person or place I find myself engaging with. 

One might simplify it as an intangible yet very present gut feeling. As an African child, I do not want to dwell on western explanations of what my experiences mean, since their feeble explanations are often pedestrian and usually neglect the many facets of our existence. I remember asking my late grandmother what déjà vu is. She couldn’t give me a word for it in Sesotho, our home language, but she told me that moya waka is a reincarnation of my ancestor’s spirit and their realm is not limited by time nor space. My astral body is older than I am, and if I really pay attention, everything I experience feels familiar, and so will everything else I am yet to experience because my spirit has seen it before. 

When abaNguni of southern Africa first came into contact with a white man wielding a camera, they were very uncomfortable. A white person was perceived as a witch, and his peculiar devices like guns, glasses, and camera were seen as tools for their sorcery. They described the camera as a device used to zombify or capture the spirit of the person being photographed. Hence, the word for photographing in isiZulu is ukuthwebula, a practice of spirit capturing done immediately when a person dies or at times while one is still alive. The umthwebuli would perform a spirit capturing ritual while the deceased’s body is still warm and capture their spirit or power for various dark art practices. In the east, there have been several practices akin to ukuthwebula. It is said that in the middle-ages some Indian warriors drank Bhang before going to war, which allowed them to visibly see their enemies’ spirits on the battlefield, thus they would attack and weaken the enemies spirits first before they attacked their physical bodies. The Khoi and San people also have a similar practice. Before embarking on a hunt, they would undergo a ritual of first identifying an animal in the spirit realm. They would draw it (as often depicted in their rock art) and summon its spirit to weaken it so that when they go hunting it would isolate itself from its herd and make for easy prey. 

As a photographer, I have always held great contempt against the idea of ‘making photographs’ as I feel it only applies to editorial or fine art photography where everything is curated and deliberate. As a street and documentary photographer, it would be arrogant to claim that I make images. I believe that I take photographs, ‘take’ being the keyword of my practice. I cannot make something that already exists – images are all around us. I just happen to capture and interpret them.

I am no different to the sorcerer who was first encountered by abaNguni. I capture people and the moments in their lives, then store them in my archive like an umthwebuli would with a spirit they have captured. My contempt was given an indirect nod by historian Dr Kholeka Shange who wrote an article about the nexus of photography and ukuthakata, where she detailed the practice of ukuthwebula in the context of photography. By the time I read her article in 2020 I had been working on a series called uMoya, which began as a technical error when my camera settings were set for nocturnal long exposure images that I was photographing the previous night. The first frame I took looked blurry with very little detail of the subject. Upon arrival at home later that evening I went through my day’s shots, and I found myself stuck on the blurry image. I started seeing what looked like extra pairs of eyes in the photograph of a person who had their back to me at the time I took it. 

Moya waka immediately registered this site as recognition of my subject’s spirit and the spirits of those around them. I then began intentionally taking long exposure images with hopes of capturing spirits beyond what the eye can see. When defining long exposure in photography jargon, it means slowing down your shutter so that it captures stationary elements sharply and blur or obscure moving ones. 

uMoya the series explores the obscure, it ignores the stationary elements in the images and focuses on the moving ones while interrogating the forces behind the motion. My camera allows me to freeze time and capture moments, but it has also allowed me to see uMoya, the metaphysical. In her article, Dr Shange quotes ntate Santu Mofokeng who was a pedigreed photographer of his time. “Most township people felt vulnerable and exposed when they gave you permission to take (or make) an image of them. Many felt that their ‘shade’ (the anthropology term), ‘seriti/isithunzi’ (in the vernacular) or ‘soul’ (the missionary term) was implicated in the process. They feared that their essence could be stolen or their destiny altered by interfering with the resulting image or images.” That fear of their essence; the spirit; moya; the intangible, being taken is something I am intrigued by. Not for dark arts purposes, but to understand how their fear of having their souls exposed and bare to a normal shutter photograph could’ve been accentuated by a long exposure photograph, should they’ve been informed that this type of photography by definition is one that obscures elements in the photograph. Moya waka yearns to connect with my camera’s ability to prolong time to capture and expose more than what meets the eye since being unseen doesn’t necessarily mean absentia.

Toka Hlongwane is a street and documentary photographer from South Africa who also works as a writer and cinematographer. His work has been published in various online publications like Something We Africans Got, Xeno Zine, Let’s Be Brief and People’s Stories Project. He has also exhibited some of his photography in galleries like Millepiani in Rome, Gallery One11 in Cape Town, Keys Art Mile in Johannesburg over the past several years.

Sign up for our newsletter

Sign up to get our latest stories, poems and essays!