The people of the Xhosa Tribe of South Africa have a very rich cultural heritage and have played an important part in the development of South Africa, especially when the most famous member of the Xhosa, Nelson Mandela, became South Africa’s first president elected in a democratic election in 1994.
During the seventeenth century, a gradual migration movement took place which led thousands of people from southern Zaire in various directions to cover most of Africa south of the Sahara. One of the tribes who took part in this migration was the Xhosa, descendant from a clan of the Nguni. Today the Xhosa is the most southern group of the migrations from Central Africa into the southern Africa areas.
The Xhosa finally settled in the area that is now known as the Eastern Cape (formerly the Transkei and Ciskei) and comprises of a number of clans, the main groups being the Gcaleka, Ngika, Ndlambe, Dushane, Qayi, Ntinde and, of Khoisan origin, the Gqunkhwebe.
Today, many of the Xhosa-speaking people are an integrated part of South African society and have mostly adopted the western culture. However, many Xhosa living in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape are still bound by the traditions and lifestyle of their ancestors and many customs and rituals have stayed intact.
The Xhosa were, and still are, known for the magnificence and variety of their beadwork. Traditionally, their garments and ornamentation reflected the stages of a woman’s life: a certain headdress was worn by a newly married girl; a different style by one who had given birth to her first child, and so on.
Marriages – the Xhosa are polygamous (though today only the wealthier men have more than one wife) – involved protracted negotiations between the families of the bride and groom over the payment of the bride price (lobola).
The Xhosa man traditionally fulfilled the roles of warrior, hunter and stockman; the woman looked after the land and the growing of the crops.
A clan comprised of a number of groups, each led by a chief, or Inkosi, who owed his position to his mother’s status (the society, however, was a patriarchal one in which women weren’t formally accorded political authority).
The land was communally held; and great emphasis placed on giving according to need: everything was shared, in bad times as well as good; Xhosa families still routinely help one another with such tasks as hut-building.
The body of Xhosa lore has much in common with that of the other Nguni peoples such as the Zulu and Swazi. Animism, and recognition of the presence and power of ancestral spirits and of a supreme authority, are basic elements of belief. Misfortune and illness are attributed to unnatural of supernatural influences (such as the tokoloshe, a hairy and potentially malevolent goblin who attacks at night). Other figures are the huge lightning bird (impundudu), and the gentle aBantu bomlambo, human-like beings believed to live in rivers and the sea, and who accept into their family those who drown.
The Xhosa also have so-called diviners in their tribes. The diviner is the Xhosa's healer. Diviners help the people in the tribe with phsycological, physical, mental, and medical illnesses. The diviners are mostly women. They wear a shawl and headdress of fur most of the time. It takes about five years of being an assistant to a diviner until you become one yourself.
Initiation rites differ markedly between the various African peoples; with increasing urbanization many groups have abandoned circumcision altogether. Among the Xhosa, the youths whiten their bodies and wear a white blanket or sheepskin to ward off evil. During the ceremonies, enlivened by energetic dances, they wear costumes made from reeds, and at the end of the lengthy initiation period – spent in isolation from the rest of the community – the specially-built huts in which the young men have been living are ceremoniously burned.
The Xhosa language is sometimes also called a ‘click’ language because of the use of so many click sounds as consonants. These sounds were borrowed from the Khoisan languages of the Khoikhoi and San families, who originally lived in the area. The x in Xhosa represents a click like the sound used in English to spur a horse on, followed by aspiration (a release of breath represented by the h). In English the name is commonly pronounced with an English k sound for the x.
IsiXhosa Marriage - Umtshato
In our custom when a young man has come of age (+ 25 years), he approaches his parents or be approached by his parents about marriage. He or the parents will identify the girl. In their discussions they will touch on these:
1. Her clan’s name, if the clan’s name is the same as theirs, she can’t be married to him.
- 2. Her background, eg her family, upbringing, etc.
- 3. Lobola and the negotiators.
The negotiators are sent and the father of the bridegroom receives reports from them, negotiations are held in the family’s Kraal (Inkundla), what we can call a court. If they are accepted, they will be given a day and date to round of the discussions. Before they leave, they will be told how many cattle to pay, and how many young ones will be included there to make it easier for the bridegroom’s family.
The price of the Lobola depends on the nature / state of the bride, whether she had a fall (child) or not before. If she had, the Lobola will be less.
When the negotiators come for the Lobola, they will bring along some of the cattle asked, bring along with them a bottle of brandy (Iswazi), the whip they have been driving the cattle with. Sweets for the kids and Coffee, sugar for the elder women. Before the brandy is poured in those little glasses (tots), it is poured on the ground for the ancestors. Not the full number of cattle asked is expected at this stage, but it must be a reasonable number.
They will welcome them with open arms, they slaughter a sheep, prepare home-made beer (Umqombothi). The family and the relatives are also present at this stage. The bridegroom and his family are accepted now (bavunyiwe). Dates are proposed. The negotiators may leave with something from their In-laws, eg a leg of a sheep or brandy; a token of friendship.
On the wedding day, the bride will be accompanied by the bridesmaids with young men to assist in carrying the dowry (uduli) to the bridegroom’s home, her new family. A lot of money is being spent on the dowry, and a lot has also been spent on Lobola. In the dowry there are also presents for the family members, except her room outfit.
She wears her bridal outfit. She is not allowed now to wear slacks again or short dresses. She must wear dignified clothes and be in the company of her sisters-in-law and other married women. Wear something on her head.
She gets a new name from her sisters-in-law; she may be called, eg “Nosango” – meaning a “Gate”. She is supposed to be an entrance to this family, accepting everybody with open arms. You are there to build that family. She is also given words of wisdom by the elders of that family (Uyayalwa).
She is not expected to enter the family kraal. The family kraal is believed to be where the ancestors of the family are found. Before she can use the family milk, the family will slaughter a sheep, dip a piece of meat in the milk, and let her eat it (ukutyiswa amasi).
After all these rituals, the elders of the family will be keen to have a grandchild. When time goes on they will ask each other whether there are no signs of pregnancy. Their wishes and prayers are that she can bear a baby boy who will carry the name of the family.
Things have changed but we have not forgotten our roots!!
New Words (Vocabulary)
1. Ancester - Isinyanya
From whom a person is descended.
2. Bride - Umtshakazi (Makoti)
: A woman on her wedding day.
3. Bridegroom - Umyeni
: Man on his wedding day, newly married man.
4. Bridesmaid - Abakhaphi
: Girls or unmarried women who attend the bride at a wedding.
5. Ceremony - Indibano endilisekileyo
: Formal actions carried out on an important occasion.
6. Custom - Isithethe
: Way of behaving or doing things, generally accepted behavior.
7. Clan Name - Isiduko
: A group sharing the same ancestor.
8. Dowry - Uduli
: Property brought by a bride to her husband’s family when she marries.
9. Lobola - Lobola
: The cattle or money paid by the bridegroom. (Umyeni) to the parents or guardian of the bride.
10. Negotiator - Unozakuzaku
: Messenger(s) sent to negotiate with the parents / family of the bride.
11. Ritual - Isiko
: Connected with a ceremony.
Information by: Mr. M E Mobo