Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Initiation Rites Among the Matabele or Ndebele

  • Wednesday, July 13, 2011
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  • Author: Neville Jones
    Source: Man, Vol. 21 (Oct., 1921), pp. 147-150
    Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

    The practice of circumcision among the Matabele ceased to all intents and purposes many years ago, and I am doubtful whether the subject has ever been dealt with to any extent in the literature dealing with the Zulu race. It is still practised among the Amaxosa, though the Zulus themselves have discarded the custom. It is said that in Mzilikazi's days circumcision was commonly resorted to, and formed an integral part of the rite of initiation to manhood, and it is not improbable that the puiberty rite of the people, as formerly practised, and still practised in many places, is a remnant of a ritual that once had the rite of circumcision as its central point.
    The puberty ceremony for boys is as follows:-The rite, which is called ugutomba, lasts for two days. When a boy is aware that he has reached a state of puberty, he must rise very early in the morning and wash himself. He then picks a rush or reed and ties it about his loins, and he also smears mud taken from the hole of a crab round his waist. He then returns home and stands at the gate of the cattle kraal. He must not sit down, but if excessive fatigue obliges him to do so, he can rest occasionally on one of the poles used for closing the cattle kraal at night. He speaks to no one, not even his father, but he is allowed to have with him a small boy as a companion, who can light a fire for him if he feels cold, but he must not light a fire himself. He wears no clothing and eats no food. If he has been a troublesome boy, all whom he has annoyed may work off old scores upon him. They may beat him, crying as they do so " ukulile " (" you are grown up "), and he may not retaliate, but must bear it all patiently. He may only leave his post when it is dark in order that he may sleep. On the second day he resumes his former position at the gate of the cattle kraal, and on the afternoon of that day, the doctor arrives. If by any chance the doctor is late in arriving, the boy must remain where he is until he does, or he may herd the cattle, but in doing so he must remember not to sit down except upon an ant-hill, nor must he go home, for he is for the time being ceremonially impure.

    When the doctor has arrived, his assistant makes porridge of izimba (red Kafir-corn), and when it is cooked the doctor sprinkles in some medicine, a buffcoloured powder made from the roots of the umtjwamo, a common tree on the veldt. The boy then rapidly dips his fingers into the pot, and taking a small morsel, places it in his mouth and spits it into the fire. He then finishes the porridge or goes on eating until given permission to desist. The doctor then boils some milk, and taking another medicine, which he has previously burned to a fine powder, he mixes it with the milk in the pot. The boy plunges his fingers into the pot, and licking a few drops of milk from them, spits into the fire. He then jumps over the pot and drinks the milk from the opposite side with his two hands. The doctor then hands him some charms (intebe), which are both protective and strength-giving, and these are hung about his neck. His companion, who has been with him all the time, stands ready with the ibetju, or loin skin, which the boy takes and fastens round his waist. The boy is then considered to have become a man, and he takes a senior position among the other boys who have not attained to puberty. Having reached manhood he must no longer drink fresh milk, but only sour milk.
    The puberty rites for girls, also called ugutomba, are considerably more complicated, and last four days. When a girl becomes aware that she has reached the age of puberty, she goes and confides in a friend, who informs the girl's relatives. The girl then returns to her home, and her mother's house is swept and garnished for the occasion. All the girl's girl friends are invited to be present. As theyarrive they enter the hut and begin singing. This singing lasts for three days, during which time the girl eats only umtjwamo or porridge made of izimba (red Kafir-corn) mixed with soot taken from the roof of the hut. They also mix with the porridge the roots of the inqoti, a kind cf grass, and they feed her with this food, which is supposed to strengthen her. Her companions partake of it with her. At some time during this part of the proceedings two customs are observed. The lips of one of the girl guests are bound open by thongs tied round the head and the girl's gums are rubbed with charcoal. She is called upon to pronounce words containing labials, the idea apparently being to excite the risible faculties of those present, but no girl must laugh. If she does so, she is turned out. The initiate, too, has an act to perform at this period. When the fire is burning an upright stick is placed in the middle of it, and the girl has to pick out the stick with her teeth. During the singing the initiate sits clothed only in a blanket. She does not sit with her legs beneath her, but sideways with her feet at her side (the traditional
    position of Zulu women in sitting during menstruation). The singing on these occasions is of the lewdest description. I subjoin some examples of some of the choruses that were in vogue 40 to 50 years ago. No useful purpose will be served by translating them, but they ought to be placed on record, and they will be readily understood by those who are familiar with the language.

    (1) Maye ! Udade u tombela amadoda.
    Maye ! Udade u tomb' ezikalela.
    (2) Egxopozini, esihlanjeni,
    Yegani amantiya abo.
    O! Zhiya bo !
    (3) Ye, Baba, ngemita;-
    Ba libele yigukwelana.
    A ba yi boni indaba le pezulu.
    (4) Wena, nDoda siniginigana;
    Wa wu yewuga intombi ingezansi.
    (5) A ! Ye, ye ! Wabai wu wa nyonyoba;
    U se nyonyoba njengesela lenhlunu.
    (6) A! Ye, ye ! yebolo yewula ubolo.
    (7) Ungaka, baba, si file;
    U ngangomvalo.
    (8) Inja emanyala
    Ya ngi tundela pansi gwegolo,
    Nga hla ngesula ngegolo.

    They are sung as choruses and repeated over and over again. Every succeeding generation appears to have introduced new songs, and an indefinite number of them might be collected. They are alike in their indecent suggestiveness, and serve to illustrate the kind of song to which the ears of the children are accustomed from
    their earliest years.

    On the morning of the fourth day the initiate must go to the river to wash, that is to say, when the period of menstruation is over. Three girls run on in front, and the girl follows them accompanied by her companions. When they come in sight of the river where the three girls await their coming, the accompanying girls set up a cry: "There they are," and the initiate then breaks away from her companions, her endeavour being to reach the water. If either of the three girls can manage to waylay her they do so and spit water upon her from their mouths, and should they succeed in doing this they are entitled to beat her while she is in the water washing. When her ablutions are completed she is clothed with a short blanket, which is tied under the armpits and above the breasts, and she is anointed with red earth. The mother's hut is smeared with cow dung while the girls are away at the river. On her return home the girl is met by her mother, who kisses her on the arm, as also does her father. Those who have accompanied her are also kissed. Her relatives then make her small presents, such as beads, which are tied on the blanket above the breasts, and & her father gives her a goat, which is slaughtered and eaten by all the girls. She must not eat thick milk (amasi) for two years after this ceremony, that is if she is a girl of high caste, though, in the case of the ordinary people, a month or two will suffice. It should be noted that on the girl's return from washing her mother wears on her head the umncwazi, a cross made of hide or calico, one strip extending from ear to ear, and the other strip from the forehead to the nape of the neck. The other female relatives are at liberty to wear the umnouazi as well, but the mother alone is entitled to wear a skin under the armpits and tied over the breasts.
    No man is allowed to be present at the ceremony until its conclusion, when, as already described, her father is the first to greet her. Should any man come upon the scene by accident he must hide his face and get away as quickly as possible. No doctor takes any part in the proceedings. 
    When the puberty rites are completed, the girl's relatives are informed that she has become an intombi (i.e., one who has passed through the ceremony of ugutomba). and the girl arranges to visit the principal ones in turn. On arriving at their kraals she will walk in, but will not open her mouth, even in salutation, until she has received a present. On her return home she may drink milk for the first time since prior to her initiation, but the milk should come from a white cow, and is boiled with mealie meal into a thin porridge. At the same time a young bullock is killed, at which point the girl is considered as ceremonially pure. The porridge being cooked, the intombi takes a small portion of it into her mouth and spits it into the fire, after which all partake of it. The ox is cut up and roasted and eaten by those who haveattained to puberty.
    The intombi is placed in the charge of a woman, who is responsible for her moral behaviour during a period of generally about two years, the intention being to preserve the purity of the girl until she is married. If by any chance she breaks bounds and is found to be pregnant, her father will give an ox to the man to whom she is betrothed, the idea being that the ox is a kind of " patch to repair a rent."

    The three old women from whom I obtained the above information were representative of the three main castes of the Matabele people, the Abezansi (or pure Zulu), the Abendhla (or Basuto) and the Amaholi (or Makalanga), and they unanimously affirmed that there were no immoral practices in connection with the ceremony of ugutomba in the days of Mzilikazi. When immorality took place it was without the consent of those responsible, and the Chief meted out heavy punishment for it. They stated that Mzilikazi did much to preserve the purity of the girls, but that in Lobengula's day these rigid rules became relaxed and a good deal of immorality was connived at, if not actually permitted. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine that songs such as those given, which were sung at the beginning of Lobengula's reign, could have been sung without the accompaniment of immoral practices. With later developments of initiatory ceremonies I have not concerned myself as, where they have not actually died out, they have for the most part probably become corrupted out of all semblance to their original form. My sole aim has been to find out exactly what took place when the rites were considered the essential condition to entrance upon manhood and womanhood. They are now fast dying out, and it is well they should, for they can serve no useful purpose, and only act as a drag upon progress and education; but while we can still glean information about them it is well that we should do so, or the knowledge of them will be lost for ever.

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