Xhosa culture and traditions are seen every day in South Africa because of the dominance of the ethnic group, being the second largest in the country only after the Zulu tribe. With more than 10 million people scattered across South Africa and Zimbabwe where they are considered to be a minority ethnic group with less than half a million people, the Xhosa people are closely related to the Bantu-speaking ethnic group; Nguni.
Like many other ethnic groups in Africa, the culture of the people has survived centuries in spite of the influence of western civilization. The different traditions are passed on to the people by their fathers and they have managed to survive centuries as each generation has a responsibility of adhering to the Xhosa culture and traditions while also passing them on to the next generation. Things such as the language, marriage rites, rituals associated with the passage, religion, inheritance, festivals, and many other things still remain the same even though there are some aspects of the culture and traditions of the people that have already given or are slowly giving way to westernization.
History And Origin Of The Xhosa People
The Xhosa people are said to be the descendants of the Nguni ancestors together with others, including the Zulu people. They are believed to be descendants of the Bantu-speaking group which in 200 BC, was said to have migrated to Eastern Africa. They would continue to evolve and then migrate to Southern Africa to become the ethnic group it is today.
They belong to many loosely organized and yet distinct chiefdoms, all of which are from the same ancestors. The origin of the people could be properly traced to the 1600s when it was founded as a kingdom by Tsawe following the defeat of the Cirha and Jwarha groups. Before these periods, the roots of the people were found following intermarriages between the Southern Nguni and Khoikhoi. With the solid foundation subsequently set by Tshawe, his descendants under the control of amaTshawe continued to expand their territories and settle in new places as their population increased. They were said to have occupied the Eastern Cape area as far back as 1593.
The isiXhosa have many loose chiefdoms that were formed as sons of chiefs are expected to leave their homes and find their own settlements. It is as a result of this movement that they got to meet various other ethnic groups such as the Khoikhoi, giving rise to the incorporation of some of the culture of these tribes they meet and some aspects of their religions and language. This is why some aspects of the Xhosa language seem to be drawn from Khoikhoi.
While it is known that at this point, the people continue to grow and expand to occupy other places, the history of the Xhosa people is not very clear because of the differences in oral traditions, as well as distortions along the way. For a long time, Xhosa was not a written language even though it had strong oral poetry through which it stores early information and rich music.
The Xhosa Language Is The Most Spread in South Africa
The language of the Xhosa people is known as IsiXhosa. It is described as the most spread language in South Africa, having speakers in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng, Free State, and KwaZulu-Natal. However, it still falls behind Zulu as the most spoken language in the country. The Xhosa language has its roots in the Nguni Language. As the second most spoken language in South Africa, it is one of the country’s official languages and also a recognized language in Zimbabwe.
It is found under the larger Bantu group of languages while also being classed as one of the branches of Nguni languages together with others such as Zulu, Nothern Ndebele, and Southern Ndebele.
The language has various dialects apart from the local Xhosa which is referred to as isiXhosa sengingqi. Among the dialects of the language is the language of the Mpondo people known as isiMpondo. Mpondo is seen as a sub-group under Xhosa. Others include Xesibe, Gaika (Ngqika), Hlubi (or AmaHlubi), Thembu, Mpondomise, and Ndlambe.
Xhosa Festivals And Ceremonies
Even though most other cultural groups in South Africa have special festivals to celebrate certain things, the Xhosa people do not have many of such. In fact, they are mostly known to observe all other holidays as the other groups in the country. They celebrate things such as Christmas and other Christian holidays, Day of Reconciliation, and Heritage Day. There are, however, many important ceremonies that are held highly in the Xhosa culture and traditions.
Most of the ceremonies of the people and their festivals come in the winter months because at this time, the harvest must have been completed and there is not much work so people get to relax more and celebrate. Among the ceremonies sacrosanct to the people are the following:
This is one of the most important ceremonies among the Xhosa people, even though it is not widely known in the whole of South Africa. Mostly practiced in the Eastern Cape, this cultural event is highly significant because it marks the return of young boys from being initiated into manhood; following the custom of Ulwaluko. This ceremony can only be done after the circumcision of a man because he is not yet considered to have entered into manhood unless he is circumcised. Interestingly, a child not circumcised in the traditional Xhosa setting cannot inherit his father’s wealth, he cannot officiate tribal rituals, and he cannot get married.
It is a family event that occurs once a year, during which families and friends are invited to come and share food and drinks. The young man being initiated receives gifts and goodwill from others. The ceremony is not all about eating and drinking as the young man being initiated is also made to seat on a traditional mat known as ukhukho in a kraal. Men will come to him and advise him on his journey ahead as a man.
He is then kept in a separate room where he would reflect on his coming journey into manhood. Before then, he will have the time to talk to the different people that have brought gifts and other items to him.
2. Intshatshoba Ceremony
Yet another important event among the Xhosa people is the intshatshoba ceremony which is said to take the form of a festival. This is celebrated during the farming season with the flowering of maize. The ceremony is not as popular as it used to be in the traditional setting. During this ceremony, young people come out and dance. The ceremony is mostly performed by young unmarried girls.
3. Coronation Ceremony
While this is not a festival, it is a major ceremony among the Xhosas when they get a new king following the passage of an old one. This is not a regular ceremony because one may only get to witness it only once or a few times in a lifetime if a king dies. The new AmaXhosa king is selected from the lineage of the old king.
The coronation of a Xhosa king is marked by a ceremony that would last for more than a day. Multitudes,including political and other traditional rulers would be in attendance in the small town of Willowvale which is the home of the Xhosa royal family. During the ceremony, the shoulders of the prince being coronated would be covered with a lion skin and he will be presented with the staff of office which is a symbolic stick that grants him recognition as the king of the Xhosa people.
Xhosa Cultural Practices
Like many other cultures, the Xhosa people have practices guiding things such as marriages, birth, and death.
Marriage Among The Xhosas
The traditional Xhosa marriage starts with the Ukuthwalwa; a practice in which the groom will find the woman he wants and then kidnap or adopt her into becoming his wife. Although this is a part of the culture of the people, it is now only practiced in the rural areas, because it is considered an illegal practice in the urban setting.
The next stage after the abduction of the bride is for the man and his family to know the clan of the woman. This is important to ensure that he does not marry from his own clan. When her clan is known, and the man’s family is satisfied with his choice, the next stage is the payment of dowry or lobola. Negotiations for this will be entered by the family of the man in the woman’s house and after it is agreed upon, the payment will be made.
The acceptance of the dowry will be followed by a traditional ceremony. Once the payment is agreed upon and made, it is considered by the Xhosa people that the man and woman are now married.
There are some important activities that govern Xhosa marriages, including the following:
- Ukuthwalwa: This is a term that is used to describe the aforementioned bride kidnapping where the suitor takes away the bride he intends to marry with the consent of her parents.
- Ikhazi: A Xhosa marriage is not complete unless the bride price is agreed upon by both the families of the bride and groom. To make it complete, the family of the intending groom will make payment of what has been agreed upon which is known as Ikhazi.
- Ukuyalwa: This is an important aspect of the Xhosa culture before a marriage ceremony proper. Family members bring together elders and close friends to lecture the young bride on the new path she is taking into marriage. During the Ukuyalwa, a girl is told the dos and don’t of marriage.
Xhosa Cultural Practices Regarding The Birth of A Child
There are certain important practices among the Xhosa culture that guides the birth of a child. After a woman gives birth, she is attended to by the grandmothers in her hut or rondavel. She is expected to remain indoors for at least 10 days. Within this period, the umbilical cord of the child which is considered sacred will fall off and it is either burnt or buried in order to protect the child from evil forces or sorcery. The grandmother will make a concoction to put on the child’s cord to aid healing.
The mother’s stay indoors is considered to be over after the cord falls off. She will then be introduced together with the child to family members and there will be a sacrifice of a goat. The Sifudu ritual which will see the baby passed through smoke from leaves gotten from the Sifudu tree will be performed in order to make the child strong and brave. The umbilical cord is buried in a place that people must not go to because of how significant it is among the people.
After all these, the next practice is to name the child according to the clan into which he or she was born.
Imbeleko Is Important After Child Birth In Xhosa Culture
Among the most important ceremonies that follow the birth of a child in a Xhosa household is the Imbeleko which directly translates to giving birth or carrying on your back. However, what it signifies in the AmaXhosa culture is a ceremony that is held 10 days after a child is born or after that.
Funeral Rites Among The AmaXhosas
The funeral rites of the people are slightly different, depending on the person that died. The ritual for the head of the family is different from that of a child or spouse. When a child or an unmarried person dies among the Xhosa people, the funeral is mostly very small and simple. It is only attended by close family members and friends.
When it is an elderly person or a chief that dies, the practice is more elaborate as the normal life is suspended for a while so that people could pay their last respect. If such a person dies away from home, there will have to be a ritual that will have his soul reunited to his ancestral land before anything else can continue. The people consider this very important because they feel the soul has to be at home and reunited with the ancestors. Unless this is done, it is believed that the person’s spirit may continue to wander aimlessly and it may also bring misfortune to the family members.
The ritual to return the soul is performed by an elderly person who is selected to among other things, talk to the mortal remains of the dead person so that the person knows the journey was starting. There are also some special herbs that may be used in the process, as well as the use of praise singers.
More rituals will be performed, including the slaughtering of cattle before the actual burial and the person may be sent off with some of his best possessions. All the rituals are expected to be carried out in order to send the departed in peace and also to cut ties with the living.
Children are prevented from running around or shouting at this time, and the hut where the person is laid is avoided while pots and other items are broken sometimes to help people as they grieve. Children, pregnant women, and witches are not allowed to come near the dead.
After some years, another ritual is performed to call back the spirit of the dead to come and watch over the family.
Praise Singing Is Used To Hand Tradition From One Generation To The Next
Apart from the above, one more cultural practice that the Xhosa people take to heart is the practice of praise-singing, an office that is occupied by the Imbongi. Why this is an important practice among the AmaXhosa people is because it serves to keep the oral traditions of the people alive as it is handled by the praise singers who are sometimes regarded as the poets from one generation to the next. They still have an important function in today’s society among the Xhosas as the praise singers serve to sing the praise of the nation and its leaders.
What Religion Do The Xhosa People Practice?
Beyond just the Xhosa people, Africans as a whole take religion seriously as it provides a guide for all their activities from birth to death. The Amaxhosas also hold it in high esteem which makes them a very religious set of people. They have integrated it into all of their practices and it gives them answers to life, living, and the afterlife.
Their ancestors serve as their intermediaries to Uthixo or UQamata which is the God that they serve. What they practice is the traditional African religion. Today, many of the Xhosa people have embraced Christianity like many others in South Africa. Nonetheless, many have still not thrown away their traditional beliefs. Instead, they have found a way to marry both their traditional beliefs and Christianity. The marriage between these two religions is what has now given birth to what is referred to as the African Independent Religions.
In the religious hierarchy, they believe that the creator of the world serves as the first ancestor and can be accessed through the Izinyanya, who are the ancestral spirits. They receive powers from the creator and they are in charge of the affairs of the living. They believe that there are the spirits of the kingship group, the tribal spirits, the foreign spirits, as well as the spirits of the river people.
The religious practitioners among the AmaXhosa people are the diviners or Igqirha and the herbalists who are referred to as the Ixhwele. The work of the diviner is to answer the call of the ancestral spirits to heal the sick and carry out other functions while the duties of the herbalists are to obtain training and heal because they are not called by the ancestral spirits.
Another aspect of their religious beliefs places responsibilities on the head of any household; such as a person is mandated to carry out any religious sacrifice that needs to be made by the household. At the level of the clan or kin, such responsibility is with the intloko yemilowo who is the chief.
Cattle Is Of Significance To The Xhosa People
At the center of the Xhosa culture and traditions, as well as society are two things; their lands and cattle. The importance of the cattle to them cannot be overemphasized because they are said to be originally cattle herders. More so, they place significance on cattle as everything from it is useful to the Amaxhosa. While they make use of the meat and milk for their nutritional value, the dung is used to fertilize the soil for farming and also used as fuel. The bones are also not left out because they are used by the people as tools and then the hides are used as materials.
In the religious sense, in some Southern African cultures, cows are seen to have a place between the physical and spiritual and also between humans and the divine, as well as between the ancestors and those that are alive. This is also very true among the AmaXhosa people who put the needs of the cattle over their own when they want to move to a new place. They, first of all, check to see what grazing opportunities a new place promises.
They make use of cows during the funeral of chiefs and elderly people when it is sacrificed as a preparatory ritual before the funeral. When a cow is being slaughtered for this purpose, it is expected that the animal bellows but if it doesn’t, the sacrifice will not continue. Another sacrifice will be carried out in place of the other and when it bellows, the people will exclaim “Icamaku livumile” which means The ancestors are willing!.
Apart from these aforementioned purposes of cattle among the people, it also serves as a means to show a person’s wealth and material possession. A person of affluence is expected to have many cows. They are seen as the standard of value in the traditional Xhosa society.
When it comes to settlement, cows also play an important role, including in the payment of bride price. They are also used in the payment of fines and tributes.
Inheritance In The Xhosa Culture
The rules governing inheritance here are pretty much simple; all the firstborn sons of the different wives of a man are entitled to have a share in his livestock when he passes on if the man was involved in polygamy before he died. The sons are then expected to build their own livestock from the ones they inherited from their father.
The operation of the rules of inheritance among the Xhosas is within the immediate family of the deceased and the oldest son of the great-wife takes the livestock of his father unless in a case of polygamy.
The Xhosa People Have Unique Clothing, Dresses, And Attires
Compared to many other ethnic groups in Africa, the clothing sense of Xhosa men and women is rather unique. They have a dressing sense that is quite similar to that of the western world. Both men and women put on sewn blankets that are beautifully designed as well as shawls and capes. They have ceremonial clothing which are often woven and decorated by hand. They come with fine embroidery work, as well as geometric designs.
Xhosa women have different styles of dressing compared to the men. Also, a newly married woman has a different style of dressing compared to a woman who has given birth to her first child, and a single woman. The difference is mostly in the headdress that they all wear. The dress of the women mostly has bright colors such as red, orange, green, and white. They also wear well-decorated beads around their necks, ankles, and arms.
As part of their outfits, they have things such as the decorative beaded band women wear around the lower backs known as iqoqo, the beaded top worn over the upper body, and breasts known as vulwakabini, and also the isidlokolo. The latter is a hat of animal skin that is decorated with large beads. It is mostly used by healers in traditional dance or when working with patients.
Xhosa men do not have so much an elaborative style of dressing as the men. They make use of the aforementioned sewn blankets. However, for warriors and men of title, as well as hunters, animal skin-designed wears are very important to be worn over the shoulders as a replacement for blankets. While any animal skin could be used, royalty makes use of that of fierce animals, especially the leopard. Their traditional sandals are also made of animal skin.
It is not unusual to find the Xhosa women and young men painting their bodies with white chalk as a part of their fashion. During initiation ceremonies for young boys, they are also expected to whiten their bodies to ward off evil. For the same purpose, they are expected to put on either a blanket or sheepskin.
So much has changed in the dressing of the Xhosa people since their contact with the missionaries. The western influence is still making some changes to their original dressing, even though a large part is still being maintained, especially during festivals and cultural ceremonies.
A Look At Xhosa Cuisines
In a typical Xhosa home, meals are only cooked twice; in the morning before the family disperses to the farm and other activities and then in the evening after everyone must have returned for the day late in the evening. If anyone gets hungry during the day, one may have to feed on what has been left over from the morning meal as nothing is cooked during the day. In as much as meat is considered to be very important among the people, there are other important delicacies that they love:
This is one of the major diets of the Xhosa people. This maize meal is made from a mixture of maize, sugar beans, and either animal fat or beans which is mostly to give flavor. While one can decide to consume it just like that, you can also have it alongside other dishes.
This is one of the most loved Xhosa dishes which also has extended nutritional value. It is made from an African leafy vegetable known as Imfino or wild spinach and also pap or maize meal. It is quick and easy to make as one only has to chop the spinach, mix with salt and allow to boil for a while before you put in your pap. In recent times people can add different things to this meal, including cheese, cream, spring onion, and other things, and can be served with tomato relish or anything of your choice.
Meaning ‘road runner’ chicken, this is also a great meal among the Xhosas. It is made from hard boney chicken which makes it tough and much longer to cook. To prepare this, one will need to put the chopped chicken into boiling water, add stock cubes and allow it to cook for two hours under low heat. You can then add onions, pepper, and other ingredients before allowing it to cook for one more hour until the chicken is finally soft. It can be enjoyed with umfino, veggies, steam bread, rice, or any other thing of your choice.
4. Umqa (pumpkin and grinding corn)
Another classic meal among the AmaXhosa people, this meal is made of maize porridge that is cooked with things such as curried cabbage, spinach, and other things. This is often confused with umxhaxha which is a Xhosa meal of pumpkin and corn, and then umkhuphu, which is maize meal and beans.
This is a famous brew among the Xhosa people that is made of maize, sorghum malt, yeast, and water. It has a rich unique flavor and the alcohol content from the fermented maize is not high. There is another type of this brew among the Zulus although it is slightly different.
There Are Foods Considered As Taboo Among The Xhosa People
While there is hardly a general restriction around the things a Xhosa person can take or cannot take, there are certain things considered inappropriate for some people. For example, a woman who has just married is not allowed to take some kind of meat.
Traditionally, eggs are only considered to be appropriate for men as it is seen as taboo for women. Why eggs are considered inappropriate for women is because the AmaXhosas believe that it could increase the woman’s sexual appetite, most especially when she is pregnant and she might pass such appetite to her unborn female child. For men, they were not allowed to drink milk in a village where they might later take a wife.