The Umemulo is a traditional coming-of-age ceremony to mark young girls’ journey into womanhood. It is a tradition of the Zulu tribe, one of the most popular tribes in South Africa notable for their unique and rich cultural practices and rituals meant for different occasions and events.
Despite the Western modernization that has swept through the African continent in the last century, the Zulu tribe are quite ardent in adhering to all their major and minor cultural norms and values. They would stop at nothing to ensure compliance with such cultural practices, regardless of one’s status or position in society. One such dominant cultural event is the Umemulo ceremony which has received a lot of criticism in recent times.
Umemulo Is a Traditional Coming of Age Ceremony
Umemulo signifies a typical ancient Zulu native ceremony that is done to prove that a Zulu damsel has come of age and is ripe for marriage. Simply put, Umemulo is a traditional Zulu coming of age ceremony for women. The coming of age ceremony is one of the significant stages in life any Zulu girl must pass through as a transitory period of growing from teenage into womanhood, and it must be celebrated by any Zulu lady upon attaining the age of 21 years.
Apart from the fact that the ceremony is an indication for growing into womanhood, there are other purposes that the ceremony signifies and represents. One of the major purposes of the ritual is that it is a unique way the community honors and appreciates the young lady especially for respecting and keeping herself from pre-marital sex, thus, protecting the integrity of her family, community, and for obediently adhering to the values and teachings of her family and community.
Asides from announcing that a young girl has transitioned from a teenager into an adult woman, participating in Umemulo serves as an avenue of invariably announcing that the lady who can now get married and in turn, attract potential suitors for her.
Most importantly, Umemulo is a symbolic ceremony that serves as a process of reuniting the contemporary modern South African culture with that of the great Zulu tradition.
Who Is Qualified To Partake In The Umemulo Ceremony?
From its inception and in the past generations, Umemulo was celebrated for girls who have just attained puberty and have been able to respect and keep their bodies sacred in line with the customs.
Thus, the umemulo ceremony was performed for purely young virgin girls who had respected their bodies and had not defiled it. With evolving times, however, coupled with the effect western culture has had on the African culture, the ceremony is now being performed for girls who have reached the age of 21, whether virgin or not, as it is now believed that purity is no longer determined by just being a virgin physically but it is also about a girl being of her best behaviors (this include listening and respecting their elders) from childhood up until the time they come of age.
This implies that a girl can only perform her Umemulo when she attains the adult age of 21 years old, and after she might have gone through all the customary initiations and training needed to make a successful transition into full womanhood.
Processes & Stages Involved In The Umemulo Ceremony
The Umemulo isn’t just a mere one-day event, which is done overnight. It takes several years of sustained preparations and planning. Therefore, traditionally the process for the preparations towards Umemulo usually kicks off as soon as the girl attained her puberty possibly from age of 13 years old. It will then span to exactly when she clocks the age of 21 years before she could perform the ritual.
Also, in this preparatory period, the girl will go through some teaching sessions and she will be taught everything she needs to know about womanhood, both the prospects and possible challenges, so as to prepare her for marriage.
One of the core values she would be taught is chastity, as the Umemulo ceremony is mainly for virgins. The eligible girls would also be required to be attending regular virginity classes where they would be sensitized on self-esteem, womanhood, and respect. The classes could be either fortnightly or monthly starting from the day she commences the process until the actual day for the Umemulo ceremony when they would be made to undertake a virginity test.
During the week of the Umemulo ceremony the girls are not allowed to be seen outside the house, and whatever she would need within that week will be provided by their bridesmaids known in Zulu as izimpelesi. However, on the penultimate day of the ceremony, the girls would be allowed outside for a couple of minutes, mostly covered with a blanket so they could welcome the cow the family will offer her as a gift, which is an integral part of the ceremony. Once that is achieved, they are led back to their huts immediately accompanied by singing.
What’s more, at midnight, all the girls are expected to go out of the house stark naked where they would be required to spend the night by a river singing and dancing till dawn, and by morning, ukuhlolwa (test) which refers to the final virginity test will be conducted for each girl. If the result is positive, there will be so much howling and the family of the girl would be informed. After that, all the girls would take a bath and dress in their traditional Umemulo attires while they get ready for the main ceremony.
It is also the custom that the family of the girl undergoing the Umemulo is meant to slaughter a cow to congratulate their daughter and as a means of thanking the gods for protecting and keeping their daughter from being defiled. Again, some special parts of the cow will be used for other rituals during the Umemulo ceremony.
In this regard, the father of the girl uses the bile of the slaughtered cow to perform some other needed rituals which include sprinkling it on the girl’s toes, fingers, as well as the top of her head. This is done as a form of connecting the girl to her ancestors and pleading for her to be able to find her desired husband and to keep her safe. However, in the absence of the father of the house, the eldest son is also authorized to carry out this ritual.
On the day of the ceremony, the girls are required to blow a whistle as a way of asking for monetary contributions from those present at the site of the ceremony. Whenever the whistle is blown, the guests in attendance are expected to shower the girls with money, individually (the money is often put in the hat that she is wearing). When the hat is completely covered with money and each girl has received contributions from everybody, she is then led back into her house and as soon as she gets to the front of the house she then throws a spear popularly known as the Omkhonto and wherever it lands her father or elder (as the case may be) will run shouting words of praise and dancing to symbolize his gratitude, excitement, pride and love before the whole community.
At this stage, if a girl already has an existing suitor or boyfriend, during the ceremony, he could introduce himself to her parents, stating his intentions towards her. The boyfriend can even go-ahead to start the payment of lobola (a bride price) and they can then go ahead to be properly engaged.
This marks the end of the ceremony as the guests go ahead to celebrate and feast.
Is There An Ideal Traditional Dress Code Worn For Umemulo?
An average Zulu girl (usually referred to as intombi), who is either unmarried or engaged, wears only a short skirt made of grass or beaded cotton strings and wears nothing on top irrespective of her weight, size, etc. The Zulu people do not attribute any sexual meaning to the naked breast, it is just tradition to them. Sexual meaning is rather attached to the back of the upper thigh. Despite the little twerk and modernization that now applies to the ceremony, the original custom of wearing a traditional attire and cow skin popularly known as umhlwehlwe still applies as well as performing the traditional dance associated with the ceremony.
In a nutshell, during the Umemulo ceremony, the girls appear in a spherical cowhide to cover the breasts along with cowhide skirts. There are other traditional dresses used on different occasions in Zulu land. For example, single young girls wear beads with grass-reed, embroidered skirts, and short hair, while engaged ladies grow their hair and cover their breasts. Married women have to fully cover up in a cowhide skirt and izicolo, circular-shaped cotton, and grass hat.
Ukusina Dance Is Used To Thrill The Crowd During The Umemulo Ceremony
One of the most exciting parts of the Umemulo ceremony is its special dance known as Ukusina. As soon as a girl is given the spear Omkhonto (a symbol of her victory and strength), she throws it at the guests as she dances the Ukusina dance which is the traditional dance the girl performs during the ceremony.
Many girls use to attend a course to learn the dance weeks before their Umemulo day. The dancing and singing may continue all through the night. Umemulo is a ceremony most Zulu girls greatly admire, and that is why most girls never seize the opportunity to participate in the ceremony.
Are Gifts Given To Girls During Umemulo?
Traditionally, apart from the cow that is presented and slaughtered during the ceremony by the girls’ families in celebration of her journey into womanhood, the girls are also showered with other gifts which include blankets. However, in modern times, the ideal gift for the Umemulo is mainly money. This is done through the process of throwing the traditional spear known as Omkhonto (which is a symbol of her victory and strength). The girl has to throw the spear in front of different people who will in turn present her with monetary gifts.
Normally, it is only her family that is allowed to pin money on her hair, while other guests deposit their money into a basket. The money is meant to help the girl financially in setting up her home. It also signifies the good wishes of her family, friends, and the community at large towards her later marital life.
The processes of Umemulo involve both time and money, yet it remains one of the most important and memorable events in the life of every Zulu girl which ought to be celebrated.
Is There A Difference Between Umemulo And Umhlonyane?
Many often confuse Umhlonyane and Umemulo. Although the two are similar, and one precedes the other, they are two different ceremonies celebrated at different stages in the life of any Zulu girl and for different purposes. Umblonyane is generally a ceremony celebrated for a girl entering her teenage age, mostly between the age of 13 to 18 years.
Umhlonyane actually begins when the girl sees her period for the first time. Once a mother notices and confirms that her daughter has seen her period for the first time, she invites many other girls of her daughter’s age to the house to come and sit with her in the room singing some traditional Zulu songs and doing a Zulu dance known as ingoma. After being indoors for a week, the girls go to the river to get cleansed and come back singing songs of joy for entering into womanhood.
On the other hand, Umemulo is a ritual ceremony, a kind of initiation rite that signifies the coming of age of a lady, and a transition to womanhood. It is celebrated only when a girl attains the age of 21 years old.