Xhosa People: Understanding the Origin and History of the South African Tribe

The Xhosa people who are otherwise known as AmaXhosa are of the Nguni clan – one of the four major ethnic divisions of Black South Africans. The others are Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga, and Venda. Xhosa people have a large population of approximately 8 million in South Africa with a minute number in Zimbabwe and Botswana. Their language Xhosa pronounced Khosa with the ‘K’ slightly silent, is also known as isiXhosa and it is the most widely spoken indigenous language in South Africa after Zulu. It is the official language of Lesotho, as well as one of the official languages of Zimbabwe.

Xhosa People are Descendants of Tshawe, Reportedly Living in the Eastern Cape Since the 7th Century

The Eastern Cape is a province in South Africa said to be the first home of the Xhosa people whose history traces back to 1593. Recently, archeological evidence traces their existence in the region to as far back as the 7th century AD.

Along the line and in the 17th century, the tribe divided and while the Thembu tribe found its way to the Nbashi River, the original Xhosa tribe is said to have moved to the Kei River.

The Xhosa people reportedly arrived in South Africa during the migration of the great Nguni from the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa dating over 2000 years ago. They interacted with the foraging and pastoral people who were in South Africa first. These people include the Koi and the San. Later, however, they started to replace these inhabitants and occupied vast lands within the country.

Turning to the existence of the Xhosa people, it is believed that the entire Xhosa subgroups are the descendants of a common ancestor known as Tshawe. He is also believed to be the first Xhosa king or paramount chief.

Areas In Africa Where The Xhosa People Reside

There is a relatively small Xhosa-speaking community in Zimbabwe and their language isiXhosa is acknowledged as one of the country’s national languages. Xhosa is also an official language in Lesotho. The Xhosa people consist of several tribes with related yet distinct heritages. The main tribes are the amaGcaleka, amaRharhabe, imiDange, imiDushane, and amaNdlambe.

In modern-day South Africa, the Xhosa people are the second-largest ethnic tribe after the Zulu and are majorly found in the eastern cape province of South Africa. Many live in Cape Town, East London, and Port Elizabeth as well as other parts of the country.

What Language Do Xhosa People Speak?

The term Xhosa is used to identify the people and also refers to the language spoken by the same people and is also officially referred to as isiXhosa. The language is spoken as a first language by more than 8 million people while it has also been adopted as a second language by about 11 million in South Africa alone.

The language falls under the Niger-Congo family and walks through the branches of Atlantic Congo down to the Bantu and further down to the Nguni-Tsonga. The language further falls under the Nguni group and stretches its branches to the Zunda – a language group that includes several languages such as Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, and Swati.

Dealing with the language from the point of the adaptation of its name, Xhosa derived from the Khoisan language which means “angry men”. The spoken part of the language involves the clicking of tongues while its orthography includes the Latin (Xhosa alphabet), Xhosa Braille, and the Ditema tsa Dinoko.

In addition, Xhosa is a tonal language. In this sense, it focuses on differentiating words with the use of tones – whether high, low, or mid. In this regard, the orthography of the language uses diacritics to differentiate words that have the same spelling but when pronounced differently will entirely mean different things.

Xhosa has an interesting and vast vocabulary. It is estimated that about 15% of the Xhosa vocabulary actually comes from the Khoekhoe language – a language that belongs to the Khoe language family and is found in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.

At present, the language has been introduced to be taught in many South African schools, especially at the elementary level. It has also been vastly used by the media, in songs, films, and many other places. All of these have contributed to making Xhosa a famous language that has stood the test of time in South Africa.

The Traditional Dishes of Xhosa People

Eating of Animals is Common

One of the favorite dishes of AmaXhosa is meat. They reportedly eat many parts of animals, including the head, feet, and intestines among other parts. Although people have added a number of animals to the list of those they prefer, it is not farfetched that they are famous for rearing animals like cattle, goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs. In addition, these animals are mostly eaten during special occasions.

Traditionally, the size or part of the meat served to everyone depends on hierarchy and at other times gender. For instance, the prime cuts from the meat are served to men while women and children are served with lesser parts.

Mielepap is One of Xhosa’s Most Prominent Foods

The mielepap is food that is made from corn. There are different traditional recipes for the pap-like meal depending on the occasion. Recently, people have tried to make it using other modern recipes. Generally, this meal can be made in the following manner

  • Stywe pap (mostly eaten with meat)
  • Slap pap (mostly used for breakfast)
  • Krummel pap (a crumbly porridge that can be served at breakfast or dinner)

The mieliepap is reportedly packed with nutrients such as Vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, and B9; zinc, protein, and magnesium.

Umpoqhoko (Maize Porridge)

One popular food of the Xhosa people is the Umngqusho, this meal is prepared on samp and sugar beans, usually served hard body chicken called umleqwa in isiXhosa. Umngqusho is a staple food for most South African families.

Other Foods of the Tribe

Other foods of the Xhosa people in isiXhosa include the traditional meat dishes which are Inyama Yenkomo beef dish, inyama Yegusha mutton dish, and Inyama yebhokwe goat meat.

Xhosa people have a wide range of soups too and this includes isopho corn soup; and soured milk porridge, the Umvubo. Leafy concoctions include the Imithwane made from pumpkin leaf, the ilaxa, and the rhabe wild spinach dish. Wild plants are also part of the Xhosa people’s food like imvomvois an aloe dish, and the ikhowa made from mushrooms.

Xhosa Dresses And Attires

The Xhosa people have been constantly referred to as the “Red Blanket People”. This is because they have a custom of wrapping red blankets dyed with red ochre around their bodies, with the intensity of the color varying from tribe to tribe. Because the Xhosa people are vast and vary in tribes, beads and colors are constant materials used in making traditional dresses, this helps to distinguish and identify AmaXhosa from one another.

Dress codes are mostly informed by the individual’s social standings and portray different stages in life. Dresses are also worn symbolically with regards to sexes and to show the periods of events and cultural rituals.

For unmarried women, wraps are tied around the shoulders, leaving the breasts exposed. Women who are engaged to be married redden their plaited hair and let it screen their eyes. This is done as a sign of respect for their fiancés.

A form of headdresses is also worn by women as a sign of respect to the head of the family which is their father or their husband. Older women are however allowed to wear more sophisticated headpieces because of their seniority. Notable iconic Xhosa dresses are incebetha, Ifulu, Iqhiya.

Another interesting part of the traditional attire of Xhosa is animal skins. The clothing is mostly used by men. Often, goatskins bags are worn to carry essentials such as tobacco and knife.

In addition, embroidered skirts with a rectangular cloth over the left shoulder are traditionally and alternatively worn by Xhosa men on special occasions such as weddings or initiation ceremonies. They sometimes add a tunic and strands of beaded necklaces. Most notable iconic Xhosa men’s wear is ingcawa, ukurhaswa, isichebe, isidanga amongst many others.

Important Xhosa Cultures and Traditional Rites

Across cultures and societies, there is the sustaining use of symbols and actions to express and convey meanings. One important aspect of African society is its ability to hold on to rituals, traditions, and customs.

Although many are going into extinction as a result of civilization, a number have equally been held close. Focusing on Xhosa, the people have many cultural values and traditional rites. They include the age-linked rituals which mark the passage from one age grade to another, starting from birth to the day they die, marriages, and burial rites.

The Rites of Birth, Male and Female Initiation and Circumcision

The rite of birth is important in the traditional Xhosa community. After a woman gives birth, the umbilical cord is usually, buried, or burnt to serve as protection. Subsequently, Xhosa names or any other names will be given to the child. The mother of the child, on the other hand, is expected to stay at home for at least 10 days, then a goat is sacrificed afterward.

In modern-day settings of the people, especially among Christians, many people neglect the sacrificing of goats. Instead, they invite friends and relatives to celebrate the end of the mother’s 10 days seclusion.

In another traditional rite, the male and female initiation stands as an important aspect of the people even though it is not practiced by many in the present age. The coming of age rite initiation is a ceremony that is heralded to be an important ritual in a young man’s life and his passage into manhood.

The ceremony “Ulwaluko” involves a journey to an isolated area or a mountain and primarily focuses on the circumcision of the boys who then receive lessons on manhood and masculinity from older males.

The initiation of Xhosa men is rigorous and there has been a call for it to be abolished. According to many sources, the initiation often ends up leaving scores of young men dead. In recent times, however, the ritual is less rigorous, the period of time to spend on the mountains is shorter.

For females, the initiation is shorter and the intonjane (girl to be initiated) is to stay away in a special place away from others for a week. At the time, sacrifices will be offered, songs and dances are performed. The girl also is going to observe the food she eats during this period.

The Marriage Rites Of The Xhosa People

Umtshato, as it is called by the Xhosa people is one that is filled with a number of customs and rituals which relate to the upkeep of Xhosa traditional practices. These marriage rites which have been incorporated into modern-day marriages in South Africa, for decades have been practiced by the Xhosa people. This practice helps bring two different families together.

Umtshato consists of four different stages which are the Ukuthwalwa. Here, the man sees a potential wife to be and makes his intention known to his parents. This is then followed by the Isiduko. In this scenario, the man discusses with his parents or relatives about his plans. This would lead to research about the woman’s family.

Once discussions and research are deemed satisfactory, the man’s family then appoints marriage negotiators who then pay a visit to the woman’s family. Their intentions will be made known and they would negotiate the bride price (Lobola) payment. This process is called Ikhazi. This goes up to the level the bride price is paid.

The final rite is the Ukuyalwa, this ritual is done to solidify the unity of both families. The bride will go to the groom’s household where the elders will address her with regards to how to carry herself and dress appropriately at her new home.

The Traditional Music And Dance Of The Xhosa People

Due to the fact that Xhosa people are vast and vary, each clan has its own style of drumming and dialect. The traditional music of the Xhosa people lays emphasis on group singing and clapping as an accompaniment to dance. They also play other instruments used such as rattles, whistles, flutes, mouth harps, and stringed instruments constructed with bow and resonator.

Umxhentso, the Xhosa traditional dance as it is called is of four different types. The Umngqunqo is a dignified dance that doesn’t require much body movement. It is an ancient dance and is usually performed by older women. The Umdudo dance which is performed at weddings is often accompanied by wedding songs called Umbolorho. The Umguyo dance is performed by young boys before they are initiated into manhood.

The Burial Rites Of The Xhosa People

When a Xhosa man dies, families, extended families come together once they have been notified. The coming together is to find ways to prepare for the rituals in order to accompany the spirit of the deceased into the land of the ancestors. The male head of the clan or family facilitates the whole rites.

Based on the status of the deceased, either an ox or a goat is slaughtered. After the burial, a cleansing ritual is done. At this point, the bereaved women go to the nearest river to wash all materials and blankets that were used by the deceased before their deaths.

What is the Religion of Xhosa People?

The second-largest ethnic group in South Africa, Xhosa people are mostly Christians. The religion was brought to them by the European missionaries. Regardless, there are people belonging to the ethnicity that practice African traditional religion.

Historically, the people believed that ancestors can become mediators between God and humans. As such, they would honor their ancestors through ritual sacrifices and feasts among others.

Nenpan Ngwan
Nenpan Ngwan
Nenpan is a linguist and content creator who is set out to add value to the world through writing. Away from writing, she enjoys reading, viewing nature, and creating beauty where her hands can reach.


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