On arriving in Cape Town in November, I was lucky enough to attend a philanthropy conference hosted by Inyathelo, the South African Institute for Advancement, with my colleagues from the Kay Mason Foundation.
The five-day affair provided a great overview of the shifts in non-profit and philanthropy activity in South Africa over the last 20 years. It also included a prestigious philanthropy awards ceremony, honouring individual and NGO achievements across South Africa. The awardees included my boss Richard Mason, recognised for his 11-year commitment to providing disadvantaged South African children with a quality education, as well as offering learning and employment opportunities in the poverty-stricken Eastern Cape.
The conference kickstarted a lot of interesting work I have undertaken as the KMF’s and Project Lulutho’s new Head of Development. However what I want to describe here is my time in the Eastern Cape over Christmas, with the wonderful family of my Xhosa boss, the KMF’s Director Nelly Tom.
The family house overlooks numerous overlapping green hills near the town of Nqamakwe (q=click), in the southern part of the Eastern Cape. 70kms south is East London, a port town on the Wild Coast. In 1865 a number of Mfengu (one of the many Xhosa clans) were resettled in the area around Nqamakwe. As refugees from the Mfacane wars further north, they had relatively few links to their former rural tribal economy and, at an early stage, came under the guidance of European missionaries. Realising the need for an education in their new colonial economy, they raised funds to establish schools. As I have come to learn, education is one of the pillars of Xhosa culture.
View from Nelly's house, nr. Nqamakwe, Eastern Cape
Xhosas do not distinguish between parents and aunts and uncles, or siblings and cousins, and often all live together under one roof. So there were a lot of folk milling about the house when we arrived. After the introductions, some of the kids took me on a tour of the surroundings, where we stumbled across various indigenous insects and plants. All of them knew the names of each, including what medicinal properties the plants held. Very impressive thought I and rare to find amongst kids these days
My first night there was Christmas Eve and we ate African salad or “Umvubo”, which consists of mealie (corn) and milk. Not much taste, although cinammon is often added for flavour. Texture was a bit like wool. We went to bed and I felt excited and a little apprehensive about the days ahead. Nelly had left again that day to spend Christmas and Boxing Day with her husband’s family, and I hoped I would manage to fit in.
Christmas, as it turns out, is not a huge event in Xhosa culture. There is a lot of food, and new clothes given to the babies and younger children, but otherwise it is pretty much business as usual. Parties start in the afternoon, however and go on late into the night, accompanied by a mix of R’n’B, hiphop, electro, mushy ballads and a fair amount of booze. Not that different from young the world over then. These few days were a great opportunity for observation, but to keep busy I got involved in the chores. In contrast to Western culture, children are deemed ready to cook, wash, clean and tidy from around the age of 10, and the older the adults get, the less they do. No molly coddling.
Wherever we went, to the shop or to visit neighbours and friends, the girls acted as my translators and on occasion, protectors from more “forthcoming” passers-by. I had learnt a few Xhosa phrases before arriving, but it was clear very quickly I had a long way to go. The clicks are very difficult to get your tongue around, literally, but I was determined.
Being amongst people speaking a totally foreign language, is a great lesson for relying on your senses. I concentrated on body language, tone of voice, facial expressions and in so doing picked up the command words pretty quickly. The little ones were adorable, and had none of the apprehension of some of the older lot with me, so I had plenty of fun with them. Yolakazi, the 12-year-old ringleader of the neighbourhood’s younger crew, is confident in English and taught me many Xhosa words. She also tried to teach me some African dance moves, although as an umlungu (white person), there was only so much I could do. I certainly provided a lot of amusement for the onlookers, and was in total awe of the way these kids could move their hips before they had hit puberty, or double figures even. There are several versions of the literal translation of umlungu, but one I was told is the white foam (or scum) that is brought in off the waves. Therefore either white man was coined as scum or it represents the Dutch East India Company’s arrival by boat in 1652. I was assured however that nowadays “umlungu” is mostly used affectionately.
The real flurry began during preparations for the “Umgidi “ or end of initiation, a ritual every Xhosa male must go through before he is deemed a “man” and allowed to marry, own property and the like. The ritual is focused around boys circumcision (carried out by a chosen male from the family or tribe called ingcibi), and them living in the “bush”; a hut near the family house. This lasts for three weeks, and their bodies are painted with white ochre to keep them clean, and covered by blankets bearing colours of the Xhosa tribe to which they belong. This usually happens in December or June, the holiday months. They are allowed to leave the hut only to visit other “abakhweta”(initiation boys), or go wash in the river, but cannot go near the house.
I visited the hut several times in the days coming up to their release, delivering food and drink and chatting with the four boys about how they felt about this tribal ritual (painful but accepted as a part of growing up) as well as nightlife hotspots in the UK, of all things! The only members of the family not allowed to visit are their parents, as during this time they must learn how to take care of themselves without parental help. There is a common perception I had picked up in Cape Town that the circumcision procedure was dangerous because it was carried out illegally and without proper care. So I got investigating and found out that although there have been some deaths in the past, the “ingcibi” now has to be certified by a doctor and after the procedure checks on the boys’ progress every two days. There is also an “ikankatha” (carer), chosen by the family, who stays with the boys all the time, to make sure they are healthy and taking their traditional herbal meds.
On the day of the release, we all gathered a small way above the hut. There was excited murmuring as the boys came out to have their heads shaved. At this point, only men were allowed near. In fact the sexes are still very separate in Xhosa culture. One spends most of the time with one’s own sex, unless they are family members or married but even so, there are “male” and “female” activities, much in the traditional sense. And if a girl is seen speaking to a man, it is thought she is trying to nab him. Which made it quite difficult for me to get a lot of male perspectives, although I took my chances where I could. It was also tricky as the boys were generally more talkative than the girls. I think this had something to do with shyness in spoken English but was also because the girls are almost always busy with some chore or errand and there is little time for idle conversation. This also applied to the abakhweta, and girls that visited them were often teased for flirting.
The razing completed, the boys re-entered their hut for the last time and a couple of men started hacking at it. The shacks are always demolished, as a symbol of the end of boyhood. The four boys emerged before the metal toppled down on them and, accompanied by a group of around 20 men, started walking toward the river to wash, wrapped in their blankets. They walked about 100 yards before there was a sudden shout and the blankets fell. It was a pretty funny sight to see four boys running stark naked, still covered in white paint. It is a race and the men follow behind, urging them on. The kids then collected the fallen blankets and we made our way to the river to wash them, though we are not allowed near to the new men to give them privacy.
The atmosphere was very jolly as the kids washed the blankets by stomping on them in big, metal buckets. When the boys started to make their way back, we followed behind. Although we were quicker than them, we had to wait until they entered the house chosen for the festivities (Nelly’s uncle’s) before we could follow. They slowly walked to the kraal, a stone-walled enclosure for men only (although I was allowed in eventually, on account of taking photos) and the new men were sat in the far corner and presented with huge, silver buckets of Umqombothi, African beer. The pale coloured concoction is made from maize, maize malt, sorghum malt, yeast and water (which I had helped sieve the night before.) It is rich in Vitamin B and has a distinctly sour taste and aroma. It only contains about 3% alcohol, and has a thick, creamy consistency. Tasted a bit like sour milk.
Umqombothi, African beer
As the amakwrala (as they are called once they have come out of the bush) sit there and sip away, several elder men, who have assembled around the kraal by now, come forward. They proceed to offer heavyweight sermons on how the family is now looking to them to set an example, and be providers for the family. If any man wanted to take a sip of the amakwrala’s Umqombothi, he has to offer a coin for his pleasure. After this first round of commandments (this would be repeated several times throughout the next two days), the boys are led to a hut and allowed to lie down in their blankets, where they receive their guests like princes. Still no mothers allowed.
While this was going on, 14 quivering sheep were tied together in a pen next to the kraal. Quicker than a Jimmy Anderson delivery, the men hoisted them into the kraal, slitting their throats and slicing them up. A pretty gory sight for my delicate eyes, but as a meat eater, there was no shying away. The worst bit was the cracking of the bones. The next day I would watch 3 goats subjected to the same fate. But I’m still not a veggie.
Once they have been skinned, bled and yanked apart, the meaty carcasses are slapped onto the walls of the kraal, almost like decoration, and all the insides are put into a huge tin bucket. Now it gets really disgusting. Girls of all ages get stuck into dividing up the insides, essentially getting rid of all the shit, and preserving the edible bits of intestine and so forth. I was quite relieved not to take part in this particular task, but was fascinated to see that girls as young as 12 were just as capable of sorting sheep insides as their elders.
I started reading Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom during this time, and given that the first few chapters describe his upbringing in a town very close to where we were, it helped me to understand much better Xhosa rituals and traditions. One of the things he explained is that it is not usual for children to ask questions when growing up. They are expected to learn by watching and doing. And they view the Western practice of parents always answering their children’s questions, and applauding them for being inquisitive as bizarre. So I tried to keep my mouth shut as much as possible. No easy feat!
That afternoon we visited another Umgidi happening up the road, where a plate piled high with meat was immediately thrust into my hand. During my stay, I was always the first to be offered food much to my embarrassment, and in fact, anyone who enters the house is automatically given a plate without asking. No one goes hungry. Food is not savoured (although meat is a treat), it is eaten because it has to be, and there is of course no luxury of choosing what to have. With no electricity the options are limited so meals are bulked up with lots of carbs. Not so good for the heart or the waistlines, but Xhosas don’t place much importance on staying trim. In fact in the rural areas, rounder still equals wealthier and healthier.
Amakwrala drinking Umqombothi
The following day we girls were up early to continue preparing all the food. Meanwhile the men continued slaughtering, giving speeches and mostly just drinking. The guests begun to turn up around midday, with about 20 people arriving at one time from far away villages, laden with presents for the new men. On arrival Nelly’s father, Papa Wawe, presented each family with a bottle of liquor, coke and homemade bread and delivered a welcoming speech.
Then everyone burst into song and walked to one of the outhouses for the present giving or “izipho”. All gifts were placed in the middle of the room (clothes, bedding, booze, bread, all practical things) and someone went patiently round the circle with a shot glass, dishing out the brandy and whisky.
Feeding everyone was quite the operation, given that we were providing for over 200. A team of ten dished up at the iron stoves. The plates were then passed down a long line of youngsters till they reached all the guests. As soon as plates were empty, they were quickly scooped up to be washed and plated up with food again for more hungry guests.
Just in case we were not satiated (although it is bad form to decline), more meat was handed around in buckets, which everyone gladly tore into (quite chewy but very tasty.) The guests then performed dances and songs from their different towns. More drinking and general merriment ensued till the following day. Even the young crew managed to get their hands on booze, so by late afternoon, everyone was walking a little funny. Especially the mentally handicapped neighbour, who stomped around singing loudly, mostly ignored but plied with lots of beer. This might be frowned upon back home, but he seemed perfectly happy. And it is not in Xhosa culture to be too sympathetic. There are more practical things to see to. It certainly makes one strong.
I of course had my camera permanently slung round my shoulder, to the delight of everyone. Whenever I walked into a room, I was greeted with shouts of “Natash, shoot me, shoot me!”(the direct translation in Xhosa). I did try to correct them on occasion, but mostly just got on with the “shooting”.
Xhosa ladies cooking the meat
It is only on the 3rd day of Umgidi that the amakwrala are allowed to wear their own clothes again, and move around freely. Sadly that marked the end of my stay, but I am extremely grateful to have been part of such a fascinating tradition and learn about the Xhosa culture with my own eyes. And thank you to my new friends for making me feel like part of the family. I look forward to going back and seeing them very soon! “Kude kubengelinye ixesha!” (Till next time!)
For photos please go to my facebook profile,