By Nonkosi Xaba
In Colonial and apartheid South Africa, the construction of black womanhood through what Thomas (2006) refers to as ‘AmaRespectable’, created the emergence of the ‘modern girl’. This ‘modern girl’ was categorized in two ways, either as a symbol of racial upliftment or as a kind of selling-out or transgression, as she operated outside of the known constructions of black girlhood. When my father denied my attending the reed dance, it became clear that even though my father had played traditional Zulu music, and upheld other principles of Zulu patriarchy, my family would be what Thomas described as ‘AmaRespectable’: the educated (formal schooling), professional (nurses, clerks, teachers) and cosmopolitan.
According to Thomas (2006) and possibly also to my dad, the daughters he’d be raising would be modern girls. These modern girls that Thomas (2006) describes, “appeared to reject their [sole] role as a dutiful daughter, wife, and mother through their engagement with international commodity cultures, mass media, and political discourse” (p.462). Furthermore, sex and sexuality had become part of the conversation on democratic rights in South Africa, which normalized sex talk being part of public conversation, and the same had started to unfold in our home.
Although I never participated in them then, I understood how coming-of-age ceremonies were relevant and useful to Zulu women and Zulu communities even in the context of sexual freedom, which often places discourses of “culture” and “rights” in tension with each other (Heger et al., 2003)(Human Rights and Cultural Practices – The Mail & Guardian, 2019).
In 2005, I was 11-years-old and was attending a school in Ladysmith, Kwa-Zulu Natal. Kwa-Zulu Natal is colloquially referred to as the “Zululand” province. At recess, my friends were loud with laughter about the upcoming dance, Umkhosi woMhlanga:the infamous Zulu reed dance. The Umkhosi Womhlanga (Reed Dance) is the cultural celebration of girls’ and unmarried women’s virginities, rooted in championing abstinence from sexual activity until they get married.
Celebration of virginity means that a girl child shall preserve her status of being a virgin and this is typically confirmed by undergoing the practice of virginity testing (Mntambo, 2020). And although five years earlier, in 2000, the Commission on Gender Equality had described virginity testing as a discriminatory practice, lacking privacy and unlawfully infringing on the rights and dignity of girl children, some girls as well as their aunts and mothers still seemed to value the rite of passage practice and chose to participate.
Similar to women who participate in female circumcision, Zulu maidens tend to participate in virginity testing because the practice affects their position in society, their identity as women of particular ethnic groups, and their womanhood (Mntambo, 2020). Growing up in a rural, small town in Kwa-Zulu Natal meant that traditional Zulu festivals were commonly discussed at school break: Similarly described by Ngema (2018), it was a norm to hear about the annual Easter and Christmas breaks/holidays bringing together young and old Zulu people performing at dance festivals and competitions within their communities.
This short piece goes beyond my father’s (re)enactments of Zulu patriarchy and even further than the current ‘human rights vs. culture’ dispensation. This piece takes the time to understand initiation schools as historically-located, community-accepted learning and knowledge-sharing sites. In line with the views expressed by radical African feminists, (Alweendo, 2017; Gqola, 2016; Motsemme, 2011; Tamale, 2011), I think it important to view these culturally-specific traditional ceremonies as useful tools and sites for adolescent-centred sexual reproductive health rights (SRHR) and consent education to curb sexual crimes and gender-based violence in traditionalist communities.
Folktales have long been used as repositories and vehicles for the transmission of culture. (Bhebhe, 2018) postulates that African literature, including folklore, has therefore ensured the transmission of African cultural values with all their historical sensitivities since time immemorial. For me it was the tale of the virgin warrior girls that held sentiment for me. This is the same tale used to communicate community values, respectabilities, around the coming-of-age of women and the celebration thereof. I saw myself, my friends, as the girls of this story.
Similarly as described in the Mntambo (2020) study, I grew up hearing about how intombi (maidens) who used to stay at the King’s palace, went to the forest to collect firewood as part of their daily household chores. While collecting firewood, young men approached them to propose to them with the aim of “stealing” their virginity. A fight would break out between the young men and the girls. Firewood was used to fight the young men off, and ultimately win the fight. As a symbol of victory, intombi would leave the firewood, descend to the river to cut reeds, pile them up as firewood and carry the bundles back to the palace. Upon reaching the palace, maidens chanted amahubo (traditional hymns) indirectly narrating what had happened and the victory. From then on, the reed symbolized that a maiden had succeeded in protecting and preserving her virginity.
To attend the reed dance in September, a young woman had to ukuziphatha Kahle. “Ukuziphatha Kahle” translates to understanding the preservation of one’s virginity by not having a child out of wedlock and preserving public perception and performance by showing respect to elders and maintaining perceptions of innocence. If one showed clear markers of “good girlhood” this being, having no children or free of any sexually public shame they were gifted with uMemulo, a public ritual marking a transition to womanhood. I’d heard the older girls in my family discussing the big ceremony of womanhood, and at the age of 11, I did not understand the gravity and complexities of these ceremonies; however, studies today (Behrens, 2014; Dlamini, 2021; Vincent, 2006) have theorized about these practices and their adaptations in space and time, and particularly how maintaining these practices served as a tool in the post-apartheid context in South Africa.
There is still a cloud of secrecy surrounding initiation schools and the teachings that take place there. Often to keep western lenses prying on the culture. The initiation of boys and girls was initially established as a secret rite and has remained a well-kept secret. When we were young girls, we were warned about going crazy if we were ever to speak on what goes on there, and even mothers of sons were not to know “how boys become men” (Mabena, 1999). This Explains why so much of what is truly passed down at these ceremonies is unknown, even when explored by black academics who come from this background, there is a need to preserve the culture through secrecy (DePalma & Francis, 2014; Munthali & Zulu, 2007; Vincent, 2008).
Initiation schools in Africa involve different practices amongst the ethnic groups, however, they are all tasked with the education of the child, and this education that includes sexuality education or “education for life” (Van Rooyen, Potgieter, Mtezuka., 2006). According to Elliot (1989), initiation school is known as “traditional education” or “sex education” and some use these interchangeably. In multicultural societies, such as South Africa, this has led many parents to pass the responsibility of sex and sexuality talks to initiation schools they may never take their children to or – as some fear – cover irrelevant content on sexuality education or violence prevention.
Until recent times, the rite of passage initiation schools were the culturally-accepted form for the education and nurturance of humans from childhood into adult life using a process that clarified and affirmed new roles and status in the adult community. Current studies of human development are mostly individually focused and overlook much of the collective understanding evident in cultures that employed rites of passage effectively and successfully over centuries (Scott, 1998).
Umemulo is a rite of passage widely practised by Zulu communities all around South Africa, however, it is not written about extensively. The theorisation of rites of passage as well as girlhood has mostly been propagated in the fields of sociology and anthropology. Rites of passages like the bat mitzvah, and female and male circumcision inform large parts of the literature, while umemulo is discussed only as a fraction. The possibilities of these initiation schools as sites for education on sexual violence/ gender-based violence (as they hold unique and host intimate relationships within their communities) have not been extensively explored in the existing literature (Behrens, 2014; Chisale & Byrne, 2018; Mntambo, 2020; Olson & García-Moreno, 2017; Vincent, 2006).
The Ndebele culture is rich with elaborate rites in which boys and girls were taught how to conduct themselves in sexual matters. These rites are still being practised in some areas, although westernisation is increasingly eroding these values. Similarly, to the Zulu people, the Ndebele embed their teaching in folklore. The cultures boast riddles, folktales, proverbs and praise poetry, which are rich in information related to sex education. The documenting of these rich cultural teachings is what Mungwini (2011, p.1) refers to as our biggest postcolonial challenge; “to salvage traditional ideas and institutions that are waning in the face of modernity while simultaneously demonstrating the validity and efficacy of these ideas and institutions in the context of developments within contemporary society”.
These rites of passage demystify the misconception that sex was never a subject of discussion in Ndebele public life. Sex education for boys and girls has always been taught. Even in cases where parents in this “modern” era are against sex education in ‘‘modern’’ schools, on the premise that it goes against the African value system, the argument should perhaps be about how sex education is now being presented in schools, not that it goes against African culture (Bhebhe, 2019).
Bhebhe (2018) writes about seeming contradictions on sexuality in the Ndebele society, where the recognition of sexual power in an individual happens soon after the birth of a child. Parents normally poured milk over the private parts of both male and female children immediately after birth, this was informed by the belief that this ritual will reduce their sexual drive to normal levels accepted by society. Yet, sexual games – allowing boys (clothed) between a young women thighs ukusomisa – were acknowledged as being able to aid in delaying the early onset of sexual activity (p. 2).
Although it was considered a disgrace for teenagers to engage in sexual intercourse as it was reserved for married people, Ndebele society noted that sexual games among teenagers could help delay the onset of sexual activity. One of these games is known as ukusomisa in Ndebele. In this game, girls would only allow boys between their thighs for both to relieve themselves sexually. Kenyata (as cited in Matolino 2011, p.76) has this to say about sex among teenagers: Although teenagers were allowed to play some games that can be seen as romantic/sex games, the actual sex never took place. One waited until she was married.
It is uncommon to hear of sex games suggested to teenagers by culture in sex education discourse in Africa as youth in Africa, our sexual experiences are narrated as violent, deadly diseases with life-long consequences.
African womanhood and sexuality in literature are categorised into two broad themes, namely descriptive and medical. Chisale and Byrne, (2018) cite Tamale (2011) who argues that the African encounter with colonialism produced ideas of womanhood that associate impurity and inherent sin (Christianity) with women’s bodies. The descriptive narratives equate Black womanhood and sexuality to being primitive, exotic, immoral, insatiable and bestial – depictions based largely on the fears and fantasies of the European observer. While the medical discourse links African womanhood and sexuality to HIV/Aids and reproduction (Mntambo, 2020).
Modise’s (2019) study on parent sex education beliefs in rural South Africa aimed to explore rural South African parents’ beliefs about sexual health education and the age children should learn. The study revealed the same themes surfaced by scholars looking at barriers to implementing comprehensive sex education in schools across South Africa; 1. Considering sex education to be for older children and 2. Sex talk with children is taboo. For instance, some of the parents made the following observations:
My child is still young to be taught about sex, I think age is very important if you want to teach your children about sex. When my child is 16 years I will start teaching him or her about sex because he/she will be matured and understand about sex stories. (Respondent # 17; male; 36 years)
Another parent made the remark; children are taught about sex when they go to Bogwera [cultural initiation schools for boys] or Bojale [cultural initiation schools for girls] according to our culture. (Respondent # 10; female; 33 years) … It is much important to educate children about sex education because you give them the consequences about sex and to protect themselves at all times using condoms and contraceptive against sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS (p. 85).
Although the conversation of sex education by modern parents is riddled with pathologized explanations of sex and threats of pregnancy, traditional initiation schools are cited as reliable places of learning for young people.
Because initiation schools and the ceremonies practiced are upholders and moulders of masculinities and femininities in these traditional societies, these rites are also promising sites for initiating social change. In her paper Harmful Traditional and Cultural Practices Related to Violence Against Women and Successful Strategies to Eliminate Such Practices – Working with Men, Flood (2007) calls for young boys and men to be key players in eradicating gender inequality and addressing gender-based violence. There seems to be a missed opportunity and fragmenting of understanding these values in contemporary South Africa. Vincent (2008) further notes how South Africa is a society battling with illiteracy, conflict, unemployment, violence against women and children, and more precisely how masculinity is widely perceived to be in a crisis of one sort or another.
It is disingenuous to press on into initiation schools and rites of passage ceremonies as means to make a major difference in the crisis we face as was seen with the eight initiates accused of gang-raping a 27-year-old woman. The accused were recent graduates from initiation school and reportedly gang-raped the woman to remove a white substance (ifutha) that is used as part of the initiation process(Vincent, 2008). Because African masculinities are being moulded in a long-established process we fail to see how African patriarchy has been eroded and leaves much to be re-interpreted by young men in a completely new social setting (Vincent, 2008). The high levels of violence, mainly perpetrated by young men in South Africa, can be understood as a manifestation of this sense of crisis. As Catherine Campbell has noted,
Older men are struggling to reconcile what they would call the traditional view of men as potent, powerful, proud beings, as well as repositories of community wisdom and experience, with a set of social relations whereas black workers fall low in the current social hierarchy and have little power within the family. The result of this is that men feel alienated and displaced in their families as well as in township communities (Campbell, 1992).
Rites of passage are primarily to give men and women in the community guidance on the next step to adulthood and the expected behaviour and achievements of young people becoming adults who contribute to the community’s well-being as mediated by the elders.
This is also a time when young people connect and learn from one another reaffirming their beliefs and choices. We can make use of these very principles when re-imagining rites of passage. Bringing young people together to learn from elders and those knowledgeable is valuable to the life trajectories of young men and women in our communities. Summer camps for young girls, and SRHR workshops as hosted by government and cultural chiefs sounds great to the 11-year-old who missed the many nuances however the 29-year-old realizes realities of violated bodily autonomy and inheriting public expectations on gender performances throughout these processes of ‘affirmation’. I learned plenty from the personal initiation ceremonies that I experienced in my family however I know much of what’s involved in the ceremonies was altered to be less about prohibition more about it being a Zulu custom that had to be fulfilled. This was my privilege. I do believe that adapting these systems of teaching with mended inter-generational relationships provides a safe environment for children to develop social skills, decision-making skills (all4kids.org, 2019), it did for me. However South Africa’s very real history of violence, broken inter-generational relationships makes the shaping such spaces need much more than slight changes to practices but a coming to the same page on ideologies for raising well-rounded, autonomous, healthy adults.
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