By Ina Woolcott
The Xhosa tribe are peoples of Bantu ancestry who live in south-east South Africa. In the last 2 centuries they have spread throughout the southern and central-southern parts of the country. Presently around 8 million Xhosa people exist. The peoples are divided into several sub-groups – the main subgroups being the Bhaca, Bomvana, Mfengu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Xesibe, and Thimbu – with related but distinct heritages. They have their own language, with Xhosa being South Africa’s most common home language, after Zulu, to which Xhosa is closely related. One characteristic of the Xhosa language are the renowned click sounds (15 of them), originally borrowed from now extinct Khoisan languages of the region.
The name “Xhosa” is meant to have originated from a tribal leader called uXhosa, although there is also a theory that the word xhosa may be a deviation from Khoi-khoi or San meaning ‘fierce’ or ‘angry’ – the AmaXhosa are known as the fierce people. Their language is known as isiXhosa.
In 1994 the apartheid system – a system of ethnic separation in South Africa from 1948 – of bantustans, the Xhosas were denied South African citizenship, and tried confine them to the nominally self-governing “homelands” of Transkei and Ciskei, now both a part of the Eastern Cape Province where most Xhosa remain.
Lore, Religion, Rites and Arts and Crafts
The traditional Xhosa belief includes diviners/seers, also known as sangoma. These people serve as herbalists, prophets, and healers for the community. Women in the main fulfil this role, after taking a 5 year apprenticeship.
The Xhosas have a strong oral tradition. One tradition holds that the first chief and acknowledged “father” of Xhosa society was Tshawe. Here it is generally accepted that he was the patriarch of loose confederation of clans that eventually became the Xhosa, though this cant be dated accurately. Then, the Xhosa were more a group of related clans than a united nation. They were loyal to Tshawe, but were sovereign chiefdoms, governing their own daily affairs. These clans gradually expanded to meet their needs. Soon Xhosa speakers stretched west to the Groot-Vis river, North into modern day KwaZulu/Natal, and inland to the Drakensberg mountains. These clans were loyal to a local monarch, with no single chief ruling the entire nation. Some well known chiefs of this period included Vusani of the Thembu clan, Gambushe of the Bomvana clan, and Faku of the Mpondo clan. Another story claims that the leader from whose name the Xhosa people take their name was the first ever human on Earth.
The key figure in this tradition is the imbongi, or praise singer. Iimbongi (plural) traditionally live near the chief’s “great place” (the cultural and political focus of his activity). They accompany the chief on important occasions. The imbongi, Zolani Mkiva preceded Nelson Mandela at his Presidential inauguration in 1994. Iimbongis’ poetry, called isibongo, commends the work and adventures of chiefs and ancestors.
The supreme being is known as uThixo or uQamata. Ancestors act as intermediaries and have a role in the lives of the living, they are honoured in rituals. Dreams are very important in divination and when contacting ancestors. Traditional rites include rituals, initiations, and feasts. Today, modern rituals generally concern matters of illness and psychological wellbeing.
One traditional ritual that still regularly takes place is the manhood ritual, a secret rite initiating boys into adulthood. The initiates (abakwetha), live in isolation sometimes several weeks, frequently in the mountains. White clay is put on their bodies and they observe numerous taboos. The pinnacle is ritual circumcision.
This has sparked controversy in this modern day and age. Over 300 circumcision and initiation related deaths occurred since 1994. There has been a spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV due to circumcising initiates with the same blade
Girls too get initiated into womanhood and are secluded, but for less time and they aren’t circumcised
Amongst other rites, there is also the seclusion of mums for 10 days after giving birth, aswell as the burial of the afterbirth and umbilical cord near the village. This mirrors in the traditional greeting ‘Inkaba yakho iphi?’ translating directly to ‘where is your navel?’ The answer tells someone where you live, your clan affiliation, your social status, and it also holds a wealth of cultural information. Most importantly, it determines where you belong”
In the 1820’s, Christian missionaries set up outposts among the Xhosa. The first Bible translation was done in the mid-1850s, though the Xhosa did not convert in great numbers until the 1900s, especially within the African Initiated Churches. There are some denominations that blend Christianity with the more traditional beliefs.
The traditional diet foods include goat meat, beef, mutton, sorghum, maize and umphokoqo (dry maize porridge), umngqusho (made from dried, stamped cord and dried beans), amasi (milk that is frequently sour ), beans, pumpkins and vegetables.
Traditional crafts include pottery, weaving and beadwork. Traditional music features drums, mouth harps, stringed-instruments, rattles, flutes, whistles and especially group singing accompanied by hand clapping. For various ritual occasions there are songs – a well known Xhosa song is a wedding song called Qongqongthwane, performed by Miriam Makeba as Click Song #1. There are several other modern groups who sing, record and perform in Xhosa. The Xhosa were introduced by missionaries to Western choral singing. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, part of the National anthem of South Africa, is a Xhosa hymn written by Enoch Sontonga in 1897.
In the 19th Century the first newspapers, books and plays in Xhosa came into being. Xhosa poetry is becoming ever more acclaimed. Some films have also been made in the Xhosa language
Famous Xhosa people
Nelson Mandela – the former President of South Africa is a Xhosa-speaking member of the Thembu people. Charlize Theron – the South African film-star is a competent Xhosa-speaker. Helen Zille – the Mayor of Cape Town and leader of the opposition in Parliament is a competent Xhosa-speaker. Other famous Xhosa speakers include – Amampondo, Stephen Biko, Fats Bookulane, Brenda Fassie, Ken Gampu, Chris Hani, General Bantu Holomisa, Archibald Campbell Jordan, John Kani, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Miriam Makeba, Govan Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki, S.E.K. Mqhayi, Victoria Mxenge, Bongani Ndodana, Bulelani Ngcuka, Makhaya Ntini, Winston Ntshona, Percy Qoboza, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, Enoch Sontonga, Oliver Tambo, Zwelithini Tunyiswa, Desmond Tutu, Ashley Buti , St John Page Yako, Dr. George Clark.
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