|The Xhosa Culture is a structure, that gives you a firm stand in life|
A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a Xhosa Elder in Mdantsane. The conversation with the old man, who did not want his name mentioned or his picture to appear on our site (he said, he is too old for something like this) lasted nearly three hours, and was of an openness and spirituality that I have seldom experienced with a complete stranger.
The grandfather's words - as I call him - were simple but full of deep meaning and wisdom. He was not shy of talking. He was approachable.
"Whatever I say and you want to write, you can write. How would I know in anyway what you write?", he said to me.
Nothing like the talk of the politicians, that we hear on TV everyday in the news, talk that last for minutes without saying or meaning something. Anyway, that is not what I wanted to talk about today.
I did not take notes or record the conversation, it was entirely unexpected and to recapitulate it and to bring his words to these pages is not easy, but so worth it.
|Our rituals involve a certain simplicity but demand strict respect.|
The grandfather - my conversational partner was in his eighties and has experienced "a whole lotta life". Some of us can only wish for that.
"The Xhosa Culture", he said and looked at me, "is a thing, that is easy to explain. Don't let anyone tell you, that it is difficult to describe our way of life! It is not! At least the Xhosa Culture, that I know, that I was taught by my parents and that I grew up with is an easy thing."
"Why is it so easy?"
"Because everything is defined, it is a structure, it is a structure like an old mat woven with great skill according to a pattern that has evolved over centuries, that gives you direction and a firm stand in life. The rules and regulations, our Xhosa costumes are like the arms that embrace you during your whole life as a Xhosa man or woman.
If you followed, what you have been taught, the knowledge your parents handed down to you, you could not fail in life. Because this knowledge made once sense in our environment and in our heritage."
|The knowledge that was handed down from our parents made sense in our environment and in our heritage|
What are the things you remember from your childhood, let me say the memories that got etched in your mind? By the way, how come you speak so well English? For such and old grandfather, I mean?
I wanted to learn the white man's language. To speak another person's language gives you power.
As a child I remember, that each homestead was an economic unit with its own land. My father was the head of the home, a role that he took incredibly serious, that was his life. My father had several wives and his wealth, the richness of our family was measured in cattle. Problems in the village or in the area were solved at the Chief's council. As a boy I was sometimes allowed to watch the men from a distance.
This was our system, this is what I saw everyday and it was the way it had to be. This was so full of sense to me at the time.
|Each homestead was an economic unit|
There are different phases in your life and of cause each one comes with a responsibility. I was a boy then, and life did not pose too many challenges. There was a lot of piece in my father's homestead except for some of the wives quarreling. But this was a problem my father was able to solve with ease.
Then I grew up and became a man, I had many own children. I became a father.
But your life did not repeat itself in the same way like your father's life did, right?
Yes that is true, my life was very different than that of my father and my grandfather. When I was a parent myself I experienced 40 years of Apartheid when Xhosa speaking tribes became confined to the homelands and then to the independent states of the Transkei and Ciskei.
The chiefs became administrators for the White government. But the areas designated for the Xhosa people could not really support all the people living there. Like many other men of my generation I became a migrant worker, seeking work in the city and coming home to his family once a year for vacation. This was a drastic difference between my father's life and my life.
The absence of a man from his family for an extended period of time always changes things for the good. A man who is not present can not rule, harmonize or solve the affairs and problems of his family. He will be a migrant in life as well.
Now, that your life was so different from your fathers life did you still stick with the costumes of your Xhosa culture, your system, that you call the structure and that gives a man a firm stand in life?
Oh yes, I did. I tried. That was what allowed me to keep my family together and to live in the spirit of my forefathers. Many other choose not to do so, or may be it was an involuntary process for them. When people give up their traditions it is not always a conscious thing. But for me I tried for follow in my father's footsteps. But I did not make everybody happy of cause.
What do you mean by that?
My children, some of my children revolutionized against me.( he laughed)
Are all your children still alive?
I had nine children. I still have five. Four are late. My children have children now. Am a grandfather and great grandfather.
Today, how is your life today as a grandfather and Xhosa elder?
I am an old man who has a long life behind him. The concept of the Elders is fading away. I am not sure if I am an elder. I am just an old man. It is a long while since somebody has asked me for advice or considered my opinion as important for his decisions. In fact this talk with you is the longest talk I had in a while.
But as a grandfather could you not pass on knowledge of the olden days to your children and grandchildren?
As a grandfather I lived actually through astonishing times. When I was an old man, I was allowed to vote for the first time in 1994 when South Africa became a democratic country thanks to Nelson Mandela and his fellows.
The new South Africa is something that made me wonder. It was a good feeling and I really did not believe that the rulers of the country would still change. I have been used to the Apartheid system for so many years, that it seemed unlikely anything else would still appear in my life time. But you have to learn freedom as well.
|I have been used to the Apartheid system for so many years, that it
seemed unlikely anything else would still appear in my life time. But
you have to learn freedom as well. |
Is life now more easier and more just for you in the new South Africa? And other old people?
No, not easier, Democracy brought new opportunities and freedom for all the people in South Africa. Some of us did experience better living conditions. But many still fight a battle for survival. You are only really free when you are free of worries that concern your survival.
I do live from a grant that the government gives me. And sometimes some of my children bring money and food. But some of them also ask me for money.
|Some experienced better living conditions in South Africa|
Can we talk about the costumes of the Xhosa culture, that make up the structure you talked about. What costumes you think are the most important ones?
Of cause the rituals.
But it is difficult to say which ones are the most important ones. The rituals "Isisiko" take place in every Xhosa household at moments that are important for the family. You know that. Still today it is like that. Usually this involves the slaughter of an ox or a goat in the kraal. Traditional beer is served to the guests.
Our rituals involve a certain simplicity but demand strict respect. If you forget or not commemorate a ritual when it should have been done, it will hinder or block you in your advancement to the next step in your life.
Like Abakwetha -the initiation of our young boys into men.
Is the ritual of Abakwetha still practised in the same way as when you were young?
You see this question people talk a lot about, also around me there are discussions. You can never say for sure because you only do this once. So what has changed since my time I do not know.But I know there was no alcohol involved in the bush shelters. We were told about manhood and adulthood and the manners you have to follow.
We did not eat meat and for sure we did not see a woman's face for the entire time.
I do not want to say what is wrong today but I have seen initates that were drunk. This in itself is a shame and an insult to the ritual.
What does the future hold for the young?
I do not want to be young again today. No matter under what rule you are born in your life there will be a certain amount of suffering and it is up to you if you take up the fight against it. But it helps if you know where you want to go to. It helps if you can imagine the course of your life. Many young ones can not.
And what does a future hold for a young woman in the Xhosa culture? Will she still be eager to marry young?
According to our traditions we do not marry members of our patent's or grandparent's clan's and tribes. Traditionally the bride moves to the groom's family. It is costum to seal the contract with the lobola, which is the bride price. A certain number of cattle is transferred from the groom's family to the bride's family. The number is negotiable. But today often money is paid instead. Young women do not like to be in polygamous relationships anymore and the wedding is conducted at the church. Sure there is a traditional wedding as well but the Xhosa people have definitely taken over Western costumes.
Many women move to the city to find a job and marriage is not their first priority anymore. Life is like that, if there are other options you will consider them.
|If there are other options you will consider them....|
In my time a girl enhanced her beauty by beadwork but I do think this has also changed a lot.
|In my time a girl enhanced her beauty by bead work but I think a lot has changed old image of a Zulu girl|