X is for Xhosa

This entry is part 26 of the series Out of Africa

XWho Are They? The Xhosa people of South Africa form the second-largest ethnic group, second only to the Zulus. They mainly live in the Eastern Cape province, where the main towns are East London, Mthatha, and Port Elizabeth.

Marriage: Brides do not marry into their parent’s or grandparent’s clans. The bride moves to the groom’s family, and the contract is sealed by lobola. This used to be paid in cattle, but today it is often a monetary equivalent. Where in the past, men took several wives, today most marriages are monogamous and contracted through the church or magistrate’s court.

Ubuntu: They have a deep sense of community, and reach out to help one another. The term, Ubuntu in the Xhosa culture means, “I am because we are”. They share food, shelter, and possessions in a way that puts Westerners to shame.Xhosa Desmond Tutu

Xhosa Nelson_MandelaFamous Xhosas: There are a number of well-known men from the Xhosa culture. Two of the best known are doubtless Nelson Mandela, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, both Nobel Peace Prize winners. The national anthem of South Africa came from a Xhosa hymn.

Physical Closeness is important to their culture, so mothers carry their babies on their backs against themselves from birth until they are toddlers. The result of this closeness is interesting. Babies tend to be contented and easily managed.

Faith: Where they believe in one creator who made all things and looks after them in times of extreme danger, the majority of them worship their ancestors, whom they believe look after them in normal day-to-day living. Even when Xhosas convert to Christianity, they often end up including many African rituals and beliefs.

Education: When missionaries introduced Christianity to the Xhosa people, some accepted the new teachings and attended school. They became known as the “School People”. Others continued to follow their cultural tradition. They became known as “Reds” because they smeared their bodies with red ochre.Xhosa Beaded collar(1)

Job Creation: Migrant workers flock to the cities looking for work. Ecotourism offers jobs and opportunities for everyone to join in and help. As tourists and local visitors enjoy the environment at places like the Addo National Park and buy local goods, they in turn help to overcome poverty and help to keep the families together. The Xhosa women make exquisite jewellery with beads which are worn by men as well as women.

Dancing: is an integral part of the Xhosa culture, and they often dance at their rituals, lined up facing one another.

Traditions: Many Xhosa households still slaughter a cow, ox or goat as part of their traditional rituals, especially when someone dies. They brew a potent traditional beer from sorghum and maize and serve it to their guests. Although the Xhosa people have adapted much of their lives to Western traditions, many retain some of their traditions and culture.

Xhosa initiatesInitiation Ritual: The Xhosa people still practice an initiation ceremony which the medical fraternity is trying hard to bring to an end. A boy becomes a man after being circumcised. He then withdraws into temporary bush shelters where he is given lessons on how to behave as an adult. During that time he wears a blanket and paints his face and body with white clay. Many young men have lost their lives as a result of the unsanitary circumstances of this ritual.

Language: Xhosa is the second-most spoken language in South Africa. It is a fascinating language, punctuated with four distinct different-sounding click consonants, which are extremely hard to master if not taught when very young. Other African languages also use clicks, but the Xhosa has the most. Xhosa is written using the Latin alphabet, but with different pronunciation of some of the letters.

In closing, do yourself a favor and listen to Miriam Makeba explaining how the clicks in Xhosa sound. She also sings a great fun Xhosa Wedding song, which those of us who can’t pronounce the title call “The Click Song”.  It is not long, and I promise you will love it. (NOTE:The clicks are not background sound effects. They are part of the language.)