LOCATION: South Africa (eastern, urban areas)
POPULATION: 6 million
LANGUAGE: Xhosa (Bantu)
RELIGION: Traditional beliefs (supreme being uThixo or uQamata ); Christianity
The word Xhosa refers to a people and a language of South Africa. The Xhosa-speaking people are divided into a number of subgroups with their own distinct but related heritages. One of these subgroups is called Xhosa as well. The other main subgroups are the Bhaca, Bomvana, Mfengu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Xesibe, and Thembu. Unless otherwise stated, this article refers to all the Xhosa-speaking people.
Well before the arrival of Dutch in the 1650s, the Xhosa had settled the southeastern area of South Africa. They interacted with the foraging (food-gathering) and pastoral (nomadic herding) people who were in South Africa first, the Khoi and the San. Europeans who came to stay in South Africa first settled in and around Cape Town. As the years passed, they sought to expand their territory. This expansion was first at the expense of the Khoi and San, but later Xhosa land was taken as well. A series of wars between trekboers (Afrikaner colonists) and Xhosa began in the 1770s. Later, in the nineteenth century, the British became the new colonizing force (foreigners in control) in the Cape. They directed the armies that were to vanquish the Xhosa.
Christian missionaries established their first outposts among the Xhosa in the 1820s, but met with little success. Only after the Xhosa population had been traumatized by European invasion, drought, and disease did Xhosa convert to Christianity in substantial numbers. In addition to land lost to white annexation, legislation reduced Xhosa political autonomy. Over time, Xhosa people became increasingly impoverished. They had no option but to become migrant laborers. In the late 1990s, Xhosa make up a large percentage of the workers in South Africa's gold mines.
Under apartheid (a government policy requiring the separation of races), the South African government created separate regions that were described as Bantustans (homelands) for black people of African descent. Two regions—Transkei and Ciskei—were set aside for Xhosa people.
These regions were proclaimed independent countries by the apartheid government. Apartheid policy denied South African citizenship to many Xhosa. Thousands of people were forcibly relocated to remote areas in Transkei and Ciskei. The homelands were abolished with the change to democracy in 1994.
Before the arrival of the Europeans in the late 1600s, Xhosa-speaking people occupied much of eastern South Africa. The region extended from the Fish River to land inhabited by Zulu-speakers south of the modern city of Durban. This territory includes well-watered rolling hills near scenic coastal areas as well as harsh and dry regions further inland. Many Xhosa live in Cape Town (iKapa), East London (iMonti), and Port Elizabeth (iBhayi). They can be found in lesser numbers in most of South Africa's major metropolitan areas. As of 1995, there were about 6 million Xhosa, making up approximately 17.5 percent of South Africa's population.
The Xhosa language is properly referred to as isiXhosa . It is a Bantu language closely related to Zulu, Swazi, and Ndebele. As with other South African languages, Xhosa is characterized by respectful forms of address for elders and in-laws. The language is also rich in idioms. To have isandla esishushu (a warm hand), for example, is to be generous.
Xhosa contains many words with click consonants that have been borrowed from Khoi or San words. The "X" in Xhosa represents a type of click made by the tongue on the side of the mouth. This consonant sounds something like the clicking sound English-speaking horseback riders make to encourage their horses. English speakers who have not mastered clicks often pronounce Xhosa as "Ko-Sa."
Names in Xhosa often express the values or opinions of the community. Common personal names include Thamsanqa (good fortune) and Nomsa (mother of kindness). Adults are often referred to by their isiduko (clan or lineage) names. In the case of women, clan names are preceded by a prefix meaning "mother of." A woman of the Thembu clan might be called MamThembu . Women are also named by reference to their children, real or intended; NoLindiwe is a polite name for Lindiwe's mother.
Stories and legends provide accounts of Xhosa ancestral heroes. According to one oral tradition, the first person on Earth was a great leader called Xhosa. Another tradition stresses the essential unity of the Xhosa-speaking people by proclaiming that all the Xhosa subgroups are descendants of one ancestor, Tshawe. Historians have suggested that Xhosa and Tshawe were probably the first Xhosa kings or paramount (supreme) chiefs.
Xhosa tradition is rich in creative verbal expression. Intsomi (folktales), proverbs, and isibongo (praise poems) are told in dramatic and creative ways. Folktales relate the adventures of both animal protagonists and human characters. Praise poems traditionally relate the heroic adventures of ancestors or political leaders.
The supreme being among the Xhosa is called uThixo or uQamata . As in the religions of many other Bantu peoples, God is only rarely involved in everyday life. God may be approached through ancestral intermediaries who are honored through ritual sacrifices. Ancestors commonly make their wishes known to the living in dreams.
Christianity in one form or another is accepted by most Xhosa-speaking people today. Cultural traditionalists are likely to belong to independent denominations that combine Christianity with traditional beliefs and practices. Xhosa religious practice is distinguished by elaborate and lengthy rituals, initiations, and feasts. Modern rituals typically pertain to matters of illness and psychological well-being.
Xhosa observe the same holidays as other groups of South Africa. These include the Christian holidays, Workers's Day (or May Day, May 1), the Day of Reconciliation (December 16), and Heritage Day (September 24). During the apartheid era, two unofficial holidays were observed to honor black people killed in the fight for equality and political representation. June 16 was a national day of remembrance for students killed by police in Soweto on that day in 1976. March 21 honored protestors killed by authorities during a demonstration in Sharpeville in 1960. Both of these anniversaries continue to be recognized with a day of rest, meetings, and prayer. Another important holiday is April 27, the date of the first national election in which black South Africans could vote.
After giving birth, a mother is expected to remain secluded in her house for at least ten days. In Xhosa tradition, the afterbirth and umbilical cord were buried or burned to protect the baby from sorcery. At the end of the period of seclusion, a goat was sacrificed. Those who no longer practice the traditional rituals may still invite friends and relatives to a special dinner to mark the end of the mother's seclusion.
Male initiation in the form of circumcision is practiced among most Xhosa groups. The abakweta (initiates-in-training) live in special huts isolated from villages or towns for several weeks. Like soldiers inducted into the army, they have their heads shaved. They wear a loincloth and a blanket for warmth. White clay is smeared on their bodies from head to toe. They are expected to observe numerous taboos (prohibitions) and to act deferentially to their adult male leaders. Different stages in the initiation process were marked by the sacrifice of a goat.
The ritual of female circumcision is considerably shorter. The intonjane (girl to be initiated) is secluded for about a week. During this period, there are dances, and ritual sacrifices of animals. The initiate must hide herself from view and observe food restrictions. There is no actual surgical operation.
Xhosa have traditionally used greetings to show respect and good intentions to others. In interacting with others, it is crucial to show respect (ukuhlonipha) . Youths are expected to keep quiet when elders are speaking, and to lower their eyes when being addressed. Hospitality is highly valued, and people are expected to share with visitors what they can. Socializing over tea and snacks is common.
In Xhosa tradition, one often found a girlfriend or boyfriend by attending dances. One popular type of dance, called umtshotsho or intlombe , could last all night. On some occasions, unmarried lovers were allowed to sleep together provided they observed certain restraints. A form of external intercourse called ukumetsha was permitted, but full intercourse was taboo. For Westernized Xhosa, romances often begin at school, church, or through mutual acquaintances. Dating activities include attending the cinema as well as going to school dances, sporting events, concerts, and so forth.
During the early period of white rule in South Africa, Xhosa communities were severely neglected in terms of social services. In fact, rural areas were deliberately impoverished so as to encourage Xhosa to seek wage labor employment. In the later years of apartheid, some attempts were made to address major health concerns in these areas. However, most government money continued to be set aside for social services that benefited whites. As the Xhosa population in rural areas expanded through natural increase and forced removals, rural lands became increasingly overcrowded and eroded. In the twentieth-century, many men and women migrated to urban shantytowns (towns comprised of crudely built huts). Poverty and ill health are still widespread in both rural and urban communities. Since 1994, however, the post-apartheid government has expanded health and nutritional aid to the black population.
Housing, standards of living, and creature comforts vary considerably among Xhosa. Xhosa people make up some of the poorest and some of the wealthiest of black South Africans. Poor people live in round thatched-roof huts, labor compounds, or single-room shacks without running water or electricity. Other Xhosa are among an elite who live in large comfortable houses in quiet suburban neighborhoods.
The traditional Xhosa family was patriarchal; men were considered the heads of their households. Women and children were expected to defer to men's authority. Polygynous marriages (multiple wives) were permitted where the husband had the means to pay the lobolo (bride wealth) for each, and to maintain them properly. Women were expected to leave their families to live with their husband's family.
The migrant labor system has put great strains on the traditional family. Some men have established two distinct families, one at the place of work and the other at the rural home. With the end of apartheid, some of the families previously separated by the labor laws are beginning new lives in urban areas. Some of these families live under crowded and difficult conditions in shanty-towns and migrant labor compounds.
Many Xhosa men and women dress similarly to people in Europe and the United States. Pants for women have only recently become acceptable. As a result of missionary influence, it has become customary for a woman to cover her hair with a scarf or hat. Many rural woman fold scarves or other clothes into elaborate turban shapes. They continue to apply white or ochre-colored mixtures to their bodies and faces. Other unique Xhosa dress includes intricately sewn designs on blankets that are worn by both men and women as shawls or capes.
Xhosa people share many food traditions with the other peoples of South Africa. Staple foods are corn (maize) and bread. Beef, mutton (sheep meat), and goat meat are popular. Milk is often drunk in its sour form. Sorghum beer, also sour in taste, continues to be popular.
One particular food popularly identified with the Xhosa is umngqusho . This dish combines hominy corn with beans and spices. Xhosa also regularly eat the soft porridge made of corn meal flour that is widespread in Africa. Eggs were traditionally taboo for women, and a just-married wife was not allowed to eat certain types of meat. Men were not supposed to drink milk in any village where they might later take a wife.
The major mealtimes are breakfast and dinner. Children may go without lunch, although school lunch programs have been established by the government.
The first Western-style schools for Xhosa-speakers were begun by missionaries. One of the most famous of the missionary institutions, the University of Fort Hare, boasts Nelson Mandela and a number of other famous African leaders as former students.
Under apartheid, African access to education was restricted and many of the best mission schools were shutdown. As a result, adult literacy rates (percentage able to read and write) dropped, in some areas to as low as 30 percent. Today, the goal is free education for all those aged seven to seventeen. Literacy and education are now seen as keys to success and are highly valued by most people.
Xhosa traditional music places a strong emphasis on group singing and handclapping as accompaniment to dance. Drums, while used occasionally, were not as fundamental a part of musical expression as they were for many other African peoples. Other instruments used included rattles, whistles, flutes, mouth harps, and stringed-instruments constructed with a bow and resonator.
Missionaries introduced the Xhosa to Western choral singing. Among the most successful of the Xhosa hymns is the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikele' iAfrika (God Bless Africa). It was written by a school teacher named Enoch Sontonga in 1897.
Xhosa written literature was established in the nineteenth century with the publication of the first Xhosa newspapers, novels, and plays. Early writers included Tiyo Soga, I. Bud-Mbelle, and John Tengo Jabavu.
Many rural Xhosa have left home to find employment in the city. Under white rule, Xhosa men were most frequently hired as miners and farm laborers. Women also worked as farm laborers, but work in domestic service was more valued. For those with high school and college educations, the greatest opportunities were in health care, education, and government administration. In the 1990s, Xhosa sought degrees in all fields. South Africa's migrant labor system has dramatically altered Xhosa social life and put strain on the family.
Xhosa children enjoy skipping rope, racing, swimming, and playing hopscotch. Boys enjoy wrestling and stick fighting.
The most popular sport in South Africa is soccer. There are many professional, school, and company teams. There are also organized competitions between schools in athletics (track and field).
Popular entertainment includes attending movies, plays, and musical performances. Televisions and videocassette recorders are also popular. Most movies are imported from other countries, but a South African film industry is developing. Plays are often broadcast over TV and radio. Television broadcasts also include programs in Xhosa. Xhosa "soap operas" are a regular feature.
South Africa has a well-established music industry. The most popular musicians are typically those that perform dance tunes. Religious choirs are also popular.
Folk craft traditions include beadwork, sewing, pottery making, house decoration, and weaving. Hand-woven materials were generally functional items such as sleeping mats, baskets, and strainers. Xhosa ceremonial clothing is often elaborately decorated with fine embroidery work and intricate geometric designs.
Most of the social problems found among Xhosa people today stem directly or indirectly from the apartheid past. These include high rates of poverty, fractured families, malnutrition, and crime. Competition for scarce resources has also led to conflict with other African ethnic groups. There are also divisions within the Xhosa community—between men and women, young and old, rural and urban, and highly educated and illiterate. These divisions may lead to tensions if not resolved in the post-apartheid era. One of the biggest challenges for South Africa as a whole is to meet rising expectations for education, employment, and improved standards of living.
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