Ndebele - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Nineteenth-century evangelizing activities by the Berlin Mission did little to change traditional Ndebele religion, especially that of the Ndzundza. Although the Manala lived on the Wallmannsthal mission station from 1873, they were in frequent conflict with local missionaries. Recent Christian and African Christian church influences spread rapidly, however, and most Ndebele are now members of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), one of a variety of (African) Apostolic churches, or the Catholic church. Traditional beliefs were centered on a creator god, Zimu, and ancestral spirits ( abezimu ).

Religious Practitioners. Disgruntled ancestral spirits cause illness, misfortune, and death. Traditional practitioners ( iinyanga and izangoma ) act as mediators between the past and present world and are still frequently consulted. Sorcerers (abathakathi or abaloyi) are believe to use familiars like the well-known "baboon" midget ( utikoloshe ), especially in cases of jealousy toward achievers in the community in general. Both women and men become healers after a prolonged period of internship with existing practitioners.

Ceremonies. Initiation at puberty dominates ritual life in Ndebele society. Girls' initiation ( iqhude or ukuthombisa ) is organized on an individual basis, within the homestead. It entails the isolation of a girl after her second or third menstruation in an existing house in the homestead, which is prepared by her mother. The weeklong period of isolation ends over the weekend, when as many as two hundred relatives, friends, and neighbors attend the coming-out ritual. The occasion is marked by the slaughtering of cows and goats, cooking and drinking of traditional beer ( unotlhabalala ), song and dance, and the large-scale presentation of gifts (clothing and toiletries) to the initiate's mother and rather. In return, the initiate's mother presents large quantities of bread and jam to attendants. The notion of reciprocity is prominent. During the iqhude, women sing, dance, and display traditional costumes as the men remain spatially isolated from the courtyard in front of the homestead.

Male initiation ( ingoma or ukuwela ), which includes circumcision, is a collective and quadrennial ritual that lasts two months during the winter (April to June). The notion of cyclical regimentation is prominent: initiates in the postliminal stage receive a regimental name from the paramount, and it is this name with which an Ndebele man identifies himself for life. The Ndzundza-Ndebele have a system of fifteen such names that are used over a period of approximately sixty years. The cycle repeats itself in strict chronological order. The Manala-Ndebele have thirteen names.

The numerical dimension of Ndebele male initiation is unparalleled in southern Africa. During the 1985 initiation, some 10,000 young men were initiated and, during 1993, more than 12,000. The ritual is controlled, installed, officiated, and administered by the royal house. It is decentralized over a wide area within the former KwaNdebele, in rural as well as urban (township) areas. Regional headmen (see "Political Organization") are assigned to supervise the entire ritual process over the two-month period, which involves nine sectional rituals at emphadwini (lodges in the field) and emzini (lodges at the homestead).

Arts. Ndebele aesthetic expression in the form of mural art and beadwork has won international fame for that society during the latter half of the twentieth century. Mural painting ( ukugwala ) is done by women and their daughters and entails the multicolor application of acrylic paint on entire outer and inner courtyard and house walls. Earlier paints were manufactured and mixed from natural material such as clay, plant pulp, ash, and cow dung. Since the 1950s, mural patterns have shown clear urban and Western influences. Consumer goods (e.g., razor blades), urban architecture (e.g., gables, lampposts), and symbols of modern transportation (e.g., airplanes, number plates) acted as inspiration for women artists.

Beadwork ( ukupothela ) also proliferated during the 1950s; it shows similarity in color and design to murals. Ndebele beadwork is essentially part of female ceremonial costume. Beads are sown on goat skins, canvas, and even hard board nowadays, and worn as aprons. Beaded necklaces and arm and neck rings form part of the outfit that is worn during rituals such as initiation and weddings. As Ndebele beadwork became one of the most popular curio art commodities in the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, women also beaded glass bottles, gourds, and animal horns. The recent prolific trading in Ndebele beadwork concentrates on "antique" garments as pieces of art. Some women are privately commissioned to apply their painting on canvas, shopping center walls, and even cars.

The recent discourse on Ndebele art suggests that the phenomenon should be interpreted in terms of the conscious establishment of a distinctive ethnic Ndebele niche at a time in South African history when the Ndebele struggled to regain their land and were not regarded as a society with its own identity.

Medicine. Current medical assistance includes the simultaneous use and application of traditional cures and medicines and visits to local hospitals and clinics. Children are born with or without the assistance of modern maternity care.

Death and Afterlife. Death is attributed to both natural and supernatural causes. A period of night watch over the body precedes the funeral. Funerals reunite the homestead and family members and involve the recital of clan praises ( iibongo ) at the grave and the slaughtering of animals at the deceased's homestead afterward. Today many Ndebele receive church burials. Widows are regarded as unclean; they may be ritually cleansed after many months or even a year. Traditionally, the deceased are buried at family grave sites, which are usually at the ruins of previous settlements and often far away from their homes. Nowadays, however, people are mostly buried at nearby cemeteries.

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Nov 24, 2010 @ 5:05 am
I have read your article and i see you only mentioned boys circumsision, so i want to ask if its true that girls are also circumsised
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May 15, 2011 @ 11:11 am
The speling (iqhude) it should be (iqude) and traditional drinking beer (unotlhabalala) it should be (unotlabalala)
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May 10, 2012 @ 4:04 am
To get the correct facts about the Ndebele people and their cultural practices,you should ask for relevant references. The best way is to start at the radio station or the tribal authority and they will advise accordingly. You will also get the correct spellings.
Donald Mbonani
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Apr 28, 2013 @ 3:03 am
We can not substantiate our most important cultural activities like Iqude and ingoma, as they should always be a secret in order to avoid exploitation and disrespect from other race.
Jack Cilangilo
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Dec 20, 2017 @ 4:04 am
A well written article which however needed more detail on how contact with missionaries has changed the Ndebele customs and beliefs.

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