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Creative acts of love

  • Posted on February 27, 2013

The accompanying image is of a superb beaded necklace with twelve square panels or “love letters” with beautiful design in blue, red, white and black. This square pendant “love letters” form is found not only among the Xhosa, but also Mfengu, Ndebele, and Zulu. The motifs in the middle of each panel and the colours used in the necklace in the image are of Xhosa style.  Usually Xhosa beadworks are recognised by the fact that the motifs are treated in a very symmetrical way. The yellow and red beads have been in use since the end of the nineteenth century among the Xhosa. The local name of these necklaces is isigcina or amatikiti (meaning the keeper or tickets).

The Xhosa of the Eastern Cape region have a history of beadwork as long as that of the better known Zulu and Ndebele. The uses of beaded garments, bags, jewellery and other objects continue until today in the rural areas. The izigcina necklaces come with different letters. I have seen some with two letters and others up to twelve where the letters are even numbered.

I have learnt that amongst the people of Mtentu in Bizana (Pondoland, Eastern Cape) this is called ukuqabelisa. I find this fun and I practice it, in my ways. A girl from as young as early teens can make objects for expressing infatuation or love, such as the isigcina that comes as a necklace or a beaded safety pin, or a handkerchief, the preferred type being a flowered one (signifying love blossoming). By this expression a girl communicates her feelings of love and being drawn to the favoured man. She can also make crafts to dress his horse. By these gifts of love she means, “Yes I acknowledge my interest in you and I make myself available, but wait. Alas, not now! Let me grow into a more mature woman, then we can create together”.

This differs from the ‘Valentine’ or what I call the army concept, where a guy must impress or buy a woman’s affection. The woman, however coyly or overtly, expresses how she feels. This is what charms the male mate, i.e. the style with which she communicates her feelings. Gifts can come on any day. They are mostly common and welcome on imini zemidlalo (which directly translates as play days). These are colourful days like weddings, initiation celebrations and any other celebrations. Everyone comes out dressed in their most colourful of outfits, and it is thus fitting to add an extra splash of fresh colour to your lover. By dressing him, a woman is declaring a man as hers, though in certain instances there may be more than one woman attracted to a man and there we say, “May the best lady win”.

Fragments of expressions of love by our ancestors are scattered all over the world as archival pieces because of the love of these pieces by odd collectors. In 2010 I visited an in-laws’ house in Hogsback Eastern Cape. (See, I have had the privilege of dating across the ‘race’ stereotype and have learnt a lot from these experiences.) The first fragments I found were smoking pipes lined on a wall. I wanted one of them as I had been wanting a pipe for a long time. They were too high up on the wall for me to closely examine, appreciate and salivate over. I felt odd about asking as it was my first visit there. The second time I visited was a year later. I was much more relaxed and connected with my in-laws. I told Jerry how I have been searching for a smoking pipe. He instantly apologised and took me to his room. He opened a drawer, there was a pipe, he gave it to me. He took out a plastic bag filled with beads and said I could choose a neckpiece. I picked up an isigcina with four letters (versus the one with 12 above). Then he offered that I pick an anklet and another neckpiece of long stranded beads. When he was giving me these objects, he said, “It is high time they returned to their rightful owners”. I instantly understood what he meant and greed with him. The then lover once found me a plated piece of very old white beaded necklace. He had learned from where he bought it that it was over 100 years old.

Another instant was at the Edge, a lodge in Hogsback still. We were there for dinner, hosted by one of the owners, Werner. Sadly he couldn’t sit with us for dinner. During our time there I noticed an exquisite piece of a beaded dancing bheshu (a little beaded mini skirt worn around the waist by dancers). I moved yonder just appreciating it, I wanted it. I felt it was not a piece meant to be framed on a wall, that it ought to be appreciated by a dancer. Werner was not there. Had he been there, I think he was going to feel compelled to bring it down for me. It is still my mission to get it even if I get to make another piece to replace it on the wall. The whole restaurant was decorated with beaded pieces.

The third instance of encountering these treasures was at Jonathan and Marlize’s in Mthatha. Jonathan opened a rolled up grass mat with pipes and izigcina, which he said belonged to his parents and had been collected for them by their housekeeper when he himself was a child. He is now in his early 50s.

I have also found love letters and other Xhosa garb at the Mthatha Museum. This is where I first learnt about the ‘love letters’. Here they are used to educate the likes of me, people who have grown up not seeing these love expressions of their ancestors.

I have found no fragments of love expressions of my grandparents or my other ancestors. I have a feeling that due to the introduction of school early on amongst these groups (amaHlubi,Amampondomise and amaBhaca), a lot of traditional expressions of love were lost . My grandmother has retold a story of my grandfather buying her specific mint sweets with spots. The story goes, ‘my grandmother loved these sweets so much when she was pregnant with my mom, so much that my grandfather would buy them for her whenever he went out. My mother’s childhood name (known as nickname in English) is Nozpots, after the spotted sweets. She was named by one of her elder sisters from the love experiences of her parents.

Of course some fragments of others’ love reside in the many museums in the country and the world, as well as in many homes of people who are charmed by African artefacts. I think the future order is to mimic a similar way to the old jewellery box filled with treasures. An African one would be a trunk since our crafts can get big. This I am going to do for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so they may know and appreciate the love I receive and am still to receive, learn that I received it because I gave it in abundance and I pray they will follow suit.

This article I dedicate to my twin-self, my partner Buyelekhaya, who sits for hours and carves very pretty things for me, including heart-shaped earrings from coconut shells on a random date in the year: love expressions. I’ve been wearing them throughout whilst writing this piece.

Nokhanyo Mhlana was an Archival Platform correspondent based in the Eastern Cape. Nokhanyo passed away suddenly on 24 February, a few days after submitting this post.

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