Iintombi zenkciyo

  • Posted on September 7, 2011

Photograph credit: Nokanya Mhlana Photograph credit: Nokanya Mhlana

“Kuvuselelwa isithethe samaMpondomise sokuhlolwa kwamantombazana. Bahlolelwa emlanjeni, ize intombazana nganye ekhoyo ibuyele ekomkhulu negaqa lembola.”

The traditional leadership of Amampondomise and its people are in a process of resowing and regenerating the group’s moral fibre. This is the second year hosting, after many years of having stopped practicing this custom.

My cousin who coaches “uHubhe” (a form of traditional youth dance) dance group in Nyandeni Libode alerted me about an activity of iintombi zenkciyo that was to take place on the 24th & 25th of June in the village of Ntshongweni in Qumbu, Eastern Cape. I immediately knew I wanted to be part of this day’s experience. My cousin characterised it for me as mystical, beautiful and almost assured me that I will have the space to express myself and be.

On the evening of Friday 24th of June, with group of about 30 girls, 5 young men and two motherly women between 50 and 60; we travel from Libode in three vans to Ntshongweni; we arrive after 3 hours and we are received by the dark, cold night and a feeling that we have arrived at our mystical destination.

We arrive at Komkhulu, the chief’s homestead and we wait for 45 minutes to an hour before we get ushered into a room with about 15 old women. There’s another big group of girls that leaves the room and the yard with their bags to go to another homestead where they will be sleeping. We are served food and the girls are asked to help the mamas bring in the food. We eat and afterwards juice and home-baked bread are served to everyone in the room.

My cousin had told me to find Mam’ Nyoka and that she would host me. I am interviewed by the women in the room as to how I found out about this event. I tell them I have been asked to accompany the girls in the absence of my cousin. They are pleased with this and confirm that this is how it is done;  that the young girls ought to be accompanied by an older non-married woman who has passed the stage of Inkciyo, and there we go, I fit the profile.

The aim of my presence is to inform myself about customary acts that are happening in my own province and within my group or at least the one I grew up amongst and influenced by, Amampondomise.

The girls I am traveling with are also accompanied to another homestead where they will be sleeping, I stay behind; mattresses have been provided and I have a blanket in my backpack. I sleep in a room with the old mamas and about 15 other younger girls in their teens and a few in their early 20s.

I wake up early around 05.00am before the sun rises and so do other women. It is still very windy and cold. Water is brought in, the older women take turns to bathe then the younger girls bathe afterwards. Tea and bread is brought in for breakfast. I eat and then I assist in serving breakfast to the other women that have not eaten.

Mam’Nyoka and Mam’Mngoma are the two women leading the activities. They come into the room and most people in the room are asked to step outside so they can “hlola” (test for virginity) two of the girls. The one girl is 16 and the other is 23. To hlola is a big part of the proceedings of the day but it is not the main event. It is to ascertain if the girls are still young enough and pure-minded enough to be able to carry imbola (red ochre), the medicine of the Amampondomise people. I also step outside and I still do not know what to make of the virginity testing. I have a lot of mind talk about it.

A woman who is dressed in a beautiful African print dress and a leopard print cape walks out of another house carrying two balls of red clay. (This is probably from the clay that has been residing at Komkhulu for the past year). I am told it is Madosini, an unmarried daughter of the family, a nurse and sangoma. I am also told that she is the one that will lead the girls to the river to fetch imbola and will again lead them back home. She carries herself with humble pride and love; meditating beauty and success for the events. Along the way to the river, she sometimes kneels and calls upon the ancestors of Amampondomise to be with and bless us with goodwill.

At the top of the hill before one descends down to the river, a big basin full of clay awaits. This to me says the clay has been picked and moulded already. Down by the river the mothers perform the virginity testing. I do not go down to the river, instead I stay with two mamas who tell me the fuller story of what this day is about and how it is a day that has an influence on the lives of the whole village.

Imbola is considered the most highly regarded medicine of Amampondomise. It is used in all passage rites of this ‘nation’, ukweluka (boys’ passage rite to manhood), ukuthonjiswa kwamantombazana (girls’ passage rite into womanhood) and imbeleko (a baby’s first ceremony and welcome to the living). The teaching of young boys and girls is very broad. The adults realise the truth about adolescence and the level of play and attraction that is present amongst young people at this age. The teaching is very direct, fondle and play in the plains with your partner, explore and look into your curiosities about sexuality. However, rather not have sex with someone you are not fully committed to (not married to).
The girls look beautiful, most are in their little red skirts that cover just their buttocks and the sides of the thighs, infront they wear a beautiful turquoise and white beaded skirt called Inkciyo and they are topless. To my surprise, there are boys here as well, abafana benkciyo.

The clay has then been moulded by the younger girls who have not gotten to the stage of exploring sexuality. All the girls wash by the river before the virginity testing and girls that have been found virgins return to eKomkhulu with a ball of red clay to present to the chief. Back at the Komkhulu, the present chiefs, men of the village and women welcome the girls and the imbola hand-over ceremony proceeds with them. Each girl gives imbola to the chief and the young men return the sticks to the cattle enclosure. These sticks are also freshly picked from the forest, from the tree that young men use for sticks when they go beyokweluka (for initiation rites). Boys and girls are likened to maize and weeds, things one cannot separate, so strengthening the moral fibre amongst young people involves both boys and girls.

We then move to the school where the day’s celebratory event will be held. It is characterised by speeches by traditional leadership from all over the Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal and dancing by the girls and boys/young men. The chiefs tell of the history of isiko lenkciyo. Inkciyo and collecting of imbola historically happens in May every year, before boys go to the mountains for initiation. However, this year it is only happening in June. The chiefs highlight the importance of girls within the society and praise them for their self preservation, respect and pride. They state the relevance of this custom in this age that is highly characterised by HIV/AIDS deaths amongst young people. 

We feast on food prepared by the village women and traditional leaders’ wives. I hear a cow gets slaughtered at such an occasion, however sheep have been slaughtered instead and the traditional house apologizes for the non availability of a cow. It is also a day that speaks to parents and encourages them to support their children in ways that preserve their youthfulness. These traditional leaders hope other houses of traditional leadership can re-adopt this practice and support the youth to thrive and develop into respectful men and women of our society.

Listening to the girls speak and photographing them reveals to me that the girls at this custom occasion are there because they want to be there; it is a special day for them to celebrate who they are and uphold the element of respect. By the time I leave, my mind-talk is diluted and I allow myself openness to all life’s learnings. I want to attend and learn from many more of such eye-opening events.

Nokhanyo Mhlana is a correspondent for the Archival Platform based in Mthatha.

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