African Rites Throughout Life

By Ashley Mayer, University of Southern Mississippi

Virtually all cultures have rituals that mark important events in one’s life. Most of the important events are celebrated in some kind of ritual or ceremony. The journey from childhood to adulthood can mean many things. For male and female people, especially in Africa, this passage is usually an announcement in front of everyone they are ready for what ever task lies ahead.. African life is based upon the family and the woman should be focused on being a good wife and mother. Birth, marriage and death are the most important to them because there is a journey to go through and important culture and tradition to be taught before completing each step through life and how male and female roles are played out in their society and which roles are more important.

Children in the Zulu culture are thought of as weak. They are not relied on in any way when they are young, they are only taught. Their grandparents teach the children. They also learn to only speak when spoken too. At the time of birth the Zulu are given a name. The father usually names not only the boys but also the girls. Friends can name the girls as well. In past times boys would get their concluding name by joining a regiment, or what they would call Amabutho, and then become warriors. The Zulu train their children so that they can train the next generation better than the first and so on. The Zulu society is patrilineal, “an order of things explained in the Zulu mind by the analogy of sowing a seed”( Evans-Pritchard 21). It is said that the children belong to the father not the mother because the farmer, which is the man, is the one who has sown the seed in the first place. If the marriage were to end at any point the father would get to have the children.

Marriage in the Zulu culture is an elaborate celebration. The custom of having good manners is watched strictly as these weddings. The beginning of this ceremony starts with the giving of cattle for the bride. They must first get her consent though. The look of the brides dress depends on where she lives and how wealthy her community is. If her community were not doing well she would not have an elaborate looking dress. Her bridal party, or Emteemba, set out on a walk with the bride and bridegroom for a period of two or three days. The walk around until it is daytime, to the bridegroom’s home. They must all remain in the front of the house because it is not custom to enter in the daytime. The time to enter the traditional Zulu village, or Kraal, is when everyone is asleep. After awaking again early in the morning, the bridal party goes to brook to wash and get dressed. They then get set up to officially start the ceremony. To be married the woman must be clever so that her husband will treat her good and provide food. The Emteemba begin to dance. Strangely, during this dance the man is supposed to show his strength and agility. Also old women of the tribe are supposed to run in between the bridal partys’ dance and shout obscenities at the man, “ and then coming up to the bridegroom and swearing at him…and asking him how it is that such a stupid, ugly fool as he is managed to secure such a good-looking girl”(Leslie and Drummond 117). The Zulu’s marriages are mostly centered on the man being solely good enough to provide for a woman.

Death in any society is a part of life whether anyone likes it or not. The Zulu peoples have suffered many losses in their communities because of a man, names Shaka. A song that became popular to sing after someone’ss death was a song written after Shaka had destroyed so much of their lives. This song was recorded from Ngoni Malawi:

It is because of Zide, chief of the Soshangane people

That though I lie down I cannot sleep

O Zide, chief of the Soshangane people,

Though I lie down I cannot sleep.

Shaka scatters us among the forests of Soshangane land.

The point of this song they sing is to covey how they suffered and to them death is a time of suffering. The ceremony for death is surrounded with songs and chants, or dirges, as they are more commonly called. The people who perform are Zulu’s who have training or are professionals in singing the chants, usually women. According to Axel-Ivar Berglund, author of Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism, there are two kinds of death: timely and untimely death. The Zulu describe a timely death, as one where a person is just passing or giving the notion that is okay to die. While untimely death is when the life they live is being broken off abruptly or unexpected. The Zulu’s say that when death happens at the correct time in life, which is at a mature age, and then it is not considered to be evil. Because they think that death dos not come unexpectedly to the old so they see no reason to be upset over it. Death that can be considered pre-mature is taken very seriously and thought of as evil. So evil in fact hat the Zulu people believe that witchcraft or sorcery is involved with the passing of a younger person. “When a man dies before grey hairs appear, still being full of vigor, then the people say, ‘What is this thing in our midst? We knew nothing. Suddenly we see umhlola working amoung us,’”(Berglund 80).Umhlola means any strange, extra-ordinary, awe-inspiring thing. Merely speaking about his kind of death is not allowed because it is thought to stir up evil in the community. They say if you speak about it, it is sure to come over you. A custom the Zulu’s have after death ceremony is to stand around and watch the grave after the funeral. “The grave is watched because we know the work of Ababthakathi. They come at night and dig up the grave. They take out the man and give him medicines. They drive a stake through his body. He becomes small. They pull out his tongue and slit it so that he speaks like one of them in a tongue only understandable to them. It is the language of the evil snakes, the ones that kill. They give him medicines again so that the man becomes his servant. They send him everywhere to do their work”(Berglund 81). The Zulu people take untimely death very seriously because they believe that it is evil and they do not want any evil in their communities or in their people.

The Zulu people do not mention anything about women here. The only time they mention women is when they are speaking of marriage. They are using a male to describe death. It is not clear whom they find more valuable in their society. On one hand women only settle for men who can provide a lot for then. Men are used to describe death and evil things, but they are also seen as providers.

The Zulu people have many important traditions and cultural aspects that make them unique. The role men and women play in their society show the importance of each role because aspects such as birth, marriage, and earth have certain traditions that male or females do. The Zulu’s base their lives off of the family, and everything they encounter in life is to be shared with the family. Such as birth, where the grandparents teach the children about the Zulu traditions so that they will be passed happening equally. The wedding ceremony where both the man and the woman must travel a long way together. Finally death, where women sing the chants and men take care of the evil. The Zulu’s have created a somewhat equal society that cares for community and family and will do anything to keep their culture alive and evil away.

Works Cited

Berglund, Axel-Ivar. Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism. Hurst C. and Co.

Evans-Pritchard, Edward. Peoples of the Earth. Banbury press, Ethnology, 1972.

Leslie, David. Drummond, William Henry. Amoung the Zulus and Amatongas. Edmonston and Douglas, 1875.

Okpewrio, Isidore. African Oral LIterature: Backgrounds,Character, and Continuity. Indiania University, 1992.

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