Young woman chooses ancient ritual

Qaqamba Mancotywa shuns a lavish 21st birthday party and revives a neglected traditional initiation rite instead


Qaqamba Mancotywa could have enjoyed a lavish 21st birthday party in any city in South Africa. Her parents were ready to throw the most memorable party they could afford to celebrate this milestone in their only daughter’s life.
But instead Qaqamba, a third-year university student, opted to undergo the sacred and ancient Xhosa rite of intonjane, and return to the custom, including imbeleko, that her family abandoned many decades ago.
Intonjane, the Xhosa rite of passage when a girl moves to womanhood, is a custom that is largely dying out in the Eastern Cape.
Qaqamba’s choice was motivated by a quest to embrace her roots and enter her future as an adult informed by African values and norms.
There was no familial knowledge of the customs and he had to seek information on the internet.
“It’s sad though if you see how other groups like Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Indians embrace their culture,” Sonwabile remarked.
Customary practices differ from one clan to another, but the Mancotywas could not find anyone from their Mkhomazi clan in Ross Mission village near Mthatha who knew precisely how intonjane should be conducted.
Ngcobo and its surrounds is one of the few places in the province where the rite is still practised, and it was here that guides were found.
''I eventually got two elderly ladies of the Gqugqu clan in Coghlan [Kokleni] near Ngcobo who not only know how to conduct the custom, but underwent it as young girls and have put many girls through the practice.”
Qaqamba went into seclusion for 21 days at Ross Mission, her home village, and is set to graduate from initiation on Friday, a day before she turns 21.
During intonjane, a girl is secluded at her homestead and taught womanly values and norms and prepared for marriage. She is taught the responsibilities and rights of being a wife, a mother and a leader.
Traditionally two elderly paternal aunts supervise the process as they are regarded as the custodians of the rite at the homestead.
The ceremony has three segments: umngeno (joining), umtshatiso wentonjane (slaughter of a cow) and the final stage, umgidi (a welcoming home ceremony).
A family rondavel was turned into Qaqamba’s initiation home – ijaka or kwantonjana, – where her father and mother are not allowed to enter.
To prepare, Qaqamba had livestock slaughtered for imbeleko (ritual purposes).
Then, as the sun set behind the mountains, a group of women sang a traditional song as three young women – Qaqamba and her two amakhankatha (attendants) – covered in blankets from head to toe, were led from the veld to the Mancotywa homestead by the two elderly women. Amakhuko (grass mats) are used as partitions to keep Qaqamba in seclusion.
The initiation lodge is kept warm by a wood fire, and smoke fills the house.
A special type of grass, called inkxopho, is strewn over the floor of the hut.
There is neither bed nor chairs behind the partition as Qaqamba has to sleep on the grass with only blankets.
Behind the amakhuko, Qaqamba is naked with only a black doek covering her head.
Her entire body – from her face to her toes – is painted with soft white clay of the kind worn by the abakhwetha (male circumcision initiates).
She wears inkciyo (traditional underwear), but her breasts and buttocks remain exposed.
A day after she entered seclusion, a goat was slaughtered to observe the crucial custom of ukushwama. This goat is known as umngena-ndlini, meaning a goat slaughtered when a maiden enters seclusion.
On the seventh day an ox is slaughtered for ukutshatela intonjane. Boys and girls come to the hut to perform traditional Xhosa dances and songs.
African norms and values such as self-respect, respect for elders, African religion, ubuntu, patriotism, and information about the family tree and lineage are instilled.
On Friday, the final day, Qaqamba’s intonjane supervisors will take her to the main house and report back to her parents and other relatives.
Her mother is Skumza Mancotywa, the chief director for biodiversity in the national department of environmental affairs, and her father, Sonwabile Mancotywa, is the CEO of the National Heritage Council and a former MEC.
She said her father had converted to Christianity decades ago, and since then the family had not practised African customs and rituals.
This is not unusual, since the zeal of missionaries to seek converts, coupled with adaptation to Christianity by local people, saw many African cultural practices eroded, not least because some customs, including intonjane, were labelled as uncivilised, barbaric and heathen.
Sonwabile did not undergo any of the customs except ulwaluko (traditional circumcision and initiation), the male equivalent of intonjane.
“I could not believe it when Qaqa said she did not want a 21st birthday party, but requested to undergo intonjane, saying she wanted to entrench her long lost roots.
“I’m proud of having a daughter who knows what is important in her life and what direction she wants to take,” he said.
“The way she engaged with me on her decision, and unpacked what intonjane is, left me with nothing to say but give her all my blessing and commit to supporting my daughter in her quest.”
He said these customs had not even been practised by his grandparents who were converts to Presbyterianism...

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