Tue. Jul 23rd, 2019

Southern Express

The Voice of The Vulnerable


7 min read

We just ended the First Ndebele-Boer War; which took place between August 1836 and November 1837. When time allows we will explore the Second Ndebele- Boer War. In the next 3 weeks, we will explore the 4 seasons of the year as an attempt to get as much information about Ndebele history and culture from a seasonal point of view. Experience has taught me that knowledge comes from different approaches. It has become general knowledge that there are 4 seasons in a year; namely summer, autumn, winter and springs. It has also become general information that there are 12 months that make up these seasons cycle.  However, this does not necessarily mean that the Ndebele people specifically believed in 4 seasons and the 12 months cycle. Different sources vary in the number of seasons there were/are; with some saying 3 while others 6. It becomes more complex in the sense that the Ndebele people did not use the Gregorian calendar which is solar oriented; but they used the moon cycle (Lunar Calendar). In the Lunar Calendar, a month is measured on the intervals between 2 new moons, which takes 29 days and 12 hours while the Gregorian calendar takes 30 or 31 days with the exception of February.

This means that the Lunar Calendar can sometimes have 13 moons in a year if there was a new moon before the 11th of January, which in Ndebele Calendar means a 13 month cycle to round up the 12 months of the Gregorian Calendar. In every 19 years there are 7 years with 13 moons, which means there is a year with 13 moons in every 2 or 3 years. This is the reason why the Ndebeles generally referred to 13 moons to make up a year; which may sometimes mean 13 months of the Gregorian Calendar. Presently many people are familiar with the Gregorian Calendar and it is difficult to explain seasons by only using pre-modern perceptions. In addition, the modern Ndebele have also ‘localised’ the Gregorian Calendar such that they have named its 12 months in IsiNdebele language. Due to this complexity, we will explore this topic in a simplified and standardised way that will make the average person understand; as in using the Gregorian and some little form of pre-modern ways.

The first season we will go through is winter; simply because we are currently in winter. This is the coldest time of the year and it influenced culture as a way of adaptation. What we get is that people react to their surroundings in order to survive; and that general uniformed reaction is termed culture. What is termed as customs are private ways of these reactions usually in a familial or clanlet setting; culture being the national reaction. Understanding how people reacted to seasons helps us understand their cultures and customs. In IsiNdebele winter is called ubusika and general months that make up ubusika are May, June and July. The name ubusika was formed upon the suffix -sika, which means cut. This is because this season starts when the reaping period has not yet ended and people will be cutting harvests. The season also begins when the period of cutting grass for thatching had just started.

The cultural starting of winter is through the coming out of a star known as Nkwenkwezi. This is why May is called Nkwenkwezi in IsiNdebele because this star appears during that month in the south eastern horizon in the early hours of the morning.  This star is the brightest among the cluster group of stars that surround it. In English it is called Canopus; and is the brightest star in the constellation called Carina or The Keel. June is called Nhlangula; from the suffix -hlangula which means to redeem. Another word for redeem is -hlenga. June is called The Redeemer because it is the time of the early winds that have come to redeem the environment by sweeping away the leaves that had fallen during autumn. July is called Ntulikazi; from the prefix ntuli- and suffix -kazi. Ntuli means dusty winds and kazi in this case stands for a larger extent (kazi can sometimes be a suffix that stands for female). Ntulikazi actually means the month of strong dusty winds because it is a windy and dusty month. There are many cultural practices that took place during this season, besides harvesting and cutting grass.

Winter was the time for registration of new members in the society. This was done in District level by a Chief, whom in this case we can refer to as the District Registrar General. There were no Identity Documents; so they would register a new citizen through piercing his/her earlobes. In IsiNdebele it is called ukuklekla. Children who had reached 10 years were called by the Chief and their ears were pierced by a specialist (inyanga) as a sign of obtaining an identity mark. A clean cutting tool avoided infections during this event. The captured and refugees who had passed the assimilation test were also pierced on that day. A small reed was put inside the cut to maintain the opening after healing. This was done in winter because blood easily clotted; unlike during summer when it is hot.

Winter was also used as some form of refrigeration of fresh meat; winter beef is very delicious since the blood is not hot. So the relationship of blood and coldness did influence the way of doing things during winter. 
Not every citizen had to go through ukuklekla; community members who lived in the border lines usually spoke languages that were similar to the ones spoken on the other sides of the boundaries. For example the Birwa tribe in Gwanda spoke a Sotho dialect and they could understand Tswana which was spoken by the Ngwato and other Tswana groups on the other side of Motloutse River. The Birwas were not allowed to pierce their ears so that they were to be used as Ndebele spies among the Tswana people. The Tswanas on the other hand would not detect the Ndebele citizenship of Birwas since it was generally said that a Ndebele is seen by a pierced ear. In that way the Ndebele military intelligence managed to penetrate its neighbours; even the white writers (especially traders, missionaries, hunters) were not aware of this because every nation has its own security strategies only known by it.

The Birwa Chief Kgoatalala Nare was awarded the name Umswiliswili weNkosi (the royal spy bird). Umswiliswili is like a grey lourie bird (umguwe), it alerts other animals if there is danger. These intelligence officials who lived in the border lines were called izihlabamkhosi or izikhuza. This is why in Ndebele ethnicity it is said that all people in Matabeleland are Ndebeles because some citizens had to hide their national identities for national security purposes. Culturally, Nguni nations circumcised during winter to promote easy clotting. This was a very sensitive period because men would help teenage boys to also become men. The Ndebeles, as much as they fall under Nguni nations, did not circumcise;
because the Ndebele nation was born during Mfecane wars when circumcision was a military weakness since ambitious nations would stop circumcising and attack other nations during circumcision in winter when it was difficult for teenage boys to run and men to leave teenage boys unattended. So circumcision was a useless cultural practise according to Ndebeles, hence it was never adopted on the emergence of the nation. The relevant cultural practice to initiate boys into men was putting the latter on compulsory military service. This indeed helped the nation to survive the Mfecane storm.

What we learn from this experience is that cultural
practices that do not necessarily address the societal needs are either rejected or abandoned. Culture should maintain the survival of the community. Winter was also the official time to rest among private homes; since there was no ploughing and it was the end of the harvesting period. Boys would not herd cattle, they will drive the latter to the harvested fields to eat corn stalks that were still standing; they are called amahlanga in IsiNdebele. This helped in the clearing of the fields for the next ploughing season. Young men were military officers until they got into mid-life; they would train, guard or raid enemies during winter. Actually winter was a very good time to strengthen them; they would bath with cold water and would not wear anything to cover their chests because culturally a man does not get cold: he gets warm by eating roasted beef. War veterans would cover their chests and not their spinal cords with isiphika which was made of cow hide. Women, children and older people would put on blankets (isiphuku or ingubo) on a very cold day. 


The cultural end of winter is signified by the coming of stars called Isilimela. They avail themselves in the sky during the end of July. In English they are called Pleiades, The Seven Stars or the Seven Sisters.

Arnold Mayibongwe Nkala is the author of the Mthwakazi history and culture
book titled AbeThwakazi. Contact/Follow him:
Email: arnoldmayibongwenkala@gmail.com
WhatsApp: +27 79 037 8720
Facebook Page: Arnold Mayibongwe Nkala
Twitter: @arnold_nkala
Youtube: Arnold Mayibongwe Nkala

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