Public Oratory in Xhosa Ritual: Tradition and Change

By McAllister, P. A. | Ethnology, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Public Oratory in Xhosa Ritual: Tradition and Change


McAllister, P. A., Ethnology


The establishment of a new homestead (umzi) is an important step for people in rural Xhosa-speaking communities in the Transkei, as it is in many other societies. For both the new homestead head and his wife it involves an important change in status, and as such it is ritualized. For the wife it means independence from her mother-in-law, her own home to run, and a fuller claim to her husband's migrant labor earnings. For the husband it means independence from his father or elder brother, and an important step towards full manhood. Establishing a homestead means creating a new social entity and changing one's social standing in the community. It involves economic changes, in that it confers the right to a garden, a field, and to grazing. It also involves a measure of religious independence, in that the head can now initiate and hold rituals at his own home.

Consequently, encouraged by their wives, Xhosa men tend to try and set up independent homesteads fairly soon after marriage. If one questions informants about this, the likelihood of them jusfifying it in terms of Xhosa tradition is quite strong. Yet this tendency is in fact an innovation, which the values and ideals associated with establishing a homestead (as summarized in the above paragraph) tend to obscure. We know that the size and the composition of Xhosa homesteads have changed dramatically over the past 50-100 years. Formerly, young married men, far from establishing independent homesteads of their own, remained in their fathers' extended family homesteads for many years after marriage. In the late nineteenth century and earlier, homesteads consisted of from ten to 40 huts, under the control and authority of a single male head. Nowadays, the average number of huts per homestead is between two and three, and homesteads are frequently inhabited by only a nuclear family. The reasons for this change have been documented elsewhere (McAllister 1985); here I am concerned with the role that public oratory plays in facilitating, legitimizing, and reinforcing it.

In Shixini, Transkei, the importance of establishing, maintaining and working for one's homestead is stressed in a variety of public, ritual situations, including male initiation, the rites associated with migrant labor, and beer drinks such as those for releasing a widow from mourning (McAllister 1986b). These ritual traditions have, as an integral part of each, an oral tradition through which the subject of the ritual (initiate, migrant, etc.) is addressed in a manner appropriate to the occasion (i.e., admonished, instructed, praised, etc.). It is largely in this oratory and its associated ethnography (see Saville-Troike 1982) that the meaning of the event is made explicit to the listeners. This article deals with the oratory associated with the establishment of a new homestead, recorded at three examples of a beer drink held for this purpose. Before turning directly to this, however, another innovation has to be mentioned.

The change in status that building an independent homestead entails is sometimes marked in Shixini, as in other Xhosa-speaking areas, by the ritual killing of a goat and brewing maize beer. This is known as ukuvula umzi (starting the homestead) (Bigalke 1969:106) or in Shixini, ukwazisa umzi (making known the homestead). In practice this is not the only option open to Shixini people. They may kill and brew for ukwazisa umzi, or they may conduct this ritual without brewing and brew at a later stage. Or they may decide not to kill a goat and to hold a beer drink instead. Such a beer drink is not a promise of a killing to come, but a full substitute for ukwazisa umzi, though it is not called by this name. It is complete in itself, and is a rather different kind of event from the killing.

In practice, brewing beer is more common than killing a goat, though this was in all likelihood not so in the past. Historically, beer drinking fluctuated considerably, and some early observers (e. …

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