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Experience a Different Culture

Ezine Article by Lavana James

South Africa is an unusually diverse nation with the indigenous cultures of Zulu and Xhosa the mainstays of the newly conceived democracy. Early settlers brought with them rudimentary European culture together with cheap labour from the East and today all these very distinctive cultures have blended into a land of hope and opportunity

The amaXhosa

Traditionally, the amaXhosa have their early roots in the Eastern Cape but with their freedom in 1994 many of them opted to journey south to the city of Cape Town in search of 'greener pastures' and remained, even though employment is still largely a pipe dream for the unskilled. Today it is estimated that close on 8 million of the nation's population are Xhosa and some of the fledgling democracy's statesmen, religious leaders, trade unionists and internationally acclaimed performers are Xhosa.

Statesmen, religious leaders and acclaimed performers

The great Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, who coined the phrase 'Rainbow Nation', former President Thabo Mbeki, assassinated Communist Party boss, Chris Hani, and Africa's Queen of Song, Miriam Makeba, are all Xhosa. In fact, 18% of the population speaks isiXhosa, together with other languages including isiZulu, Afrikaans and English. Xhosa culture and traditions are still, to this day, strictly adhered to. For a brief glimpse into the colourful and interesting lives of the amaXhosa, a visit to a township is an imperative. Khayelitsha, Langa or Gugulethu are all a stone's throw away from popular waterfront apartments in the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town.

The Amagqirha

Perhaps one of the most interesting protagonists of this intensely traditional society is the Amagqirha, more colloquially known as the witch doctor or 'sangoma'. They act as diviners and healers and are effectively the living conduit between the people and their ancestors. This task generally falls to the women of the clan, who are 'chosen' by the ancestors when they are plagued with bad dreams and visitations. This is the ancestor's way of awakening the chosen one to their role and every apprentice has to go through at least 5 years of training before they are fit to wear the 'sangoma' mantle.

Religious beliefs

The amaXhosa are an intensely religious people, with their ancestors acting as intermediaries in their relationship with 'God' - Uthixo or UQamata. Dreams, rituals, initiations and feasts are all a very important part of their worship and even though many have embraced Christianity, they have not forsaken their traditional belief systems, opting instead to marry the two into what is now known as the family of African Independent Religions.

Rites of passage

Although many are urban dwellers, the rites of passage into adulthood, Ulwaluko, continue undisturbed and every boy and girl undertakes a secret ritual where they live in isolation and observe taboos. The male initiates, or Abakwetha, are circumcised whereas their female counterparts, the Intonjane, are merely secluded and instructed on traditional values.

The praise singer

Another traditional figure that enjoys unprecedented importance in the amaXhosa family is the praise singer, or Imbongi. These men are generally consummate poets who have kept the oral tradition alive and robust. The praise singer generally lives close to their leader, accompanies him on important occasions and sings poetry, imibongo, of their hero's antics and adventures. Today, praise singers accompany the Head of State to the opening of Parliament and sing their praises to the nation!

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