Umhlonyana is a ritual performed when a girl reaches puberty (when they get their first menstruation), usually between the ages 14-16. Umhlonyana is a name of a plant that was, in the old days, used to cleanse the girl when she got her first menstruation; it was also used to make the girl firm in order to survive in the outside wold, the girl has to drink it while preparing for the actual ritual. But nowadays ‘umhlonyana’ the plant is not used as it is no longer available, the only umhlonyana plant that still exist is said to be in Newcastle. From my knowledge, this ritual is done to introduce a girl to the different stage and to tell her she must be careful and be watchful of her behaviour. It is also meant to teach girls how to behave when they reach the puberty stage. As I have mentioned above that it is for girls who have reached puberty but some people associate it with Sweet 16 Birthday celebration, maybe because some people have it when they are 16 years. In some cases, you may find that a girl child, especially if they are first born, may face difficulties growing up, they might get seriously ill. They may discover that their ill because they did not do the ‘umhlonyana’ ritual, even if they are way past the puberty stage, they will have to go back and do the ritual. As it is important to obey ancestors and do as they have commanded.
When preparing for the ritual, the girl who will be having ‘umhlonyane’ has to ask other girls her age to gather at her house for a week. In that week, old woman are to stay with the girls, talk to them about what it means to be a young lady and how they should carry themselves. During that week, the girls are to stay together in one room, they are not allowed to go anywhere, food is prepared for them and they are served, they only leave the room when going to the bathroom. They are also not allowed to talk to males and they wear ‘imbovu’ (red ochre) on their faces. Their stay during this whole week in known as umgondo, so they are said to be at emgonqweni.
A friend of mine had her ‘umhlonyana’ when she was 15 years old. She attended boarding so we could not stay at her house who the whole week, we gathered on Friday afternoon and the ritual was on Sunday. It was on Sunday because her grandmother is a member of the Shembe Nazareth Church and they only do their rituals on Sunday, Saturday is their Sabbath day and a day of praise and rest. From Friday afternoon, imbovu was put on our faces from the time we got there; we were also told that we are not to wear pants for the whole weekend. During our stay, from Friday afternoon, we were taught songs for the Zulu dance, we practiced certain steps associate to each song. The older women told us tales of the past, they told us about the importance of ‘umhlonyana’, they told us about how we should behave as teenage girls. They would also tell us what certain songs mean, where they come from and why they were sung.
On Sunday morning, we woke up at 3am, we went to the nearest dam to wash our bodies and washed off ‘imbovu’ for the last time, we are told that we are washing away the bad spirits and we are being cleansed and will re-enter the world as new beings. After going to the dam, there was a goat by the gate, waiting for us. Right before we could enter, the goat was slaughtered right before us. The father of the house slaughtered the goat and inyongo (bile) was taken from the goat and she (my friend who was having the ritual) drank a drop of it. Right after she drank it, she did the Zulu dance and we sang and clapped for her. We entered the home; we went back to the room that was allocated for us. We carried on with the Zulu dance and songs, in preparation for the ceremony. After a couple of hours, we were dressed in traditional clothing and we were topless. At around 12pm, people (neighbours & relatives) started pouring, they were looking forward to watch us doing the Zulu dance and singing the traditional songs. We went to an open space, where everyone could see us, we started singing and dancing. People were not just watching but they were putting around my friend’s head and two other girls who were leading the dance and song. The three of them would lead and the rest of us would follow but money was given only to them. After song and dance, we went back to her home, took off the traditional clothing, and sat around the table which was prepared for us. It was then like a party, the table had different types of food, traditional food and also cake and drinks. That was the end of it.
For me, umhlonyana was a great experience; I also got to learn more about my culture. I also had a chance to ask questions about things that I did not understand. It significant might have shifted but I still see it as an important ritual.
AYANDA SIPHESIHLE NGCOBO, September 2012
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