Getting to grips with our languages

| September 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Tessa Dowling

Funny how here in Mzantsi we don’t get all excited when a royal African princess is ‘in the family way’.

And yet babies and pregnancy are hugely significant – so important, in fact that you keep quiet about them. The words associated with birth and pregnancy are often linked directly to a cultural practice. Idle gossip is not encouraged, as it is believed that talking about one’s pregnancy might bring bad luck.

In traditional Xhosa culture, a woman gives birth at home and is helped by the married women of the village. The husband is only shown the baby after the healing of the baby’s belly button. For a time after a woman has given birth, she only leaves the house at night and always covers herself with a blanket.

Then there is the imbeleko ceremony, which some Xhosa speakers still perform. About 10 days after the birth of the baby – although it can be much longer – a sheep or goat is slaughtered. The woman is given some braaied meat to eat, usually cut from the foreleg of the slaughtered animal.

This celebration is called imbeleko because the verb ukubeleka literally means ‘to put a baby on the back in a skin holder’. The skin of the slaughtered goat or sheep was traditionally dried and softened and used to carry the baby on the back. Nowadays, the word ukubeleka is also used to mean ‘to give birth’.

Women-only in Zulu culture

As with the Xhosa, childbirth among the Zulu has always been a women-only matter.

Alan Mountain, in Peter Magubane’s Vanishing Cultures of South Africa (Struik, 1998: 44–45), notes: After babies are born they are washed in the umsamo (a sacred section at the back of the dwelling) with water medicated with intelezi (special medicine), and then they are ‘strengthened’ by the observance of rituals and the application of strengthening medicines. Even today, both mothers and children are then isolated, usually until the umbilical cord falls off.

Sayings and rituals

In her article on strengthening rituals in South Africa, Linda Richter (2002: 132) says: [S]o important is the strengthening of a baby that the Tsonga have a saying that a child cannot grow from milk alone. Continual daily and weekly rituals include adding medicines to a child’s food, burning protective substances near the baby, bathing the child in herbs, rubbing ointments on parts of the child’s body, and performing enemas.

African language lullabies

Finally, something to put you to sleep! Here’s another lullaby, in Zulu, which introduces a baby to his or her cousin – showing how, in the African family, a child is from an early age taught to view its cousins as close family.

A Zulu lullaby:

We Mntwana Wami We mntwana wami, mus’ ukukhala (x2)

Nank’ umzanyana wakh’ usefikile (x2)

My child, don’t cry There comes your cousin, s/he has already arrived (Grassroots Educare Trust, 1992:36)

Sources:

1. Brouckaert, L. (1992) Songs Sung by South African Children. Grassroots Educare Trust.

2. Magubane, P. (1998) Vanishing Cultures of South Africa. Cape Town: Struik.

3. Ngubane, H. (1977) Body and Mind in Zulu Medicine. London: Academic Press.

4. Richter, Linda M. (2002) ‘Strengthening infants and children: South African perspectives’. Southern African Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 14 (2), pp. 128–134.

Category: Spring 2013

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