Time,Place and Identity.

Due to our complex history as Africans, in most instances there lies more in what is said, what is seen, what is known and who we are. Let’s take for example my ethnicity, many people know me as umXhosa and I grew up as “umXhosa”, I am actually not umXhosa I am iBhaca, a tribe with its own king and history. AmaBhaca, and other tribes in the Eastern Cape region, have been grouped as part of amaXhosa, but we have our own cultures and customs that are very different from amaXhosa.

AmaBhaca originate from the north eastern tip of South Africa, in the area currently bordering Mpumalanga and Swaziland, we were known as amaZelemu. The word Bhaca means to ‘flee’ and also means “ukuchaza” which is a ritual of scarring the face, usually done for medicinal purposes. During the 1800s Mfecane wars, which displaced many Nguni tribes, we fled from isizwe samaZulu southward until we crossed Umkhomanzi river and settled in neighboring small towns Mount Frere and Umzimkhulu. The language we speak is isiBhaca which is close to isiSwati with strong isiXhosa and isiZulu influences. AmaBhaca kingdom consist of many clans like amaNjilo (which is my/fathers’s clan name), amaWushe (which is my mother’s clan) ooZulu (my mother’s mother clan), amaNqolo, amaNzelu nabanye nabanye (etc).

I remember in my teenage years, my siblings and I, had to move from a small town to a bigger city for me to complete my high school education. My parents settled us in by ensuring that there would be a young adult to check in on us teenagers, someone familiar from our village, who has been in the city for a while. Two brothers that stayed near us back home, became our ‘brothers’ in the big city, they looked after us very well and every Sunday we would come together for lunch, where a lot of interesting topics would be discussed around the table. One day a friend of theirs joined us for lunch and was so curious to know where we know each other from, my eldest sister proudly replied, “…we are from the same village in Mt Frere.” The conversation was cut abruptly and the topic was changed, we were later informed that, “…you don’t say you are from there over here..”. This filled me with confusion and I was slightly shocked, my sister asked, “..but why not?” One of the brothers answered, “..because people from Mount Frere ngaMaBhaca”, and my sister snapped back, “..yes we are, and so?” The answer we got was that amaBhaca are unsophisticated illiterate village people, that use a lot of ‘imithi'(traditional medicine) and here in this city they hold ‘low jobs’ like sweep the streets or collect faeces in bucket system pit latrines. I was appalled and offended in hearing this because there were a lot of educated people from my village and even in my own family. We had a lot of teachers and nurses from my village, even doctors and lawyers. In my own family, from both from my father and mother’s side, we even had engineers. One of  my uncles had that so-called ‘low job’, he cleaned and collected rubbish from houses as well as bucket pit latrines but he was not ashamed of it. What is also interesting is that whenever we were sick my dad would know which tree to go pick a branch or bark to make medicine. We used those herbs at home for headaches, skin problems, detoxing, burns, stomach pain and I questioned myself, “..was this wrong?”. One of the most common plants we still use is the ‘newly’ famous umhlonyane herb. After that visit we never mentioned where we were from, nor did we deny it, we just tried to avoid the topic as much as we can. Looking back at it now, I am ashamed to confess that we were embarrassed. 

Many years ago, especially after the 1913’s Native Land act, many of our local tribes were grouped into an ethnic group in accordance to a common language/dialect and a geographic region. In my region which is the former Transkei and Ciskei, my tribe, amaBhaca, was grouped into the amaXhosa, which is the dominant tribe and language in the region. Many other tribes like the amaMpondo and abaThembu were amongst the many tribes that were grouped as amaXhosa in the Eastern Cape. This grouping of tribes into one common tribe was done not only in the Eastern Cape but in other areas of South Africa, including the tribes around the Zulu and Sotho tribes. This has caused certain tribes to be looked down on and others to feel they are superior to other tribes. We have lost so much of our identity as Africans over the past generations since Europeans invaded our lands, even the little that we know about us is but remnants of a rich and mighty history. In each generation we loose large sections of our history and customs due to us not cherishing and preserving our traditions. What saddens me the most is that we, as Africans, seem to be in the habit of looking down on each other, making some of us ashamed of our own tribes because of misconceptions and stereotypes that we did not even create. I refuse to be ashamed.

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  1. I’m Hlubi but because I’m from Eastern Cape people think I’m Xhosa. It is a sad reality knowing that my tribe was once one of the strongest but today it’s the opposite.

  2. It’s always nice to hear amaBhaca speak and I’ve heard traits of isiNdebele in their dialect.

  3. Very powerful and interesting dialogue. I will share mine too as it is similar to yours in a way

  4. I always find a bit of a struggle to explain to other tribes that am not Xhosa. Thee munite I say I am from Eastern Cape, I get”Oh you are Xhosa”. Sometimes I get a bit irritated because i would start thinking what kind of history did we learned at school? In primary school as all this cultures, wars and tribes were taught. Maybe its because history was one of my favorite subjects and dad would further explain where we came from, so i guess i would assume at least one should know about South African heritage. This is so great its nice, short and straight to the point I pray it reaches all the curious, the stereotypes, the tribalists, mostly the ignorant people. When you visit Eastern Cape the side that was known as Transkei you’ll find such pride in people, they know who they are. You will hear a person say ndili-Bhaca mna or ndili-Mpondo or iMpondomise or ndingum-Hlubi etc.

    Keep it up Njilokazi!

  5. Mhhhhh well said and wanna introduce my younger sister into this blog, she will definitely be interested I know.

    Keep on gal this is so inspiring, the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from and embrace that with pride.

  6. This is so beautiful and informative sis T. I learnt a lot from this piece. Amazing work 👏🏾❤️🔥

  7. Indeed Isibhaca is more similar to IsiSwati. This blog is sooo interesting, very informative too.

  8. Read and re-read some of the posts and I am in awe. This one, especially, touched a nerve of history – what brought about or made worse some of the deep wounds and complexities we grabble with among us Afrikans. Reminded me that one of the early childhood lessons I learnt was that uMkhulu OR Tambo was a mathematician, lawyer and umBhaca. Our history needs to be retold at so many levels.

    – eNkosi!

    1. Thank you so much Sedibeletsa. We have lost so much of our history but I am hopeful that little by little it shall be restored.



    1. thank you Gebashe for your question and comment…you have really nailed it on the head, infact there is a post I will be publishing about the “word tribe” in the near future. As I share My experiences and views I am also re-learning. It would be interesting to also hear your view. Love and Light!

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