... celebrating and embracing your purity!!

Sometimes being the youngest of three sister’s has its benefits, like relying on the experience of your older siblings. One like event that I can vividly recall was during my puberty stage or coming of age, I was twelve years old. I woke up feeling dazed and experienced a discomforting feeling in what I thought was my stomach. I remember crying, not because I was in pain, but because of this abnormal discomfort, I was just not feeling like my normal self. My concerned mother dished and fed me porridge (yes I said fed) and tucked me back to bed while my sisters went to school. After drinking three spoons of crushed aloe(which was one of our home remedies for most illnesses) and then I slept. When I woke up I felt better though still a bit emotional, I went to the bathroom and to my surprise I had moved from being a small girl to being a bigger girl. Fortunately I vaguely recalled that my older sisters had already went through this, I could not bring myself to facing my mother, so I waited for my middle sister to tell my mother. She affectionately called me to her, “..yizapha mntanam..”, knees shaking, my heart feeling like it’s about to pop out through my mouth, I reluctantly walked to her. I did not expect the embrace and proud smile I received from my mother, we had a little talk on hygiene and monthly cycles,  later that weekend we went to ekhaya khulu (main family home) and uDadobawo wam (my paternal aunt) came to “visit”. A chicken was slaughtered, some new clothes and toiletries were bought for me and for the first time I sat and had a “chat” with my aunt which rarely happened. I was later informed that a bigger celebration would be done provided I am still well behaved.

There are so many things I love about being African,  the beauty about our culture is that it prepares us for every stage of our lives. Our rituals are symbolic everytime we enter the next phase in our lives through teachings of “rite of passage”. We as women also go through initiation from young girl to the preparation of womanhood which is called Intonjane/ Ukuthomba/ Umgqaba Bovu/ Umemulo, depending on which culture you practice or from which geographical location you are from. In the olden days this would be done immediately after a girl’s first period but due to western influence nowadays it’s mostly done when a girl turns 18 or 21, although in some instances even later depending on each family’s circumstance or situation. Sometimes it happens that siblings enter initiation at the same time especially if the age gap is a couple of years.
I am fortunate though to be surrounded by a lot of people that through their lives I am able to relearn some of the cultural practices I missed by not paying enough attention. It happens that three beautiful ladies and their families still observe these beautiful customs and due to different circumstances they could only go through this process only later in their lives. I will  take you through their journey, what they have experienced and how it touched their lives.

Nqolokazi –  iBhacakazi elihle (a beautiful Bhaca woman), umaNqolo, uDzanibe, Gaba, Mahlambahlaletsheni,from Umzimkhulu located at the boarder of KwaZulu Natal.

Her father being umBhaca and mother being umZulu, though her father is umBhaca their customs have more Zulu influence due to their location in KwaZulu. When she became of age her parents did not do  the ritual of Umgqaba Bovu for her and her sister due to family problems that led to them moving to her maternal home. Since they were born in marriage she could not perform rituals of age at her maternal home and thus there was a delay in a lot of their cultural rituals. As time went and they got older the conviction to celebrate this rite of passage dwindled as they were no longer intoombi(young girls). Due to years of health problems and discussions with elders it became evident that they had to go back and do this ritual if her life was to be normal . And so in  May 2018, the ritual was done for her and her sister. The process took place over three days from Thursday until Saturday. On the first day two goats were slaughtered one for each sister and on the 2nd day in the afternoon two oxen were slaughtered (also one for each) and wore a cow’s bile sac on their wrist and washed with its bile as a symbolic cleansing from one life phase to another.

In the evening incense was burned (imphepho – sage) and they were given isiphandla(a wristband made out of a selected part of a goat’s skin) to be worn for a period of time. The rest of the evening there was celebration together with their age group friends with singing, dancing and storytelling – I believe they did not sleep a wink.


Saturday was a day of celebration, the tent was beautifully decorated in white, gold and African Art. The family, friends and the community came in numbers to enjoy this beautiful day of singing, dancing, feasting and enjoyed traditional beer. Earlier that morning they went to fetch umkhonto ( spears) from their maternal uncle to signify that a child belongs to two families (maternal and paternal).

Observing everything, Nqonqo,(as she is fondly called by her loved ones) had no words to describe how precious and special the experience was for her, she feels like she is doing a great injustice the way she is sharing the experience compared to how it was, hearing her voice and her facial expressions as she tells the story, I can see and do agree why she feels that way . “It was so divine, it was spiritually enlightning and satisfying”. Being raised as a born-again Christian and contrary to what she was taught she goes on to say ” I did not picture anything about darkness in the whole process. It was a re-affirmation of who we are as an African people and of the things that make us beautiful. How every part of our being is sacred”. she even has goosebumps just re-living the whole process. She beams and giggles at the thought of it. The joy in her voice is undeniable.

She continued to say, “It was a nostalgic  taste in my senses, I had deserted a part of me that is African, the part of me that I  don’t need to be deliberate about, a part about me i was born ready for. The whole process was a reaffirmation of everything i have always been, everything i am meant to be, so it was very personal, something that made so much sense in my spirit and soul. All round, it was edifying, affirmative of everything I believe in, of everything I don’t need to be deliberate for, things I feel I am about in my higher self, in my authentic self, afterwards I was fulfilled, feeling a strong sense of belonging, importance and of cultural identity, self-awareness. It gave me confidence to proudly wear isiphandla sam in a very white dominated environment with no shame.”

I am also iBhaca and since I am from the Eastern Cape most of our customs are influenced by isiXhosa. In the oldern days this ritual or process would be done for the duration of the girl’s first period, being three days.  Umgqaba Bovu or Umhlonyane, named after a plant that is used to cleanse a girl after she receives her first period, while preparing for the ritual she would also be expected to drink this herb, a girl is secluded from the first day of her period until the last day. The girl would be having amakhankatha (attendants or helpers) of the same age from her family, who will be with her the duration of the seclusion and teachings. Her face is painted with imbola or imbovu (red ochre) and a goat is slaughtered on the first day. On the last day of her period, she would then go to the river together with amankhankatha way before sunrise to wash in a symbolic way, washing away her old childish life and entering into a new phase, the beginning of womanhood. The day is a celebration, an ox is usually slaughtered for the celebration and it becomes a day of singing, dancing and feasting for the family and the community at large.

Fatima– intobentle yomXhosa (a beautiful Xhosa woman). uMadlomo, uYem-Yem, Vela bambhentsele, Sophitsho, Ngqolomsila. Born and raised in CPT but her roots are from eCofimvaba in the Eastern Cape.

She went together with her cousin in the end of 2019 for her Intonjane, secluded for twenty one days, she was in awe and still in awe of the whole process. Raised in the city and not knowing what to expect, she was very excited, counting down the days to the start of the ceremony. She knew that Intonjane was a ritual practised in her family but had never really attended the ceremony. Coming from the city, Johannesburg (where she currently stays and works), she arrived home a little late and was looking forward to seeing her parents only to realise that she will not get a chance to spend time with them. She quickly had to change to Umbhaco (traditional Xhosa attire) that was prepared for her, as it was already late, the ceremonial goat had already been slaughtered, she was covered with a blanket and taken to her hut by uDabawo (her paternal aunt) where she would be spending the next twenty one days. The floor of the hut was covered with grass ( in the olden days it was a specific grass called inkxopho). In the hut she sat together with her cousin behind umkhusane (a partition made out of grass mats or blankets) and had amakhankatha (attendies) that looked after them the entire period as they were not allowed to do anything for themselves. Everything was done for them and sometimes they were even fed, they were treated like royalty. On the seventh day an ox was slaughtered and they stayed another seven days and then a lamb was slaughtered. “On this particular day we woke up in the morning sayotheza irhabhu entabeni (we went to the mountain to fetch irhabhu – a particular type firewood) and cleaned our hut and new fresh grass was laid for us”.

They stayed another fourteen days and finally came out with a celebratory ceremony. “I have never seen such a beautiful celebration, where my family and people from the village gathered at home. The main focus of the day was on us and young men and women. It was a VIP type of event. During the time they were in, young men from the village paid us a visit and introduced themselves and said, ”..word came out that there is Intonjane in this house, we would like to confirm the day yokuphuma (a day of celebration)”. We were a bit pensive that these young men would just come while there were elders around, however they were welcomed and accommodated, as if they had been expected. We understood later that it is the norm and that would not be the last time they would come to visit intonjane together with other young girls from the village. Although they were not allowed to talk to intonjane they would gather, drink umqombothi (traditiona beer)and bombele (a perculiar ancient Xhosa way of singing) until the wee hours of the morning. “It was such a fun moment and we even wrote on the wall counting each day by writing it on the wall and even making silly drawings.” She gleefully giggles like a silly little girl, I could not help but giggle with her.


“This was such a unifying process not only for us as a family but the village as a whole”. She remebers of how two days prior to the day yomgidi (celebratory day) young girls from the village came with book noting everyone that had contributed money in the village for her ritual, explaining that it is a rule that each young men contributes towards the day of her celebration, nowadays it is in the form of money towards ingredients of preparing umqombothi (traditional beer). “The spirit of sisterhood gets imprinted in you, every evening we would sit around the fire and uDabawo would tell us stories on how they grew up, her experiences as a woman and marriage life”. What stood out the most for her was the part where the grass was burned and replaced with fresh grass. “I watched the smoke go up and immediately it was like I had been here before, a déjà vu moment. It was amazing, it was whole heartedly fulfilling. It makes you feel complete”.

Although they were only allowed to go out twice, early in the morning and early evening as they were not supposed to be seen, that did not feel like a drag, not being able to speak how they usually did but in low whispering voices, those “little” rules reminded her how important discipline is. She apologised for skipping most of the processes as they are sacred and some of them she does not fully recall as she was overwhelmed by most of the rituals. “My emotions were overwhelmed at such a beautiful and personal process. I do not have the right words to describe the feeling. I also picked that the process was very specific to each family even though we follow the same concept, it is a personal thing. As uMafungwashe(first born daughter), I am looking forward to playing a role when my younger sister goes through the same process to take in more and to learn what I missed. This time it will be a little bit different as I will be in the midst of all the preparations and I will be able to dig deep and learn more and probably document it for the future generations.”

Xolelwa  – uMaMfene, Hlathi, Lisa, Jambase, iXhosakazi elinomkhitha (a beautiful and bubbly Xhosa woman). She was born and raised eZadungeni a village from eNgcobo in the Eastern Cape.

Like Nqolokazi, Xolelwa went together with her sister for her Intonjane. They were secluded for twenty two days instead of twenty one days, according to her aunts, custom dictates that rituals must not be practiced over odd numbered days(I have heard the Batswana also have similar customs for certain practices). Xolelwa was supposed to do it at the age of 18, but as she was raised by her grandmother and she was not able to do the ritual without her mother’s permission. Her mother refused to grant her grandmother permission or blessings to perform the ritual because she never did it herself and thus did not recognise the significance of it. “Unfortunately I don’t know why mama never did it and I never had the opportunity to ask my grandmother before she passed on in 2010, but life carried on and no one ever spoke about it, the following year (2011) umama also passed on”. Years went by and she felt strongly that it was something that she needed to go through and finally in Dececember 2019 it was done. “I am so grateful we went ahead because of what I gained out of it, what it taught me. I learned the virtue of patience because of the processes that we had to go through. Being someone that loves food and really scared of hunger, I learned that on the first eight days we can only eat food cooked on the fire and sometimes people that prepare the food would be busy with something else and the fire would die out and need to be rekindled before they could carry on, that time we are famished. As we were not allowed to complain and speak loud I just had to wait.” Through this she realised and  learned that in life sometimes it is better to keep quiet, observe and wait ungagxamkeli kuyo yonkinto (..not rush into everything), being humble and respectful. She also learned the value and the importance of family and to keep a good relationship with family, never turn your back from family. ” The love and support I got from my family was amazing. I could never repay it. I never  felt that I don’t have a mother, not even a single day. Even though your mother is not allowed to see you, knowing that your mother is around gives you comfort because during that process you need your mother especially in the decision making. I was very content the entire time. There was unity, there was love, there was support”. Xolelwa entered with her younger sister and because they are not of the same age they had to enter on different days. It had to be her as the older one first then her sister the following morning  and the first day she entered it was not counted, counting started from the second day and this was when two goats were slaughtered, for her and her sister. On that day, her hair was cut and she was clothed with intambo yokulunga (a thread that is made out of a cow’s tail and made into a necklace) around her neck, with only her underclothes and a  blanket, her body was covered with white clay.  The blanket was given to her as a gift and she would be required to use it  for the duration of the ritual. Although you can have additional blankets to keep you warm this specific blanket would have to be the first one, underneath the rest of the blankets. I have come to notice or realize that in many ceremonies or rituals in the African culture blanket gifting is quite popular, I am now curious to know its significance. Wherever she goes she has to wrap herself with this blanket . uTatomdala (her father’s eldest brother) briefly explained to her the significance of what was done on the day and what will happen over the next coming days, he further spoke good things and blessings upon her life. When she entered the hut  the floor had been thoroughly cleaned with cow dung and  a little bit of inkxopho(..a certain type of grass) was placed underneath the nokhukho (grass mat) she would be sleeping on. The following day her younger sister entered this sacred hut and after that the rest of the floor was then covered with inkxopho. On the eighth day an ox was slaughtered and the following day another one for her sister. A portion of the meat is brought to her by Inkazana (an old unmarried woman) and iyojwa (cooked directly on the fire) for her to eat, only after she had finished eating can the rest of the people cook and eat the rest of the meat. Some of the meat is taken to the hut yentonjane to be cooked and eaten by intonjane, amakhankatha akhe (her attendies)and other women that have gone through this rite of passage ritual. Each person has her own plate, spoon and a stick ( you are not allowed to eat the ritual meat with your hands but to use the stick to eat it). Four days after the Ox was salughter, a portion of the grass from the hut is taken together with the sticks they were using to eat the meat and fire is made using the grass as kindle to burn the sticks. She would be required to jump the fire and run back into the hut without looking back, probably to signify not looking back on childish ways and becoming a responsible young woman. During the first eight days everything is done for them by amakhankatha and food is also cooked on the fire. The rest of the grass is taken out and they are required to clean the nut with fresh cow dung.

During the day they are allowed to be seen and walk around the yard and even speak to people with the exception of her mother (in her case uMakazi – her maternal aunt played that role) in the evening they went back into the hut. The next day the hut floor was again covered with fresh new grass and a goat was slaughtered. Each one of them had a figurative garden drawn on the inside wall of their hut and they would put dots for each day they spent in the hut, so that inkazana knows which day you are on. If you happen to be on your periods during the process, activities and counting of days will be halted until you are done, whether it’s in the begginning or the end of the process. On the final day, the second grass is burned by Dabawo and inkazana while intonjane clean the hut, in the morning they were taken back to the homestead and prior to entering the house they were given amasi (sour milk) to drink and inkazana would enter with them to explain to the elders that they have brought the girls back and they had taken good care of them and they are back in good health and spirits…..and that is it.

I am grateful, humbled and honoured to be able sit with these amazing beautiful ladies as they shared their personal journeys. Something so personal to them, so sacred, letting me in and allowing me to experience and relearn what I have missed when the opportunity presented itself. What really stood out the most for me from all three of their journeys was how they were emotionally overwhelmed by the sincerity of this traditional ceremony, the selfless love of family and community, epitomising true African uBuntu and unity. I learned that this rite of passage, contrary to popular belief, did not prepare girls to take cae of future husbands but it is more is a holistic preparation of sisterhood, importance of family values and attributes of virtuosity. The significance of this ritual or rite of passage might have shifted a little due to western influences but I am glad it is still practiced and I hope that it continues to live through the next coming generations. Even in the modern days, I strongly believe that this process is still relevant, in fact even more now when we have lost most of our traditional customs. I believe that going back to basics could be a solution to most of the societal and identity issues we are currently battling with as Africans.

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17 Comments

  1. Beautiful experiences of the 3ladies.I envy them so much.Unfortunately some of us we could not do rites of passage because bagolo ba di latlhile.
    I feel we need this kind of ceremonies in order to help us face life,face life with knowledge that your family,community and Ancestors have your back. Ithink it can reduce a lot of depression in our societies,love keeps people alive and they can draw strength from the loving support.

    Rea leboga Ngwetsi ya Barolong.

    1. I can understand why you envy them (in a positive way). It is up to us go back to basics and try and restore what we have deserted.
      Kea leboga!

  2. Oh wow…what a beautiful journey with amazing ladies!

    I wish parents especially mothers would close the gap between them and their daughters. Educate and empower the daughters of things to come in their bodies especially – I remember how scared I was to tell my mother when I was coming of age and unfortunately I didn’t have somebody to tell my mother on my behalf since I am the first born. As my body started changing, I still had no one to share and question…

    Well said ladies, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu!

    1. I think we have realised that we need to close the gap and we doing the best we can. I am raising boys but I have abatshana that are girls and I hope I am closing the gap. Thank you.

      Indeed umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu!

  3. I really think you should make a movie or at least a YouTube video on this particular post. It’s so interesting and would be very interested in seeing the dances, costumes, food, etc.

    1. hahaha…maybe a YouTube video is possible. I receive, It’s now written in the stars. I will invite you when my niece goes through this process.

  4. Aaaah man this was a beautiful read. Am I not glad to see that we still take so much pride in who we are!

    May we never loose our roots, tradition and culture for the sake of our kids. Western culture has taken so much from us that we had complitely forgotten uba sizalwa ngobani.

  5. Truly humbling experiences of rites of passage shared. Abundant with insights to Afrikan centred ways of living, life and growth.

    iSintu sijulile. Sihle. Kubabuhlungu ukubona ukuthi silahlekelwe okikho ngokungekho. Kuyathokozisa nakhona ukuba kubalulekile ukufunda ukuzazi ngokuthatha isibonelo kumibhalo efana nale.

    Akwande kumbhali nabobonke ababe nethuba lokuxoxa naye nokumnika igunya lokubhala ngokubalulekile kwimpilo zethu aBantu abantsundu. Siyabulela. Camagu!

  6. A very good read thank you for this sifunda de siyofa yhazz.

  7. Woooooow a must read blog very interesting and someone can learn a lot from this 🥰

  8. Thank you for this Thenj, I wish I could have experienced such (umemulo). I remember my first time also, it was almost similar to yours but unfortunately I don’t have older sisters so it was me and my mother; got the talk about boys and hygiene etc. I want my kids to experience how beautiful our culture is.
    I’m learning so much from you! 🙌🏽

    1. Thank you so muh Hlobi, at least you will have the opportunity to experience this through your kids. The fact that you are making this part of your plan warms my heart.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing stories of this ladies. It has brought so many insights why we need women circle for healing and growth. This has given me more strength to continue with Kandaka women healing space. Malebo Mme.

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