They sing without ceasing

2014-11-14 00:00

WHEN one reads a line that is so well-written, one closes the book and stares at the wall for a minute.

In life there are few moments that are breathtaking. One of those rare moments is the coming-of-age ceremony of a young woman. Filled with joy, anticipation and excitement. The vibrant colours and sensuous rhythms of the drums. Everyone hustling and bustling. The perfect ceremonial uniting of the village that raised that child for one last time, uniting the village in the green mile. People coming together to take the final steps in the rearing of that child. Helping her take the last steps of childhood and her first tentative steps on the new, untravelled ground of adulthood.

Young maidens spend seven days in isolation with the red rock painted on their faces, where they have no contact with any males. In this seclusion, one is taught how to conduct oneself going forwards. Female elders arrive at this secluded house and offer advice to the young women. Thursday night, a goat is slaughtered to announce to the ancestors that this coming-of-age ceremony is officially about to take place. When the goat and its accompanying steam bread have been consumed entirely, this should be by Friday night, the maidens head to the uncle of the girl whose ceremony it is. If the girl is engaged, they will head to the fiancé’s house to fetch a spear. The spear will be used by the girl in her first dance as a woman. Thereafter they head back to their house of seclusion to spend one final night.

Early in the morning, before the sun can illuminate the land so beautiful it was named Paradise, the young maidens accompany their sister to the river. In the course of the week leading up to the ceremony, all the maidens, including the one who is to come of age, paint their faces in powder from the red rock to stop evil spirits identifying the one who is actually coming of age. For the first four days of the week, the maidens wake every morning and travel from house to house, singing and informing the community of the coming festivities. Whoever they happen upon is to gift them with money, as is custom. This is the official invitation. Throughout this process they never cease singing. The one who is to become a woman travels in the centre of the group.

At the river they all bathe, but for the young girl coming of age, it is her final bath as a child. There the young maidens wash away the red rock and dress in traditional regalia.

The young maiden who is soon to become a woman dons isidwaba (a traditional skirt made of cow hide that symbolises that she is now ready to wed), and her shoulders are covered by umhlwehlwe (the fat underlying the cow hide. Traditionally, if the fat broke when it was placed on her shoulders, it meant she was no longer a virgin). On her head, she wears isicholo (the hat used to attach money to when the ceremony begins).

They then head up the hill and sit beneath a tree where they will wait to begin the traditional dance. Throughout this whole process they never cease singing. When everyone has arrived the father of the young girl will point out the ground that will be used for the ceremony.

Here everyone will arrange themselves in a semi-circle around the girls. The young woman now picks up the spear and makes her way slowly through the gathering of people. She impales the ground in front of randomly picked people and leaves the spear there and returns to her gathering of sisters.

The person who the spear is closest to picks it up and performs a traditional dance in celebration. They then return the spear to the maiden and pin money to her hat. This continues until every person has had an opportunity to show their joy and happiness by approaching the young woman and adding their contribution.

She is covered in a blanket and family members now gift her with various opulent, heartfelt and meaningful gifts. From there, everyone eats, drinks and celebrates. She is now marriageable and finally a woman.

As a young girl watching my cousins go through these proceedings, watching their journeys from young girls to women, fascinated me. It was interesting and eye opening. In books these are the well-written lines. Paragraphs and paragraphs of well-written lines, in the untold stories of your beautiful KwaZulu-Natal. The true stories of the women who sing without ceasing.


Thokola Zungu and her cousins, who she considers siblings. From left: Thokola, the eldest of the trio Nompu Zungu, and Sinegugu Zungu. ‘They were with me throughout my eldest cousin’s entire ceremony and have a huge influence on how I remember it. If I’m being honest, it was probably less magical in reality.’

PHOTO: supplied

Thokola Zungu


Thokola Zungu: “I am an only child, but have a very large extended family. My family is so close that I consider my cousins to be siblings. I like to consider myself as a type of “Wife of Bath” (Chaucer), obviously not as experienced, but just as extroverted and entertaining. I enjoy writing and my first love is poetry. I write often for my own benefit, but this is the first time anyone apart from my English teacher will read any of my work (go big or go home).

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