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Sipho James Xesha
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Initiation a sacred ritual

26 June 2017, 11:59

Isilimela: The Season for Spiritual Orientation is upon us.

Speaking as umXhosa, the current (June) month is the season for orthodox spiritual orientation of the young Xhosa male. No other point in the celestial calendar marks this auspicious socio-spiritual occasion but this one: ‘ISILIMELA’.

Any other time in the calendar is not a conventional beginning of the initiation season, but just a deviation from the orthodoxy. Ulwaluko lwesiXhosa occurs only during iSilimela. That is what we’ve always known; what we should preserve and consistently propagate. That is what our forebears bequeathed to us: That is our Kabbalah.

SILIMELA is the siXhosa name for what is called Pleiades or Seven Sisters in Astronomy. It is described or defined as “a star cluster... located in the constellation of Taurus.” It is further explained as the cluster most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky, and have been known since antiquity to cultures all around the world. The celestial entity has several meanings in different cultures and traditions.

The rising of the Pleiades (SILIMELA) before dawn (usually at the beginning of June) has long been regarded as the start of the new year in Maori culture with the star group being known as Matariki. The rising of Matariki is celebrated as a midwinter festival in New Zealand. In Hawaiian culture the cluster is known as the Makali'i and their rising shortly after sunset marks the beginning of Makahiki, a 4-month time of peace in honor of the god Lono.”

In similar manner to other ethnic societies of the Southern Hemisphere, such as the Maori, Hawaiians, and New Zealanders mentioned above (N.B. they all lie along the same latitude as us maXhosa) this “celestial entity” -ISILIMELA (Pleiades or Seven Sisters) - plays a significant role in our socio-spiritual culture. 

To us the rising of iSilimela marks the beginning of “the season” where the adolescent Xhosa male is put through the process of socio-spiritual orientation, known as “Ukwaluka.”  Circumcision (a surgical procedure) is an integral part of this process.

So, iSilimela (Pleiades) opens the season during which the qualities of personal assertiveness are instilled in the male person. The approach of the process of this socio-spiritual orientation is to emphasize that the imperative of ubuDoda is to give honour to all the norms of one’s culture and spiritual heritage. That is the embedded value of the custom as conceived by our forebears.

Treating this time-honoured and sacred custom as a health-care management tool, trivializes it in a manner that detracts from its spirituality. Placing emphasis solely on the health-care aspect of this custom, as happens nowadays, amounts to sacrilege.

Iconoclasts may think of themselves as revisionists by running the spiritual content of the custom down. But there can be no honour in demeaning a custom which defines you in terms of your ethnic cosmology.

We regard this sacred custom; this rite of spiritual orientation (performed in temples disparagingly called: The School in the Bush or the Mountains)* as “the shrine of a people’s soul”. It is an occasion in which we esoterically re-ignite the spiritual consciousness of the male person.

So to all the pre-initiates (i.e. amakhwenkwe), accredited zingcibi and makhankatha out there, I say: “Nibuye nabo besaphila njengoko nihambe nabo bephila. Iintombi ziwanyekil’ amagcaza ngomhla woMosiso. Ncamathelani nithi Mhanca kwisiko lolwaLuko lwesiXhosa. Abafun’ ukwenz’ imfeketho ngezithethe zakokwethu baphoseni kwelokulibala!”*The concept of a “school in the Bush or Mountains” creates the impression that initiation is a group participation affair. That is not the case.  As far as siXhosa tradition is concerned group initiations are optional.

The sacredness of this process of ritual purification (ukukhutshwa ubuNqambi) remains inviolate regardless of whether it’s done collectively or not. In other words, one pre-initiate and his Khankatha in attendance is quite permissible and very common in siXhosa practice. Group initiation is definitely not obligatory. Its regular occurrence is due to dynamics that have nothing to do with the spiritual essence of the custom. One hopes that formulators of a regulatory framework policy will bear this in mind.

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