In many families it’s one of the most celebrated events – a boy goes to the bush and comes back a man.
Every year in June and December, thousands of boys from around the country head to initiation schools.
A few weeks later they’re sent home, hopefully better people than they were when they went in. But for many families umgidi can also be a time of financial burden – the event is often lavish, leaving people destitute.
With initiation season almost upon us again, we look at how families can make the best of the day
Welile Mbobela (79) of Kenton-on-Sea near Port Alfred says his and one of his wives’ social grants were enough to pay for umgidi. He hosted the family’s second one in December.
“We took half our social grant money for one month and bought a few bottles of brandy,” Welile says.
“For umqombothi, which is a must-have for umgidi, we planted mealies in our garden and made our own.Whenever there’s a traditional function I contribute with a bottle of brandy.
“That helps me a lot because when I had umgidi in 2003 for my lastborn, my relatives and community supported me with bottles of brandy. Some of the community members brought me barrels of umqombothi and brandy. This is an old method our forefathers taught us.
“I didn’t slaughter anything or get indebted. My son is still recognised as a man wherever he goes. My grandson went for circumcision and I used the same method. To me, umgidi is the pride of the family. A successful umgidi needs both the family and community to support one another.”
Widow Nosakhele Jokana (52) of Govan Mbeki Township in Port Elizabeth works three days a week for a cleaning company. Instead of being broke after a big umgidi event, her purse was left full.
“It was our dream with my late husband to make a big and memorable umgidi for our only son,” Nosakhele says. “Sadly my husband died in 2004. In 2010, our son went for circumcision.
“It took me two years to plan for it. I joined a stokvel for drinks and booze. We were 24 members and each contributed a bottle of brandy and a case of ciders. All the members got this when they had a traditional function.
“Then, out of my R3 200 monthly salary, I saved R1 000 for two years to buy a cow. Everything went smoothly and it was a big occasion. I was left with lots of booze and R4 200. I used some of the booze at Christmas. The rest I contributed to family and friends’ traditional functions.”
Nombeko Mali (53)* of Walmer Township in Port Elizabeth says her son’s umgidi in 2017 cost her an arm and a leg. “I had two stokvels which would’ve been enough to cover all the costs, but I was nervous and wanted to impress everyone.
“I also wanted to impress my son and make him feel special. He’s my only son and he’s never disappointed me, from when he was at school until he graduated from university.
“I had a stokvel of R350 with 15 members. We contribute this money when a member has a traditional function. The second stokvel was for community members in my area. You name a gift you want and the members you asked would buy it for you.
“My son’s father also contributed, but that wasn’t enough. I overspent because I feared being let down by stokvel members at the last hour. I bought a cow for R15 000 and 10 sheep for R1 000 each. Then I bought expensive bottles of whisky.”
She says that backfired.
“For seven months I battled to repay the loans. If I used only what I’d received from the stokvels I wouldn’t have found myself in debt.”
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NO LONGER THE SAME
Rhalajana Silengile (81), a traditional leader of the Amakhuma clan, says umgidi has lost its meaning. “The word means to bring and share. It’s owned by the community, not the family. The people of the village or community determine how it should be done.“
They decide on the things needed to make an umgidi successful. Each family bring what’s needed. It could be barrels of umqombothi, brandy or sheep.
Rhalajana says each event must include a person called an injoli.
“This person will divide the umqombothi, booze and meat if there was a slaughtering among the people who attended an umgidi. He’ll distribute these goods, according to their categories, to both men and women.
“This is how umgidi is done. The community celebrate together with the family, and that makes it cheap and not expensive for the family. But now there’s confusion that’s not easy to solve because we come from different villages.
"Everybody wants to impose their own way of doing things.”
Umgidi, a rite of passage for young Xhosa men, often poses a financial challenge to the family – but it can easily be navigated with careful planning and diligent saving.
“Families know well in advance when their son will go to initiation school, so they can begin to structure a simple savings plan,” says Gerard Rogers, an independent financial advisor.
“Start by opening a special savings account at your bank so you can compartmentalise your saving.
“Work out an estimate of the total cost then decide how much you can save each month. By dividing the total cost by how much you can put away each month you’ll get an idea of when you’d need to start saving.”
Many families start saving up to three years in advance, he adds.
Those who opt for a more extravagant celebration often start saving when their son turns 15 to ensure there’d be enough money to buy clothes, groceries, alcohol and, most importantly, a cow, sheep and goats for slaughtering.
It’s an added bonus if the family is involved in farming as they could use their own stock.
“If you start to plan early you can shop for discounts during the time preceding the event,” Gerard says. “Parents can also opt to dedicate their bonuses towards savings, or choose to make use of a stokvel.”
This story was originally published on 11 March 2020 in the print version of Move magazine.