The patriarchy is resilient where I come from. But they don’t call it that back home, they call it culture.
The morning after my first night’s sleep in the quiet village of Tyeni near the banks of the Eastern Cape’s Mbhashe River, I woke up to the sounds of a group of young men chanting around ikrwala, an initiate who had ritually transitioned to manhood. They were ceremonially walking him to his parents’ home for the first time as a man. I was moved as I took in the sounds of the powerful octaves while I stood on my grandmother’s verandah leaning against a dewy wall. When the sun was up, I accompanied my uncle and grandmother to the mgidi in which the entire village would be celebrating the young man’s “achievement” with gifts, money, livestock, alcohol and advice. I was advised to take an apron.
When we arrived, I was introduced to my unmarried peers and immediately given a knife and a chair, a grater and a very large enamel bowl full of carrots. The room was cool and dim. I wore my orange-stained hands with pride next to the other women whose hands were red from beetroot juice and green from spinach. I was no longer a child and enjoyed this belonging because it was new to me. The midday heat was a curse on the married women cooking over open fires. I watched their large bodies bent over, stirring pots of freshly slaughtered beef, mutton and chicken. Their heads and arms were covered as a sign of respect to their husbands and in-laws. Their long, layered skirts swept the yellow earth. They would periodically leave their cooking stations, dishcloths and spoons in hand, to perform the other women’s task of ululating and welcoming guests with song.
Their husbands, uncles, sons and fathers were sitting under a large tent, emitting a low, humming sound with their deep voices, eating and drinking and drinking and eating, served by the women and girls.
While peeling the vegetables, I learned that it is the mothers of the initiates who build the temporary homes or bomas while they are in isolation. During this period, which can last up to eight weeks, mothers are not allowed to see their sons. Women in general are not permitted to engage in any of the rituals. By modern customary law in these parts, the mothers are also not allowed to yala or advise the young man on manhood but they are not exempt from showering him with gifts. In fact, it is the women’s house that usually produces the most gifts and money to help the young man start on his new path. I saw gifts of beds, sheep, goats, appliances, money, clothing and countless cases of liquor.
Dishing up is an epic operation, fastidiously managed by the older women, who have to feed an unknown number of people because literally everyone in the village is invited. I’ve grown up around the words “qala ngooTata” (start with the men) and was not surprised to hear the women fussing about the men’s plates, which were bigger and went out first. Everyone else could only eat once the tent was eating.
When the children had eaten at the end of the afternoon, after the girls had collected the dishes, the women in the kitchen triumphantly stood over their pots and piles of dirty dishes and finally prepared to dish for themselves. But instead, they broke into a boisterous song about sex. “You asked me to sit like this and I lay like that, you asked me to move like this and I jumped like that – this is how we made this child,” went the lyrics. Mesmerised, I joined in the clapping and singing, watching these women demonstrating the moves to the song and squealing with joy.
It became clear in those celebratory moments, that that gaurdians of this men-on-top ideology are the very people it oppresses. Later, I asked a male relative how he feels about the fairness of this so called cultural division of labour. His response was quick. “For years I’ve been asking my wife to take off the headgear when we are home alone because I miss seeing her beautiful hair and to wear whatever she wants, but she becomes angry and thinks I want to take away her womanhood because she truly believes that the woman’s role is to serve her man.” The following day we attended another mgidi in another village called eMhlanganisweni. As we entered the house, a group of very drunk young men were singing a song that made my sister and I stop eating to listen carefully to its simple words: “A man’s job is to sit and drink and smoke. A woman’s job is to wash and clean and open up and accept the man’s gifts.”
This column first appeared in City Press on Sunday 3 January