Umnqayi and becoming a man
Xa kumpondo zankomo (when the horns of the cattle are just visible) and the amanyakrini (glossy starlings) begin to make a considerable noise – it is very early in the morning at around 6am in one of the rural villages of the Eastern Cape. Abafana (young men) of the village are singing: Somagwaza ngalo mkhonto Awe… iyohohoho Awe… Somagwaza
They are singing, clapping hands as they are accompanying an “ikrwala” (new man) coming from the mountain to his home. He’s covered from head to toe with a blanket popularly known as iragi and holding a stick called umnqayi (staff of blessing) with both hands. He left his home as a boy four weeks back to the mountain to become a man. When he left his home, he was escorted by abafana to the mountain. Abafana were holding their fighting sticks and singing: Thula mntwana womntwana wam Ubudoda bunzima Thula mntwana womntwana wam Ubudoda bunzina Abuyelw’ eMakhiwane abuyelwa nase Frere Buyanyanyezelwa
Today it is umgidi (traditional initiation homecoming ceremony). Today he’s coming back as man, conquered all the trials and tribulations. As a new man, he has a long way to go. ndiyakugwaza
What is umnqayi?
Umnqayi a black stick traditionally made from the umnqayi tree (kooboo-berry). The stick is also known as intonga yamathamsanqa, meaning the staff of good fortune, luck and blessing. Umnqayi is an important stick to the Xhosa men.
History of umnqayi
According to Intlalo kaXhosa by T.B. Soga, the first Xhosa chief by the name of Xhosa gave the following instruc- tions to his people: “Emithini ze nigcine inzinziba, umzane, umhlonyane nomnqayi. Ezintakeni, ingqwangi apho iviwe ilila khona kumiswe inxowa laKomkhulu. Kuze le mithi yakwalanywa kuse kuqondwa ukuba ngumhlaba ochumayo emifunweni nasezilimeni, nolinqatha empahleni”. Ithe ke le migqaliselo yahlala ihleli ikhokele ekubonweni kwenxowa. (The following plants must preserve: inzinzimba (fevertea) Lippia javanica, umzane (white ironwood) Vepris undulata, umhlanyane (African wormwood) Artemisia afra and umnqayi (kooboo-berry) Mystroxylon aethiopicum. What these are showing, you must understand, that is a land in which vegetables and crops will flourish, and for grazing cattle).
Soga notes that these points were observed the section and settlement of sites in Xhosaland. It is said that umnqayi symbolizes the “rule of law” and the social value of discussing and resolving differences, rather than fighting over them. The black colour of umnqayi represents strength and power.
The importance and uses of umnqayi
Kumzi kaXhosa iintonga are very important weapons. Iintonga (sticks) come in different forms for different reasons or occasions. You would hear a Xhosa man saying ‘umhambi akadinwa zinduku’ literally meaning carrying his sticks does not tire the traveler.
The broad meaning of this traditional proverb is that it is unwise to travel without a stick for protection. In some rural villages and townships many men when they are leaving their homes they carry an intonga (stick).
Umnqayi is one of the important sticks to Xhosa people, it is considered as “intonga yamathamasanqa nenzuzo” (stick of blessing and benefit). Xhosa men are using umnqayi in many various ways like during imidudo (marriage traditional dances), customary ritual beer drink (utywala bomzi), when consulting the traditional healer, during iingxoxo zelobola (dowry negotiations) including intlawulo yesisu (paying of damages) as a sign of respect and during iintlombe zamagqirha (diviner’s ceremonies) but for iintlombe they use short sticks of umnqayi. Some clansmen carry the staff into the byre at the ritual slaughter, and it is widely believed that the placing of the staff on the ground in front of the doorway during a storm will protect the house from being struck by lightning.
Umnqayi is never used for fighting; it is a sacred stick and is kept indoors when not in use and is an important heirloom that is handed down from father to son.
The day after the traditional initiation homecoming ceremony an ikrwala would not be seen walking around the village without his umnqayi.
After seven days an ikrwala will stop carrying his umnqayi. Umnqayi is kept safely in the grass thatching roof or ceiling, in modern houses people kept it in rafters of the roof until umhla kaxakeka (when needed the most).
• Someleze Mgcuwa is a plant digitiser at the Schonland Herbarium at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown. This is the first in his monthly series, Traditions to Treasure.
READ SOMELEZE MGCUWA'S MONTHLY COLUMN, LOCAL AND LOVELY, HERE: bit.ly/ GrocLocalLovely1_18
The plant from which an Umnqayi stick is made.