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.


Photo: Tony Dold

The plant from which an Um­n­qayi stick is made.

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