Imvubu Newsletter

Isiko Lokuzila: the custom of mourning

© Hirst, M. 2006 Imvubu 18: 1, 7-8.

The primary meaning of the Xhosa transitive verb ukuzila, to mourn, is to abstain (cf. McLaren 1936/1955: 194, Pauw 1975: 102). Following the death of the male household head or a traditional leader, more especially in former times, various restrictions or avoidances apply to dress, diet and routine daily activities, such as the performance of chores or work, and social and sexual relations (cf. Pauw 1975: 101).

During mourning, the various abstentions include, and depending on the socio-cultural context some of these are still observed today even by practising Christians, the wearing of white clay (ifutha) instead of red clay (imbola), shaving the hair, discarding ornaments and apparel, and avoiding meat, milk, liquor, tobacco, attendance at rituals, sexual relations and cohabiting with a spouse. In addition, such restrictions apply equally, certainly in a traditional context, to a menstruating female, a mother during her confinement (imfukamo), a person – male or female – being initiated (ukuphehlelela) as a traditional healer (igqirha), as well as youths and maidens undergoing circumcision (ukwaluka) or female fertility rites (intonjane). Seclusion and restrictions on dress, diet, movement and social and sexual relations are as much recurrent features of the fore-mentioned contexts, as they are of mourning following death. Sexual relations, menstruation, birth, puberty and death all result in ritual impurity (umlaza); not only for the affected persons, but also for anyone coming into contact with them. Umlaza not only pollutes and decreases power (amandla), which innately inheres in and imbues the living, but also like witchcraft (ukuthakatha) it is contagious spreading through unrestricted social contact with persons so affected (cf. Ngubane 1977: 77-99). Hence, the various abstentions or avoidances noted above. Depending on the case, umlaza is ultimately redressed through treatment (ukunyanga) with medicines (amayeza, imithi) including vomiting, purging and steaming and washing the body, rinsing the mouth with milk (ukudlisa amasi), burning the blankets, personal effects, everyday utensils, etc. and dwelling of the deceased, the brewing and consumption of fermented sorghum beer (utywala), the slaughter and consumption of livestock (white goats or cattle) and the putting on of new clothes, ornaments and red clay culminating in the ritual reincorporation of the person or persons into the routine social life of the group.

Since ‘dirt is matter of place’ (cf. James 1902: 80, Douglas 1966), the whole problem of pollution or ritual impurity is managed ritually through the dialectic of separation and incorporation involving the previously noted abstentions, which eventually result in reincorporation into the group and the subsequent lifting of the restrictions. Rites of passage bring about a change both in the state and the status of the affected person(s). Following menstruation, a woman moves into her reproductive cycle in which conception is the consequence of sexual relations. Even though a woman who has given birth is reincorporated into routine social life after a period of about ten days, she is nevertheless unable to cohabit with her husband while she is breastfeeding her infant. People who have lost spouses become widows or widowers, youths and maidens eventually become young adults, and novice healers become fully-fledged healers. The process of transition and emergence in a new social status tends to be gradual. Notably, in the case of the emergent healer, although there is unrestricted social access to clients following initiation, the healer is never fully reincorporated into the social life of the group and henceforth becomes a member of a specialist group of healers, and as such remains set apart from ordinary people, a fact reflected in the dietary restrictions observed by the healer. Interestingly, how ritual impurity connected to death is redressed is enacted in ukwaluka and intonjane forming an integral and esoteric part of these rites. The latter include seclusion in the bush in the case of males or in a hut set apart in the case of females, subsisting on grain which is typically placed in a certain spot to be fetched by those in seclusion, the burning of the circumcision lodge (ithonto, ibhuma) and the initiates’ blankets in the case of males, rinsing the mouth out with milk in the case of females, washing the body at the river and putting on new clothes associated with a new status in social life. Formerly, the sacrifice called umkapho, involving the immolation of a white goat or ox, was performed to redress the ritual impurity of the men who handled and buried the corpse of the household head or traditional leader; and they washed their hands not at the river, but in the bile (inyongo) of the slaughtered animal. After consuming the meat, the men responsible for burying the deceased were purified and free to go about their routine activities. The widows of the deceased, who had discarded their previously worn karosses, used the skins of the oxen slaughtered at the umbuyiso, which was performed after the umkapho, to make new hide karosses. Thus, it would appear that the spiritualistic notions encountered during the latter half of the twentieth century onwards connected with umkapho and umbuyiso, namely that in the former the spirit of the deceased is accompanied to the afterworld and in the latter is returned to brood as an ancestor in the eaves and over the threshold of the hut, were grafted onto Xhosa tradition from Christian influences. Although Xhosa tradition assumes the existence of an afterworld inhabited by ancestors (iminyanya), it was never a fully worked theological notion as it is in Christianity. As one would expect among hoe-agriculturalists and pastoralists, Xhosa traditional religion is oriented to the practical here and now of everyday life.

Christianity has always valorised the spiritualistic over the naturalistic, and this is one of the reasons why early naturalists, like Descartes (1596-1650), for example, felt that they could only truly advance the spirit of scientific enquiry in opposition to, rather than in the shadow of, the church (Edwards and Jacobs 2003: 17-8). Yet, in the pre-Christian or pagan world religions in which the concept of ancestors is pre-eminent, there is a good case to be made for the spiritual being an intrinsic part of nature, in both the sense of human nature and the natural world. Even uneducated Xhosa people note family resemblances between people, both in physical features and behaviour, which are explained in relation to forebears or ancestors in much the same way as educated people nowadays use the concept ‘genes’. So, the ancestors are as much in and part of us, as they are outside us. The ancestors also imbue the natural world – wind, water, river, sea, bush and notably the large sacred animals (izilo) and small sacred animals (izilwanyana) inhabiting these various domains. Formerly, when a big game animal – elephant, leopard or lion – was killed by Xhosa hunters, the hunter who inflicted the first wound was deemed ritually impure. He was secluded in a rough hut erected for the purpose, wore white clay like an initiate and abstained from meat and social intercourse. As a rule, all the hunters attending the chief’s battue in the bush abstained from sexual intercourse for the duration of the hunt. Following four days of seclusion, the impure hunter “…washes himself, colours himself as usual with red ochre, and is conducted back … by an official of the chief” (Fehr 1968: 77). A calf was apparently slaughtered, which everyone ate with the returned hunter, as the ritual impurity, with its associated abstentions, was now lifted.

Now it is relevant to pose the inevitable question: what do the foregoing beliefs and practices connected to mourning mean? Although being or life is sacred, certain profane conditions or processes linked to sexual relations, female reproduction, birth, puberty, the death and rebirth of a new social identity in the case if the healer, and the death of members of the social group, all of which result in ritual impurity, are managed through abstention, restriction and avoidance. The latter mark the conduct or behaviour of people whose social statuses are now in a state of flux and about to change, and therefore foreshadow various rituals of incorporation lifting the restrictions and enabling the return of those affected to participate in the routine social life of the group. Preliterate cultures are different from industrial cultures because they have retained their sense of the sacred about the basic biological facts of life, which remain mysteries even though they recur a million times (Maslow 1970: 113). If we lose our sense of the mysterious or numinous, our sense of awe, humility and good fortune, then we have lost a real and basic human capacity, and are diminished thereby.

Formerly, traditional law underpinned custom. For example, a husband who had lost a wife had to discard his kaross, abandon the homestead and go into seclusion because should he enter another household, he would incur legal action (cf. Maclean 1906: 164). The situation is quite different today and not simply because law no longer underwrites custom. In a modern constitutional democracy there is, moreover, a clear distinction between public and private spheres, and legislation can be enacted to promote and protect personal cultural choices that run counter to tradition. In former times what was private was, at the same time, public and no distinction between the two existed in thought or practice. Thus, in the modern context the challenges to traditional leadership clearly concern the accessibility and dissemination of knowledge about tradition in ways that people can debate and comment on relevant issues and consequently, are able to make informed decisions about their life choices and a whole range of cultural issues affecting them.


Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger. London: Ark Paperbacks

Edwards, D & M. Jacobs (2003) Conscious And Unconscious. Open University Press.

Fehr, W. (1968) Ludwig Alberti’s Account of the Tribal Life and Customs of the Xhosa in 1807. Cape Town: Balkema 

James, W. (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Gutenberg Etext.

McLaren, J. (1936/1955) A Concise Xhosa-English Dictionary. London: Longmans

Maclean, Col. (1906) A Compendium of Kafir Laws & Customs. Grahamstown: J. Slater

Maslow, A.H. (1970) Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences, New York: Penquin.

Ngubane, H. (1977) Body and Mind in Zulu Medicine. London: Academic Press

Pauw, B.A. (1975) Christianity and Xhosa Tradition. Oxford University Press.