Taboos, warnings, omens

I N MPOFU (uNyandeni oMpofu)

THE Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives two somewhat similar definitions of the word “taboo”:

Strongly forbidden by social custom especially because offensive or likely to cause social discomfort.

Strong social religious custom forbidding a particular act or word.

It is in the context of these definitions that we will discuss taboos, and in our sense we will refer to those things that are not allowed by Ndebele society.

Consider, for example a child or young person who answers back when reprimanded by an older person, that is taboo, it is forbidden, it is offensive, it is forbidden by social custom. Therefore, it is taboo.


Why? Because in Ndebele custom a young person must listen and take in what is being said (a reprimand, an advice or a guidance).

He must not spend time listening, thinking out foolish answers or excuses. An older person has far more experience of life issues and is therefore, likely to give good advice. Kuthiwa ngesiNdebele ngumntwana onjani othi umzali angalibeka (ilizwi) laye alibeke? Kuyazila lokho.

Our children nowadays have gone astray. They learn some of these strange ways of behaviour either from their contact with other cultures in urban centres or from the news media (newspapers, magazines, radio, TV) or the  current media of communication namely the cellphone where they communicate strange things to each other.

Consider this conversation:

Yeyi, umasalu ngapha uhlafuna ezibabayo.


Uthi yin indaba ngibuya sekuhlwile?

Wena utheni?

Ngisuke ngaswela ukuthi ngithini.

Zilele kuwe. Mbuze ukuthi yena eyinkazana wayesenzani. Uzitshay’ ingilosi yena.

This communication happens within moments while the reprimand is still in progress. Let us pose a little.

Have we not as parents and as a society not gone wrong ourselves.  Part of the trouble is that we have copied strange models from foreign people, models which are unNdebele and as a country we enacted stupid laws which are morally retrogressive.

How much trouble do Ndebele parents take to teach their children correct ways of behaviour to make them aware of those things that are taboo?

Here are some of the taboos that Ndebele custom emphasise:

Ukutshaya umzali wakho (to beat your parent). This was one of the most offensive actions a young person could
do, no matter what the reason was.

The offender was brought before the chief’s court which dealt with him so severely that he did not do it again.

The chief’s court did not play games like a magistrate’s court. Lalingathethwa icala elinjalo, elisegcekeni, isixhwali sasisetshenzwa.

Ukuzalela ekhaya or ukumithisa umntanomuntu (bearing a child outside marriage). You can see that some of these customary matters are not easy to translate into another language.

The translation misses the shame that is attached to bearing a child while still living at your parental home.

This really hits at premarital sex which traditionally is taboo.

Kuthiwa ulimitha. Imitha leyiyana laKhumalo. Amadoda ethu asexhwaliswe limitha lako Dube. Hatshi mfokaZondo, ungamkhombisi loyana, limitha.

What a shame! All these are painful statements. Isn’t it painful that such grand moral taboos have been completely eroded by modern forms of behaviour? Lafa elihle kakhuku!

Ukumithisa umntanomuntu was equally shameful as ukuzalela ekhaya. It was not allowed and you were severely punished. You tarnished your character (kakusikho muntu lokhuyana okuhamba kumithisa abantwana  babantu). You also tarnished the name of your family.

Abantu bakoNdlovu kanti bangabantu bani? Okuyinkunzi kwabo lokhu babokuthena. Kwenzenje umntanami!

In the end it was the parents of “okuyinkunzi kwabo” who bore the  burden of the punishment. Imagine intombi isixotshelwa kini ngabakibo. What a scandal!

Indoda edlela embizeni (A man eating from a pot).

This is not the done thing in Ndebele.

The cooking  department and all the utensils are female domain. A man must not interfere in any way. He can only eat from a plate specially assigned to him (umganu kababa).

All food still in the pot is controlled by women. Therefore, a man must keep away from the pot. Odlela embizeni yisihwaba. Uyayangisa.

Ukudlela uninazala/uyisezala/umalokazana/umkhwanyana. Although this tradition seems to be dying fast but there are still many people in the rural areas who observe it.

They cannot allow themselves to sit at the same table with their in-laws to eat with them. The meaning or origin of this observance is obscure but it was much observed.

For some people it was not confined to hard food which you chew. They could not even drink any liquid.

That may explain why at a beer party women sat away from men. This custom was observed even before you were married but you were engaged (usuvunyelwe kuvele sekuthiwamkhwenyana kuwe). Your brothers were regarded in the same way.

Ukugaxa/ukuhiza. Another relation practice similar to ukudlelana was the ukuhiza generally known as ukugaxa.

It is taboo for a woman to meet her son-in law without a band (usually) of cloth strung across one shoulder to the opposite arm-pit.

If not a band it will be a quilt or rug or something.

Nxa engahizanga kutsho ukuthi kamhloniphi lowo mkhwenyana kumbe kamemukeli njengo mkhwenyana . Nowadays they say umkhwenyana kagqoke ibhatshi.