The African continent is a region of great diversity. It has various ethnic groups that have different beliefs, cultures, and among other traditions. An example of a region in the African continent with great ethnic diversity is the South African area. Its ethnicities include the Coloreds, Afrikaners, Xhosa people, the Zulu people, Bantu people, San people, Khoisan, Tsonga people, and the Sotho people. Others are the Tswana people, Nguni tribe, Venda people, Boers, and the Bhaca people.
The Nguni represent close to two-thirds of SA’s black population and can be divided into more than 3 groups. The Northern and Central Nguni is the Zulu peoples. The Nguni to the south or the Southern Nguni is the Xhosa people. The other Nguni groups are the Swazi people from Swaziland and the Ndebele group.
In this article, we will major in one amazing South African ethnic group. Its name is Xhosa. The name Xhosa is quite complex to pronounce on many lips, but its history, language, and traditions that we will learn here are worth more than the pronunciation aspect.
Brief Description of the Xhosa People
The Xhosa people are the 2nd biggest cultural group in SA after the Zulu-speaking people. The Xhosa language is called Isixhosa, and the Xhosa ethnic group refers to themselves as the amaXhosa. Xhosa is one of the 11 official languages which the South African Constitution recognizes or acknowledges. In 2006, according to statistics, more than 6.6 million South Africans spoke Xhosa as a local or home language.
The Xhosa people’s homeland is mainly within the present-day Eastern Cape. There’s a significant Xhosa-speaking community in the Zimbabwean state. The Xhosa ethnic group is divided into more than 1 tribe. The major ethnic groups or tribes include the Gcaleka, Rharhabe, Dange, Dushane, and Ndlambe. Many Xhosa live within Cape Town, East London, and Port Elizabeth.
According to the statistics of 2003, most Xhosa people lived in the Eastern Cape (5.3m). Others are the Western Cape (about a million), Gauteng (over 670000), the Free State (over 200000), KwaZulu-Natal (219826), and Limpopo (over 14,000).
The History of the Xhosa People
The Xhosa people are part of the South African Nguni movement, which gradually went south from the Great Lakes area. The Xhosa were already prosperous by the Dutch arrival period in the middle of the 17th century and resided within much of Eastern SA. That is from around the Great Fish River region to the regions which the Zulu people inhabited.
In 1686 around East London is the time when the Xhosa and the foreign white settlers 1st met each other when Togu, a Xhosa leader, took in the survivors of the wrecked ship as visitors. In the 18th century, Afrikaner trekboers moving outwards from the region of Cape Town came into war with the Xhosa nomads around the area of the Great Fish River.
Following more than 2 decades of war, the British Kingdom forced the Xhosas East into the Third Frontier War. The increase of the Zulus in the Natal pushed many ethnic groups in the North-Eastern sections of SA West into the Xhosa state as the Nguni to the north put pressure on the Nguni South as part of the Mfecane.
The Xhosa people received these scattered ethnic groups and integrated them into their culture, and followed the customs of the Xhosa. The Xhosa labeled these ethnic groups as AmaMfengu, which meant the wanderers and comprised tribes as the Bhaca, Bhele, Hlubi, Zizi, and Rhadebe.
There came a time when the Xhosa unity and ability to resist colonial rule or expansion faced difficulties. This is because of the famines and political disputes that followed the cattle-killing movement of 1856, 1857, and 1858.
History reveals itself in the present day in higher degrees of Xhosa symbolism or representation in the ANC leadership.
Folklore and Religion
Traditional healers of SA include diviners or the amaggirha. The women who spend about half a decade in apprenticeship are the ones who take up this task or job. There are also herbalists, prophets or izanuse, and the iinyanga or healers for the community.
Legends and stories give accounts of the Xhosa ancestral champions. According to one of the oral tradition accounts, the 1st person on the planet was a mighty and great leader known as Xhosa. Historically, the name Xhosa might have come from this king (also called Xhosa). Another traditional account emphasizes the Xhosa people’s essential togetherness by indicating that all the Xhosa subgroups are successors of Tshawe, an ancestor.
The history accounts have given the impression that Tshawe and Xhosa were probably the 1st Xhosa supreme rulers.
One of Xhosa’s successors, called Phalo, gave birth to 2 kids (sons), Gcaleka kaPhalo, the successor, and Rarabe ka Phalo, a son of the Right-Hand house. Rarabe was a mighty fighter and a man of significant power and ability his father loved very much. Gcaleka was a timid man who didn’t have all the characteristics suited for becoming a great ruler or king.
Seeing his sibling’s fame and fearing that he might one day contest with him for the throne, Gcaleka tried to wrest the throne from his father, but Rarabe would come to his father’s help and suppress the revolution.
With his father’s blessings, Rarabe would abandon the great place and move to the region of the Amathole Mountains. Rarabe, through his great military ability, defeated several ethnic groups he found in the area and purchased lands from the Khoikhoi to form his Empire. The Xhosa would from then on separate into 2 Empires under the senior Gcaleka and the minor amaRharhabe.
In the Xhosa traditions, the ancestors act as mediators between the living and God. People honor them in several rituals to bring positive fortune. Dreams play a critical role in contact with their ancestors. Customary religious practice includes initiations, feasts, and rituals.
Christian missionaries formed stations among the Xhosa people in the 1820s, and the 1st Bible translation was in the middle of the 1850s. The Xhosa didn’t convert in large numbers until the 20th century.
The Xhosa Traditional Diet
The Xhosa lived on the mountainsides or slopes of the Winterberg and Amatola Mountains. Several streams drain into the rivers of this Xhosa region, including River Kei and R. Fish. Rich fertile soils and abundant rainfall make the river basins ideal or perfect for farming and grazing activities, making cattle vital and the basis of richness.
Customary foods include beef, mutton, goat meat, sorghum, milk, pumpkins, Mielie meal, umngqusho, beans, vegetables, wild spinach, the sweet sap of aloe, and mushrooms.
Xhosa Art and Beadwork
Customary crafts comprise weaving, beadwork, pottery, and woodwork. Traditional music comprises drums, whistles, rattles, flutes, and stringed instruments. There are several songs for different ritual events. One of the best Xhosa songs is a wedding song known as Qongqothwane, which Miriam Makeba performed. The missionaries initiated the Xhosa people to Western choral singing. Nkosi Sikelei Africa, part of SA’s National anthem, is a Xhosa song that Enoch Sontonga wrote in the late 19th century.
The 1st novels, newspapers, and plays in Xhosa emerged in the 19th century. People have shot several films or movies in the Xhosa language. Black Panther, an American film that made more than $1 billion at Box Office, features the Xhosa language.
Before we discuss the Xhosa beadwork, it is important to know what beads are, despite many people assuming to know them. Beads are small round objects or things made of wood, glass, metal, bone seed, and nutshell, which people pierce for stringing.
Before glass beads emerged, people employed natural materials to create beads. The Xhosa ethnic group depended heavily on the San to sell beads via barter exchange or trade. The Xhosa would give hemp to the San in exchange for the beads.
The San created beads were created out of an ostrich eggshell, which they cut to tiny sizes, bore, polished, and string into sinews. Creating them for a long period, so they were few, expensive, highly valued, and in great demand.
History records that in the 1930s, foreigners, particularly the Portuguese, brought in glass beads via trading activities.
The Clothing Aspect of the Xhosa
The Xhosa people are also called the red blanket people due to wearing red blankets colored or dyed with red ochre. The intensity or degree of the color varies from one ethnic group to another tribe.
Other forms of clothing include printed clothes or fabrics and beadwork. The Xhosa still wear traditional clothes for special cultural events or festivities. Different ethnic groups have their variations of the customary dress. This permits various Xhosa groups to be distinct from one another because of their unique styles of dress.
There are several remarkable Xhosa people to have ever existed in society. Some were kings, chiefs, religious leaders, academics, scientists, business people, warriors, politicians, and activists. Others were artists, writers, athletes, actors, comedians, models, radio, and TV personalities. One of the most famous names among the Xhosa people is the Mandelas, particularly Nelson Mandela.