When marriage is confirmed... 16 years later

Due to intricate culture around nuptials, Bhekisisa Mncube via The Love Diary of a Zulu Boy relates how his English wife was eventually introduced to his ancestors.

This is how the story goes. We spent the 2016 Easter weekend with my parents in Ulundi in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal. Ulundi, in the heart of Zululand, is set among marvellous hills and the rough valleys of the White Umfolozi River.

The former capital of the Zulu Kingdom, it straddles Route 66 between Nongoma and Melmoth. We arrived on Friday afternoon. Our trip to Ulundi was an ordinary courtesy visit to see my family.

In tow, I had my English wife, mixed-race daughter and son born of a Xhosa-speaking mother. My village is now used to seeing a white woman among them, so it's no longer an event worth gossiping about.

However, as a well-nurtured Zulu boy, I had sent some money to my mother so that she could buy the ingredients required for brewing the traditional Zulu beer known as umqombothi. This was a small gesture on my part to the ancestors in acknowledgement of their presence in my life: what better way to do so than to give them something to drink and be merry about. There was no customary slaughter of a beast or goat. This visit was meant to be as routine as possible. It turned out to be anything but.

Firstly, on the Saturday, my wife entered the Mncubes' kitchen for the very first time with the sole intention of playing makoti, which meant cooking for the in-laws. This had taken her some 16 long years to do. I had decided in the week leading up to our visit that it was the time and place for my wife to break with tradition once and for all.

You see, in my family tradition, unless the bride has officially been introduced to the ancestors through the slaughter of a beast, she can't perform makoti duties, including cooking. Despite my spirit of defiance, there was another snag. There were 16 mouths to feed. Nonetheless, my wife took to the cooking task like a duck to water. After an epic six-hour cooking session with a malfunctioning electric stove, food was delivered to all.

I patted her on the back for a job well done. My parents remained mum on the breaking of tradition. For the past 16 years, my wife has been treated as a visitor to be served meals at appointed times.

On Sunday, the cooking session had to be repeated. Of course, this was now routine for my wife. But something monumental was in the offing. While I was seated outside one of the huts and whiling away the time sharing banter... my father joined us. He looked apprehensive. I witnessed the perspiration running down his neck. At once, he demanded that all of my family join us.

I offered a reprieve for my wife and daughter, saying they were busy cooking. My mother also chipped in to say it wasn't necessary. My father would have none of it ... everybody had to come, because he wanted to do something very important.

Sensing I wasn't going to win the battle, let alone the war, I ordered some random kid to go and summon my wife and daughter. They descended upon the place at once. I didn't make any eye contact with my wife, fearing that she would ask me what was going on and I was none the wiser.

My father, in his petulant fashion, made no small talk, but got straight down to business. He announced matter-of-factly that he was already late in his appointed task of speaking to amadlozi about my side of the family. In Zulu, amadlozi means ancestors (idlozi is the singular form). It means a human spirit, or the soul of the departed.

As he is wont to do, he walked metres away from us to be near isibaya (the kraal) and started ukuthetha idlozi like a house on fire. Ukuthetha idlozi means "to scold". Zulu historians argue that ukuthetha idlozi linguistically gives one the initial impression of an aggressive kind of relationship between the ancestors and their descendants. In practice, it is not so - the literal translation is misleading. Ukuthetha idlozi is an expression that implies praying to the ancestors, in a way that is not to be confused with religious prayer.

It is like a senior counsel's prayer before a judge. In its traditional meaning, ukuthetha idlozi refers to the communication between the ancestors and their descendants. Basically, you tell them what they ought to know, and possibly make special requests...

After a beautiful rendition of izithakazelo, meaning praises attached to a particular group (in this case, the Mncubes) in which the clan's forebears are also referred to, my father proudly reported thus: "I am
reporting to you MaZilakatha (the Mncubes' praise name) that uBhekisisa, the son of MaMlambo [my mother's maiden name], is now married. He has two children. 

Published by Penguin Random House; retail price is R230

X