The Sunday News
FOR one to have a fuller understanding of the ways of a traditional African, it is imperative to look at the various aspects of his life.
These cover quite a number of aspects that include his rituals, beliefs, art, performances, cuisine and attire, to name but a few. Apparently, his perceptions of siblings is equally important and this is what we have been investigating of late.
His ideas are embedded in language, the repository of those ideas and the cutting edge in extending his experiential frontiers and knowledge.
Not so long ago we looked at the ordering of siblings within a family and emerging implications out of that. The pecking order was very important and was expressed in several ways. Names given to siblings located them within the hierarchy and the implications thereof, including inheritance, status, authority, privileges, responsibilities and power. As pointed out in earlier articles, names given to siblings may be pointers to their positions in the pecking order.
A few days ago, we visited a family at Singwangombe in Nkayi, under Chief Sikhobokhobo Nxumalo. The place borders Lupane, at a place under Chief Sivalo Mahlangu’s jurisdiction.
There were no less than four siblings that we interviewed. It became apparent that the eldest son dominated the conversations while the next sibling revealed, through his input, that he was number two. Previous experience did show me that interviewing siblings in a focused group may not be the best.
The younger ones more or less withdraw into cocoons to allow the eldest sibling to dominate the interview or discussion.
The pecking order may not be entirely based on chronology. There is also the idea of proximity to Source. A very young person chronologically, but considered closer to Source, is given precedence. The older person may actually regard him as their “father” or “mother,” depending on the case. This apparently is the basis of relationships among Africans.
Ngqabutho is, in most cases, given to the eldest son. This is the case even where there is an elder sister.
This prevails where the community is both patriarchal and patrilineal. Of course, the ideal situation is where the eldest son is at the same time the first-born child.
The patriline determined succession. Where the father is chief or some such socio-political status, it is the eldest son who succeeds, mutatis mutandis, rather than the eldest female child.
This is a cultural arrangement which is facing challenges in modern times where gender activists are challenging the status quo and, seeking to promote equity. Sadly, the old traditional qualifications have not been reviewed in line with changing ideas. Practice is based on the worldview that a community espouses.
This is particularly the case where chiefly succession is at stake. The qualifications that were crafted way back were rooted in ideas that have since changed and have no basis today. Beliefs and the worldview are the pillars of practice, including practice in terms of succession.
The oldest son may seem to be more privileged and yet, in reality, he has responsibilities that he has to take care of as the succeeding son, following the demise of his father. He accordingly, used to get more cattle than the rest of the siblings. He became “father,” to all the younger siblings who he had to take care of in several respects. When the younger boys got married, he was expected to pay amalobolo for them.
No son was expected to pay amalobolo cattle for himself. That was the responsibility of the father. As a result, the wife belonged to the family and not just her husband. This was an arrangement that worked against gender-based violence.
The husband was reminded that the wife he was beating up was not his wife. Elderly women, in particular, were alert to abuse of women and sought to protect them.
Sometimes the eldest son, uNgqabutho, had to look after his sisters whose marriages broke down. We have pointed out that back then, there was no phenomenon today known as umazakhela, where a woman had her own home.
They lived either in their fathers’ or brothers’ homes. For the eldest brother, this translated to added responsibility and was thus a justification for him to inherit more cattle. It was not born out of selfish considerations.
In the past, traditional spirituality was taken seriously. Unlike in other religions, within the context of African Spirituality, women were not discriminated against. They could become spirit mediums, traditional healers and herbalists.
In fact, many acquired cattle as payment for services rendered.
For one to become a traditional doctor, one had to undergo a long period of training at the end of which the spiritual trainer demanded payment in the form of cattle.
The eldest brother shouldered that responsibility in the case where the father had died. His larger portion of inheritance was based on this responsibility.
Sicino was a name given to the last-born son. It was a son rather than a daughter who remained at the father’s home to look after the old parents. Daughters got married and left parental homes. Such a married son remained within the parental home when both sons and daughters got married and left.
He was expected to provide for the aged parents no longer able to fend for themselves. Inevitably, there would be cattle belonging to the parents and these were available to the son and his family.
Upon death of the parents, the son inherited some of the cattle unless in a case where the elder brothers, were selfish.
Mothers did acquire cattle in their own right. They however, used their husbands’ ear notch, uphawu, for their cattle. Despite the same ear notch, it was known which cattle, within the cattle byre, belonged to her. As a general rule mothers’ property, including cattle, were inherited by her daughters rather than her sons.
Remember the daughters inherited next to nothing from their father, save what was referred to as izinyembezi zikababa, father’s tears. If she did, the cattle would be taken to her marital home, the son-in-law’s home. In the process, her family got impoverished. As pointed out above, cultural practices are rooted in a people’s worldview.
The pecking order of the siblings was expressed during eating. What happens today where each child has a food plate of his own did not exist. It is a practice for individually based societies.
We should not think that they faced a shortage of plates, wooden plates, that is. It was a deliberate arrangement calculated to foster some sense of esprit de corps among the children. Meat and isitshwala were served in separate large plates. Picking the meat strictly followed some pecking order. The eldest son was first to help himself to a piece of meat, inevitably the choicest and biggest piece. The rest would do so in the order of distance from Source. Among siblings the temporal dimension and distance from Source coincided.
At the same time the order of picking meat reflected privilege and status.
The order was enforced and the community expected that the cultural practice be strictly followed. The young were expected to respect the older who led the way. The cultural practice has political implications. The old provide political leadership and the youth are not expected to challenge them.
Indeed, the idea is embedded in a Ndebele proverb which says, “Kaliphumi elinye lingakatshoni.”
No sun rises before the other (older sun) has set. It is implied that there is always one sun in the sky. As one would expect, African rulers expect, and sometimes demand, that they rule till death removes them from the throne. This is what posterity bequeathed upon them.