Manners & Protocols in Xhosa Culture


Greetings are an essential aspect of any African culture. In the Xhosa culture, people are expected to greet one another at all times. It makes no difference if the other person or group comprises strangers; greetings are always anticipated. The greeting is a way of showing respect and reflects on your family and upbringing. When you greet others, you must do so with a smile on your face to show that you acknowledge the other person’s presence.

In the Xhosa culture, the order of greeting (who must greet who first) is not set in stone. However, generally speaking, the person in motion is expected to greet first. For instance, if you are coming from outside or somewhere and find the people in the house, you knock at the door and greet whoever is inside. If they are sitting, you can also sit and enquire about their health, etc. Enquiring about their health (impilo) while standing on your feet may be misconstrued to be an aggressive gesture . People might think that you intend to fight with them. If one is walking on the road and they meet or pass an older person, they are expected to greet them whether they are known to them or not.  This gesture is a way of showing respect.

In the Xhosa culture, greetings do not change according to the time of the day(morning, noon, or night). The greeting is done as follows:

When you greet one person – you say, “Molo.”

When you greet more than one person – you say, “Molweni.”

The other person may respond by saying, “Ewe.” Meaning, “yes – we acknowledge your greeting.”

Then you can start asking how their health is – “Unjani”? – meaning “how are you?”

They may respond by saying – “Ndiyaphila, wena unjani”? – meaning, “I am fine, and how are you”?

Greetings get more interesting when you go to the deep rural areas where the Bomvanas (red blanket people) reside. Older people respond to “Unjani?” by saying “Ndingumqabaqaba okwegqabi leviniga” (meaning I am fine like a fresh vinegar leaf). Such a response shows you that the person is in good health everything is going well.

When you greet an older person, you cannot just say molo or molweni. Your salutation must be followed with a title, for instance, if you are greeting your sister (sisi) or brother (bhuti), father (tata), mother (mama), uncle (malume), grandmother (makhulu), etc. The young person greeting will say, “molo mama or molo tata

,” etc. When greeting a chief, one does not use the salutation “molo” but rather “Aah Zanoxolo” (taking off your hat while doing so) is more appropriate. Men mainly do this as they are the ones who usually sit with the chief – not women.

Greetings may seem insignificant, but they show ubuntu (humanity) in the Xhosa culture. Imagine you arrive at the communal bus stop and find other people waiting for the bus; however, you don’t greet them. When the bus arrives, you notice that you are a few coins short, or you have forgotten your wallet at home; no one will be willing to help you. By not greeting them on your arrival, you did not show ubuntu. You may, in some instances, go back home without receiving any help. In the Xhosa culture, they say “umntu ngumntu ngabantu” (a person is a person through other people).

Due to the changing times and adaptation of Western culture, there has been a shift to a more liberal way of doing things. In urban areas, the greeting custom is no longer valued. A person usually greets the person they know and whenever they feel like doing so. However, the greeting custom is still very strong in rural areas, which is still expected. People who do not greet others are thought of as to be arrogant.

Xhosa people are considered to be very friendly and warm-hearted. There is no formality in the manner of eating around the table. Turning down a meal or a drink that is offered to you is seen as being rude. When offered a meal or a drink, one is expected to accept it and, in a situation where one is full or is not interested in the food, they are expected to eat a little or have a small sip on the drink.

 There is no order regarding sitting hierarchy on the table and who must eat first. In some homesteads with elderly people, like grandmothers and grandfathers – you will find that the male figures (the father or grandfathers) have their dish or mug and spoon. No one is allowed to use these without their permission. During mealtimes in a family,  everyone (the old and the young) can share the same table. The person serving the food is expected to say a short prayer (as a way of showing gratitude and thanksgiving to God for being the provider of the food and good health) before serving the food to the rest of the family. Simple small talk and laughing are permissible during a meal. Serious issues are handled after the meal. Burping after a meal is not considered a compliment that you are full and have enjoyed your meal.

When the food is served in a communal dish (where many people eat together) and use their hands while eating, they are given a dish of clean water with a dishcloth to cleanse their hands before eating.

 It is rare to have a meal without meat being served. Chewing the bones while eating is acceptable as it is seen as a sign of enjoyment of the meal.

In most cases, you may find people eating with their hands depending on the type of food being eaten at that time, e.g., bread, meat, pap, corn on a cob, etc. it is rare to find someone eating with a fork and a knife on the table. A spoon is used for adults, and small kids eat with a teaspoon. 

Things that are considered bad manners while eating on the table:

– picking your teeth at the table.

– chewing food and talking at the same time.

– seasoning your food with salt before even tasting it.

– serving people food with your left hand.

– eating fast without allowing the food to go down is seen as greed.

– touching food that you don’t intend to eat.

– smelling the food served is seen as a sign of disrespect.

Men are not allowed to eat chicken feet, head, and the offals -these are reserved for women and children. Women are not allowed to eat the goat/sheep’s head, which is reserved for men (unless they are offered).

Always help an elderly person when they are carrying a lot of things.

If an elderly person asks you to help her with anything legal, e.g., asking you to buy her a loaf of bread from the shops – you are expected to assist. It is considered disrespectful to refuse, and you risk giving your family name a bad reputation in the community.

Younger men or youth are not allowed to smoke or drink any alcohol in front of their elders. There are exceptional situations when they might do so – only during ceremonies.  However, men are ranked according to their manhood even during such gatherings. That is, if you have not gone to the mountain for circumcision, you can’t sit, eat, and drink in the same place with men that have done so as you are considered to be a dog (that is how uncircumcised boys are called).

When using public transport, like a bus – if all the seats in the bus are already occupied, and an older person is standing, it is your duty as a younger person to give the seat to the older person. It is considered bad manners to remain seated while an older person is standing. It is considered disrespectful to argue with an older person and talk back to them when being corrected for your wrongdoing. Sometimes you find that an older person says, “don’t eat while standing,” and the younger person questions, “what will happen if I do so”? Such a young person is deemed disrespectful. Elders are considered to have wisdom and know more, and as such, younger people cannot question their word.

Xhosas are people of culture and very proud of their lineage. Dressing portrays different stages according to age, tribe, and the event. This way of dressing makes it easy to distinguish the tribe he pr she belongs to. Women and girls dress in bright colours like red, orange, white, green, and yellow, with braiding and beads over a skirt.

Forms of Dressing:
Females (girls) dress in white skirts dyed with a red ochre. The skirt is called isikhaka. A beaded top that resembles a bra is worn on top to cover their breasts. They also wear a beaded blanket is called incebetha. 

Older women wear long dresses made from stiff cloth with beads. This dress is called umbhaco. They also wear some form of headscarf to cover their heads. These resemble folded scarves with elaborate turban shapes as a sign of respect to the elders and husbands.

A newly married woman (makoti) wears amajalimani or idaki (blue or brown garments -long dresses) and a black headscarf (iqhiya). She is expected to wear it for at least three months. She wears these with a blanket or shawl around the shoulders and a towel or thick scarf (ixakatho) around her waist. The shawl symbolizes that she is now a wife and is a form of respect for her new home. The towel or a thick scarf represents the qualities of protection and nurturing expected of her.

No dressing is complete without the beaded necklace or bracelet. Beadwork has a cultural meaning, but things have changed as beads are worn as a fashion statement

 in recent times. During any traditional rituals where a ceremony is held, the women will dress in their imibhaco with beads from their heads to their feet. They will carry a sewn traditional bag called inxili with the long traditional smoking pipes decorated in beads called umbheka phesheya.

Both men and women will wear red blankets on their shoulders dyed with red ochre, the intensity of the colour varying from tribe to tribe.

Men are not allowed to wear a hat or caps inside the house.

Women are expected to cover their heads, especially around family elders or ceremonial gathering

  1. Men will dress in skin-made garments or skirts with long beads in front called isidanga and beads on their heads (igwala), neck, and feet. 

The Xhosa language is one of the difficult languages in South Africa as it has a lot of click sounds. It is unusual to finish a sentence without using any clicks sounds, mainly X, Q, and C. For example:

Ndicela – can I please have

Ixesha – time

Ndigqibile – I am done.

Respect (ukuhlonipha) for individuals around you is essential while engaging with others. 

Married women are expected to respect the family’s elders, the community, and husbands.

When a woman is married, she is discouraged from socializing with unmarried women even if she used to be friends with them. She must cut the friendship ties as they are considered a bad influence. However, she can freely socialize with her unmarried siblings.

She cannot be seen chit-chatting and gossiping about everything in her vicinity. If it comes to the attention of the elders that she is doing so, she will be reprimanded as gossiping diminishes the respect of the family she is married to and her home. A woman cannot raise her voice when talking to her husband or any of the older members of the family.

Women cannot sit and hold a conversation with men during any traditional ceremony unless requested. The Xhosa say, ‘the place for the woman is in the kitchen (egoqweni), and for the man is in the kraal (esibayeni).

‘ The same applies to boys and young men – an uncircumcised man cannot sit and hold a conversation with circumsized men. 

When elders speak, youths are expected to remain silent. They also have to lower their eyes when being addressed, responding only when it is necessary to do so.

Mothers are considered easily accessible when one wants to talk about anything. When a girl is at the stage of getting married, she will tell her mother about this. The mother will then discuss the issue with her father. 

Xhosa people strongly believe in their ancestors. When things are not going well – they will communicate with their ancestors for guidance and answers.

The ones that are Christians will communicate with God through praying. Their God is referred to as uQamata.

There is no compulsory way of sitting or standing when holding a conversation; it all depends on where you are at that time.

There are different ways of socializing. In the old days – when a girl or a boy reached a stage of dating (ukumetsha), he or she will secretly attend the youth dance (as the parents would never allow this as it is usually held in the night and lasts until early hours of the morning) where boys and girls will meet. These youth dances are called umtshotsho. When the young couple agrees to see each other, they would also do that secretly,  away from the residential areas where they will not be easily seen. During their courtship, any engagement in sexual activity was taboo and a disgrace if it happened. They would show affection to their loved ones by making beads, necklaces, or bracelets for them.

Sometimes, the parents would get involved in finding a suitor for their son or daughter if they have reached the stage of getting married but have never heard any rumour about him or her seeing anyone.

Despite the overwhelming influence of Western culture, the Xhosa people still strongly believe and practice their traditional customs. In most Xhosa households, traditional values are instilled in the children, observing the traditional manners and protocols. Things may change, but traditions, principles, and values will always remain.