Xhosa Marriage Practices 

There are 10 steps of the Xhosa Marriage process 

Step 1:  Ukuthunyelwa Kwencwadi 

Step 2:  Ukuvuma (Acceptance)

Step 3: Ilobola 

Step 4: Marriage Ceremony

Step 5:  Umdudo/ Umtshato

Step 6: Ukwambesa 

Step 7:  Ukusiwa Komtshakazi Emzini

Step 8:  Ukutyiswa Amasi – Utsiki Nokuthiywa Igama

Step 9:  Ukuhota Komakoti

Step 10: Isiqukumbelo  


To have an in depth understanding of the Xhosa marriage process we highly recommend you:

  • Watch all the Xhosa dramatization/videos produced by BeingAfrican to accompany this teaching
  • Go through Xhosa marriage FAQs 

The Xhosa people are a Nguni ethnic group mostly found in South Africa, with a small population found in Zimbabwe.  The Eastern Cape, in South Africa is their primary homeland. There are approximately 8 million Xhosa people are spread across South Africa. The Xhosa language is South Africa’s second-most-popular local language. The Xhosa marriage, umtshato, consists of a number of customs and rituals in accordance to Xhosa traditional practices. These rituals have been practiced for decades by the Xhosa people. Some of the rituals have been incorporated into modern day Xhosa marriages as well. As with many other African marriage traditions, the Xhosa marriage practices aim to bring the two different families together, and to give guidance and support to the newlywed couple.


Ukuzeka is the process by which the marriage process is initiated by a man who has reached a marriage stage in his life, his family or the bride-to-be’s family. During the process of Ukuzeka, the groom’s family members known as “oonozakukuza”, led by “umalume” play central roles to facilitate the process. These proceedings involve a lot of stages that must be followed and culminates in “umakoti”, (the new bride) being accompanied to her new home. 

There are 4 ways in which the Ukuzeka process can be initiated namely;

  1. Ukuzibonela : this is when a man asks for a hand in marriage from a woman. When the woman accepts his proposal, the man then informs his father of his intentions of marrying the girl. He also informs the father details of the family from which the woman comes from.
  2. Ukuhlolela: in this instance it is the parents of the girl who show interest and decide on their own that they want their daughter to get married to a son from a certain family. They might tell their daughter of their intentions or might not as her decision to accept or not is considered to be irrelevant. The bride-to-be’s family will send one man from their family (it can be an elder brother/ an uncle) to take a spear and plant it in the compound of the family that they want their daughter to get married to. This is done at night without anyone seeing the man sent to do the task. In the morning, when  the family of the groom-to-be notices the spear , they will enquire about it. Once they know where it is from, it is up to them to accept the proposal, or to decline it. If they accept the proposal, they will take back the spear and plant it at the bride-to-be’s compound. If they do not accept the proposal, they will not return the spear, but keep it.
  3. Ukuthwala : This is when the bride-to-be and the groom-to-be agree to marry without the knowledge of the bride-to-be’s parents out of fear that her parents may oppose their union. The man and woman would most likely have been in courtship or a relationship prior to Ukuthwalwa. The man will come to come to the girl’s home in the evening without anyone seeing him and meet with his woman at the agreed place. They will then go to the man’s home where his family will be waiting for them. The following morning the man’s family will go and inform the woman’s family that they have their daughter with the intentions to marry her. It is up to the woman’s family to agree or disagree with this decision – but in most instances they agree as it is believed that the woman’s grave is in his husband’s home. A certain penalty will be levied on the man’s family for this deed.
  4. Ukufilisha : It is when a man loves a certain woman and instead of talking directly with the woman goes straight to her parents and tells them of his intention to marry their daughter. The decision to agree or not lies with her parents. 

Once the groom’s family has agreed to proceed to ask for the hand in marriage from a certain family for their son, they must write a letter to the bride-to-be’s family to formally request for a meeting. In the letter, their intentions must be clearly stated as well as the exact date that they propose to have the lobola negotiations. It is up to the bride’s family to accept the requested date or suggest an alternative date.

When the bride’s family receives the letter, they will call for a family meeting where most important members of the family like oomalume, oomalumekazi, the mother and the father of the bride-to-be agree on the date that best suits them. They are under no obligation to accept the date that has been proposed by the groom’s family. If the date that has been proposed by the groom’s family suits them, they will accept it. 

Acceptance is done in the form of a written letter. In this letter, the bride’s family states their proposed date for the lobola negotiations. Sometimes the bride’s family will state what to bring or what to expect on the day of the lobola negotiations. However, most cultures do not specify or go into detail. If some details are not clear, or not stated on the letter, it is up to the groom to find out from his bride secretly what her family will expect on that day. 

Two men will be appointed to deliver the letter to the groom’s family. 

Ilobola is the custom by which a bridegroom’s family makes a payment in cattle or cash to the bride’s family shortly before the marriage. This is a token of gratitude on the part of the groom and his family to enable them to build unity and relationship between the two families

The bride price is normally paid in the form of cows. The number of cows differs from one tribe/culture to the next, but it ranges from ten to twelve cows. The bridal price is normally the responsibility of the groom, but in some instances where the father has done (ukuhlolela/ ukufilisha) the father and the uncle pay a part of the bridal price to assist the groom.

This bridal price can be in the form of cows or cash – depending on the agreement between the two families. Should the bride’s family request for cows, they would determine what the value of 1 cow would be and multiply it by 10  to 12 depending on how many cows have been requested by the bride’s family. For instance, if they want R4000 for one cow, and the family determines that the bride is worth 10 cows, the lobola would be R40 000.

Ikhazi is the bride-price along with gifts of offerings such as livestock and alcoholic beverages.

Here are some typical stages of the lobola process;

Imvulamlomo: this is when the bride’s family  requests a small token or fee from the groom’s family before the negotiations commence . Literally translated, it means they must offer them a token to open their mouths and feel welcomed. Imvulamlomo is typically in the form of a brandy or a small token fee.

Isazimzi: this is also another small token fee to give to the bride’s family to show them how they know only this home amongst all other homes in that community.

Ikhazi: this is the payment of the pride price. Traditionally, this used to be in the form of 10 – 12 cows. However, nowadays it can be in the form of money depending on the family of the bride. The bride-price is dependent on numerous things such as her level of education, the wealth status of her family in comparison to that of the man’s family, what the man stands to gain in the marriage and the overall desirability of the woman.

Among the cows that will be paid, there is a cow known as “ubuso bentombi” (face of the bride) and also “inkomo yomothuko” (cow of shock). The latter is given to the mother of the bride-to-be.

Uswazi: the bride’s family will then request what is known as “uswazi”, meaning the stick that they were using along the way to bring the cows to their home. This will be a brandy or whiskey that will be given to the bride’s family.

Isivumo: after all the negotiations – as a form of acceptance, the bride’s family will slaughter a goat for the groom’s family to show them that they are accepting the new relationship between the two families and the groom as their part of their family.

Intlawulo: In instances where the bride already has children by the groom, a ‘fine’ is to be paid, and is added to the value of the bride. This fine is usually a cow and a goat to cleanse the name of the family as the groom damaged their daughter before marriage (umwise ibele – he has made her breast sag, took her from girlhood to womanhood before time). This restores respect and dignity to the bride’s family. 

The cow will then be slaughtered the same day, prepared and cooked for the bride’s family by the groom’s family. This shows respect and regret for their wrongdoing. The discretion to share the meat with the groom’s family lies with the bride’s family. But as a sign of ubuntu – the bride’s family will share with them.

After all the above have been done, the marriage arrangements will commence as per below:

UDULI : After all the lobola negotiations both families will start preparing for the day of the marriage. A day before the big day a group of men and women (old and young) with the bride prepare and go to the groom’s family. This bride’s party is called “uduli”. On arrival, they are allocated a special hut and a goat called umathulantabeni, (meaning dropped from the mountain) will be slaughtered for them. Some small items will be given to them except the fire lighter. The bride’s party pays a small token fee called isiphembamlilo,  (meaning something to start the fire with) as a sign of asking for fire as they are given everything raw. They remain there until the marriage ceremony is over.

 The bride’s party will later pay one cow to the groom’s family. This cow, given to the bride, is for her new journey at her new home that will be used for her. A small skin will be taken from the cow and a small rope is made from it. It is given to the bride for her protection against any evil and bad spirits while she is at her new home. This will also be used on her children when they are born. This cow is called inkomo yobulunga.

Later in the evening the groom’s family will slaughter a cow and offer the right leg  called inxaxheba, to the bride’s family as a token of appreciation and the beginning of a good relationship between the two families. The younger women from uduli will help the bride with getting the firewood so as to prepare her first firewood store to use when they are gone. They will wait for the next big day for the ceremony. 

A dance at a traditional Xhosa wedding ceremony, indicating acceptance of the bride by her parents-in-law. This is one of the big and memorable events in the life of the bride. Uduli will dress up in traditional Xhosa outfits, imibhaco with beaded necklace and bracelets, and put dots decorations. The bride will dress up and be covered with a white blanket called ingcawa. It is here that dancing (umdudo) takes place. The songs will be exchanged between the two families, men ukududa and the women do ukungqungqa and ukuyiyizela (to acclaim).

During this time the bride’s family takes the bride to present her to the groom’s family where the groom’s family assembles enkundleni (forum) waiting for their bride. Two men from the bride’s side will open the umtshakazi so that she can be seen. After this – old men from the groom’s side will counsel and tell the new bride of the way she must preserve herself now that she is married. When the men are done with ukuyala she will be taken to the women where she will also be counseled. This is called ukuyala.  

Then the feast will start where traditional food, umqombothi (traditional fermented beer) and some alcohol will be enjoyed by both parties with dancing, singing and ukuxhentsa (doing the traditional dance). Later the families will gather enkundleni and proceed with the bride being given a spear to throw as a sign of her being accepted in her new home. There is a belief that if the spear doesn’t fall on the ground – that signifies that you’ll have a successful long-lasting marriage but if it falls – your marriage will not last. This ceremony will continue until late in the night. 

The morning after umdudo the groom’s family will gather, and the bride’s family will come and present gifts to them. These gifts will be in the form of blankets to the close relatives of the family, like aunts, uncles, the father, the mother and sometimes even the siblings of the groom.  They will also present the gifts for the new bride that she will use in her new home as the wife.

This is a short ceremony also to show the long-term relationship between the two families and appreciation to the groom for giving their daughter a sense of belonging, value and dignity as a woman. 

On this day, uduli will return back home leaving the new bride at her new home with one young girl call inkubabulongwe (beetle dung). For the next few days, this young girl will assist the new umakoti (bride) with domestic chores like fetching the wood, fetching the water from the river, cooking and cleaning (in most ancient homes cow dung (ubulongwe) was used to clean the huts. 

Utsiki is the ritual where umakoti has to eat goat meat and drink the sour milk from that particular family in which she is married to. Utsiki ceremony is performed on behalf of makoti. This is when a sheep or goat is slaughtered on behalf of the newlywed after which she is also allowed to taste sour milk known ukutyiswa amasi. The sheep or a goat is slaughtered in the evening and a part of it, -the waist- known as  injeke, is given to the new bride to eat it alone and not share with anyone. This is a belief that the she will bear the heir for their son when she gets pregnant. She is then dressed in a makoti attire in the form of umbhaco or amajelumane (blue long attire worn by new brides), black head scarf (iqhiya), a small blanket around the waist, and given a small grass mat (ukhuko) called umahambehlala, meaning (something that stays everywhere), and will sit behind the door. 

The new makoti will use this grass mat wherever she goes to sit on, for example when speaking to the elders of the family,  instead of sitting on the chair, she sits on her grass mat. The purpose for this ritual ceremony is to introduce the new bride to the ancestors of this home so that they know that there is a new member of this family, and bless her as part of the family. 

A newly married woman will undergo a series of ukuhlonipha (showing of respect) activities for a period which ranges from at least a month to about three or four months or longer depending on that particular family to which such a woman is married to. Such ukuhota activities encompass the following,  to mention a few;

  • Compulsory domestic chores, 
  • Appropriate attire 
  • Ukuhlonipha language where she can’t call some of the things or people the way she used to when she was still an unmarried woman,
  •  Relevance of certain places (ukucweza)  
  • How to address the older men in the family. S
  • She cannot approach the house by walking directly to the courtyard but must approach them from behind.
  •  She is not allowed to enter into any kraal in her new homestead. 

The marriage or ukwenda for a woman in the Xhosa Culture is one of the respected rituals. A lot of things have changed due to changing times. The indigenous society was purely traditional with no sophisticated luxuries such as hiring or buying white wedding dress for the bride and a suit for the groom and bridesmaid and all that is involved these days when a woman is getting married. 

Traditionally, when makoti joined the family, she was expected to do all these domestic duties practically from dawn to late in the evening. Most couples do the white wedding as well because most African cultures have also adopted the Western culture wedding. 

Despite all this – lobola still stands as it gives dignity to the woman and the man getting married.