Zulu Marriage Practices
BEING AFRICAN-ZULU CULTURAL MARRIAGE
The Zulu nation is one of the Nguni-speaking cultures and the largest ethnic group in South Africa, KwaZulu Natal. They generally have a strong cultural belief in their ancestors and customs. Every parent’s dream is to see their children married. Different customs are followed while preparing the Zulu children for cultural marriage. Below are the different stages.
- Stage 1 Umhlonyane-First menstrual period
- Stage 2 Umemulo-When the girl reaches the age of 21
- Stage 3 Ukuvuma-The acceptance of the relationship
- Stage 4-Ukucela-Stage-To request
- Stage 5 Umembeso-Gift bearing
- Stage 6 Ukulobola-Dowry
- Stage 7 Ukugcaga-Permission to take the bride to the groom’s home
- Stage 8 Umbondo-is all about the bride’s family bringing gifts and food (groceries) to the groom’s family.
- Stage 9 Umkhehlo-Pre-wedding ceremony
- Stage 10 Umabo-Traditional wedding
- ABOUT THE GIRL
This traditional ceremony is done when a girl has her first menstrual period. During the ceremony the girl is introduced to different stages of womanhood. The point of the ceremony is to warn the girl to be careful and watchful of her behaviour as she is no longer a “child.” At this stage It is believed that the girl is ready for courtship.
When a girl reaches the age of 21, she is now considered an independent adult, the parents will perform a ritual called Umemulo. The umemulo is a traditional Zulu ritual celebrated when a girl is coming of age. They slaughter a cow and a goat at this ceremony. It signifies that the girl is now ready for marriage and marks her passage from being a girl into womanhood. The ritual also involves the traditional Zulu dance ukusina. The celebrated girl, her virgin girlfriends, and virgin female relatives will attend the ceremony dressed in traditional Zulu attire. An older woman will be appointed to perform the virginity test to see that all the girls attending umemulo are still virgins. The girl being celebrated during umemulo is dressed in tripe fat-umhlwehlwe and she dances the ukusina dance for the guests. It is believed that if the umhlwehlwe (tripe’s fat) breaks into pieces while dancing, that girl is not a virgin. The breaking of the umhlwehlwe (tripe fat) will bring shame to her family, and the ceremony will end instantly. During this ceremony, a lot of dancing (ukusina) involving a spear (that signifies the girl’s purity- itshitshi) will take place. Many gifts and money will be given to the young female with many blessings. The young female is believed to have someone courting her at this stage.
When a girl reaches the womanhood stage after her umemulo, she may appoint friends/ female, young relatives like sisters or female cousins (sisters) to go to her boyfriend’s home to let his parents know that she is now their son’s girlfriend. Ukuqoma usually takes place early hours of the morning before sunrise. A group of young women will carry a long stick marked in seven places using their head scarfs (iduku). On arrival at the young man’s home, they will stand at the gate singing until someone from the groom’s house comes out to greet them. They will be asked to pay a small amount of money to enter. On entering, a woman called iqhikiza will lead the group, take the stick with the headscarf, and plant it in front of the house. After doing this, the party will go back home.
- FAMILY INVOLVEMENT
Accepting this relationship between the young man and the girl who sent her group with iqhikiza will depend on the young man’s parents. If they like the girl, they will keep the stick, and the young man will wear a beaded necklace that was beaded by his girlfriend. The necklace signifies to other girls that he is already taken; his heart belongs to one woman. If they don’t like the girl, they will cut the headscarf into pieces, and their son will be forced to look for another girl.
UKUCELA (TO REQUEST)
When a young man reaches the stage of taking a wife, he will discuss this with his girlfriend. They will agree on a specific date when the young man’s family can visit the girl’s family to introduce themselves and communicate the marriage intention. The young man will discuss this with his father, who will inform the close relatives about his son’s marriage intentions. Son and father will discuss how much or how many cows he can afford–He might need assistance from his father with the ikhazi lobola cows/bride price. The young man’s elders will finalise a date to visit the girl’s home. During this time, the girl is also doing the same thing, informing her parents about the visitors (groom’s party).
UMEMBESO/ IZIBIZO (GIFT-BEARING)
Umembeso is when the groom’s family buys gifts for the bride’s family. Umembeso bears much cultural significance, and it is considered a formal engagement. It symbolises the coming together of both families and is typically characterised by slaughtering a cow and or a goat plus the sharing of gifts. The gifts will be for the bride’s family and close relatives. Gifts may include blankets, livestock, weave mats, head scarfs, aprons, etc. Umembeso celebration is marked by singing and dancing as two families become one.
Exchanging gifts: After receiving gifts from the groom’s family, the bride’s family will give gifts to the groom’s family in the form of groceries and woven baskets. A ceremony called umbondo will take place at the bride’s family, where the bride-to-be will announce to those attending the ceremony that she will be married soon and become someone’s wife. This announcement is called Ingqibamasondo. The bride-to-be shows gratitude to the groom’s family for “bringing her dignity.”
If the bride comes from a wealthy family and can afford it, a cow, “inkomo yomncamo,” will be slaughtered. The cow is slaughtered on behalf of the bride as a way of saying goodbye to her unmarried friends, as she will no longer be expected to be “closely associated” with girls.
- THE LOBOLA
On the appointed day, a group of men led by umkhongi/abakhongi (lobola negotiator/s), usually one or 2 elderly men who are close relatives of the family, will be accompanied by other men (not more than 6) to visit the bride’s home before sunrise to ask for ubuhlobo (relationship). The groom-to-be is not part of the lobola negotiations. Only men participate in the talks/negotiations. Should part of the lobola be in the form of cows, two boys from the groom’s family will accompany the cattle to look after them.
On arrival at the bride-to-be’s home, the groom’s delegates will stand outside the gate. They will shout their clan’s name and praises to introduce themselves. The bride’s family will keep them waiting for some time at the gate, pretending not to hear nor see them. After some time, they will send a young boy to allow them to enter. The groom’s delegates pay a certain amount of money to be allowed entry. They will then be shown where to sit while waiting for the bride’s father to gather his party.
Among the cattle the groom’s family brings, there is a cow called “inkomo yemvulamlomo-opening the mouth (a payment to start the conversations/ marriage discussions). Inkomo yemvulamlomo is usually the smallest cow (it can be a calf) given to the bride’s father before the negotiations start. Mvulamlomo is accompanied by a certain amount of money stipulated by the bride’s party. The bride’s delegates will advise the umkhongi/abakhongi (lobola negotiators/intermediaries) of the number of cows required for the dowry/lobola, usually between 10-11 cows, depending on the bride’s status. If the bride-to-be has no children, still itshitshi – a virgin, then all the cows will be paid); if she has children out of wedlock, the number of cows is adjusted accordingly. Women are not allowed to participate in lobola negotiations. The bride’s family will be fined if, for instance, the bride’s mother enters the area/place where negotiations are held.
These are some of the cows that form part of the ikhazi:
Inkomo yemvulamlomo (cow to open the mouth): This is the cow given to the bride’s father before the lobola negotiations can commence. It is payment to allow the talks/negotiations to begin.
Cow for the mother (Ingquthu): This is the most expensive red cow among all the cows brought to the bride’s mother as a sign of saying thank you for raising such a beautiful daughter. This cow is only paid out if the bride-to-be is a virgin.
Cow for the father (Inkomo kababa): Inkomo kabala is a gift from the groom to the bride’s father for raising a wife for him. The cow must be dotted.
Umqholiso: This is the cow that will be slaughtered for the bride when she is welcomed at her new home (husband’s home) as a sign of accepting her as part of the family. She will not be allowed to eat the meat from this cow.
Isikhumba: This is the cow the groom gives to his father-in-law. It is called the leather of the bride’s father. The father will make his bheshu (apron made from cow’s hide/skin worn by men to cover their buttocks during traditional gatherings/ ceremonies).
Isibhomo: This is a cow that the groom gives his bride as a gift. From this cow’s skin, the bride will make her isidwaba (leather skirt ) that she will wear when she is at her new home.
Ibheka: This is the cow that will be slaughtered at the bride’s new home after a year of marriage. This cow is given to the bride’s family as a calf.
Isiwunkulu: This cow is slaughtered for women on the wedding day (umabo).
Inhlabisamthimba: This cow is slaughtered for the group that will accompany the bride-to-be during her ukugcagca ( is when the bride-to-be goes to stay at the groom’s family home before the wedding takes place)
Isiqondo: This cow will be given to the bride by the bride’s family when she moves into her new home. The family gives her the cow to ensure she is provided for so that there is no hunger in her new home.
The bride’s price is expected to be paid in full so that the umabo (wedding) can take place. The groom’s family can sometimes ask to pay some of the ikhazi balance at a future date (in installments). The discretion to agree to a “payment plan” or not lies with the bride’s family. Once the lobola negotiations are finalised, the bride’s family will bring 3 or 4 girls covered in blankets and head scarfs. One of them will be the bride-to-be. The groom’s family will be asked to point out the bride. If they are unsure which one she is amongst the girls, they will be fined a small amount of money and later shown the right makoti. When the negotiations are over, there will be celebrations. The groom’s family will be served food and traditional beer.
It will now be the bride’s family’s turn to exchange gifts with the groom’s family in the form of bulk groceries and weave baskets. A ceremony called umbondo will take place at the bride’s family, where the bride-to-be will announce to those attending the ceremony that she will be married soon and become a wife. This announcement is called Ingqibamasondo. By doing so, the bride-to-be shows gratitude to the groom’s family for bringing her dignity. The umbondo occurs only if the lobola is fully paid up.
If the bride comes from a wealthy family that can afford it, a cow called “inkomo yomncamo” will be slaughtered. This cow is slaughtered on behalf of the bride as a way of saying goodbye to her unmarried friends, as she will no longer be expected to be “associated with girls.”
This practice differs for each family. Some families do this after the lobola negotiations, but some do it after the umabo. On the day of the lobola negotiations, after the discussions, the groom’s delegates may ask permission to take their bride to her new home (groom’s home) to stay for a month or two.
Ukugcagca is done to observe and assess if the bride-to-be is ready to become a wife to their son. The bride-to-be will perform all the makoti house chores like cooking and fetching wood and water.
As a sign of respect, she is not allowed to see her father-in-law and must hide whenever he comes into the house.
When the assessment period is over, her soon-to-be mother-in-law sends the bride back home with a folded blanket tied with a rope to give to her mother. When her mother unfolds it, a hole in the blanket means she passed the test. The groom’s family then returns to make payment for the lobola, and a wedding day is decided on*.
UMKHEHLO (PRE-WEDDING CEREMONY)
Umkhehlo is a pre-wedding ceremony where the bride-to-be bids farewell or goodbye to her family. The groom gives a cow called Isibhomo to his bride-to-be, which will be slaughtered for the ceremony, and the woman is showered with money and other gifts.
- THE WEDDING
Umabo is a Zulu traditional wedding. The bride will leave home in the morning, wearing a blanket her mother gives her. Her father, family members, relatives, and friends will accompany the bride to her new family home. The ceremony will take place at the groom’s family home. Before leaving, the bride’s father will burn impepho (incense) and call out his clan’s names as a way of announcing to his ancestors that the time has come for his daughter to leave his home permanently ayogana (to start her own home, be part of her husband’s to be family). After this, they will go to the groom’s family, where the wedding (umabo) will take place.
On arrival at the groom’s house, the bride must walk around the house to be introduced to her husband’s ancestors before entering the home through the kitchen while nobody is noticing her – the groom’s family will pay the penalty for not being aware of the bride – they should have gone to fetch her. The bride’s family also comes early in the morning, with the wedding ceremony starting midday, where two bull cows will be slaughtered.
The groom’s father opens the ceremony by welcoming his new daughter, with the bride’s father also saying some words as a sign that he approves of the union. After the heads of the families have spoken, a goat is slaughtered. The bride brings some furniture, household items like pots, dishes (almost everything she will need as a wife in her new home), and gifts for her new family. On this day, the bride will be dressed in traditional Zulu attire, covered in a blanket that her mother has given her, wearing isidwaba (pleated skirt made from cowhide skin for married women), isicholo (circular-shaped hat to cover the head). Married women wear this hat). The bride needs to cover her shoulders and carry a spear, inkehli (a goat’s hair fringe around her neck. The groom will wear ibheshu which is an apron that covers the buttocks. The apron is made out of cowhide/goatskin) and umqhele (Zulu headband made of animal skin). He will be holding ikhakha (shield and a spear)as a symbol of showing his strength as a man that will be able to protect his woman against all odds. After the ceremony, food, soft drinks, traditional beer, and whiskey or brandy will be served, accompanied by lots of dancing and singing from the groom’s and bride’s sides.
Later, umabo (sharing of gifts) will commence, where the bridesmaids or sisters of the bride will hand out gifts to guests. While gifts and money are given to the bride’s family before the wedding, it is the bride’s turn to give the gifts on the umabo. The bride’s family buys grass mats, blankets for the women, beer pots for the men, and some furniture and brooms. The exchange of gifts symbolises forming a new bond between the two families. Each person is called by their name.
- The older women will receive their gifts first
- Then the groom’s sisters
- Finally, the groom himself
The bride sits on a grass mat and refrains from talking or looking at anyone out of respect while her bridesmaids and sisters hand out the gifts. The names of the various people receiving the gifts are called out one by one. The wedding guests will lie on the grass mats before being covered with a blanket by a family member from the bride’s side. They then sing and dance as a sign of appreciation for the gifts.
A Zulu bride lays out grass mats for her husband to walk on. After the groom has been called, the bride gets up, makes a mock bed, and looks for her husband. When she finds him, she will place grass mats on the floor/ground leading to the bed. The groom will sit on the bed, and the bride takes a basin with a towel and soap and washes the groom’s feet. She then pulls back the bed covers for the groom to lie down. As part of the drama, the bridesmaids and other young ladies from the bride’s side hit the groom with small sticks, after which the groom runs away.
Umabo is a very important ritual in Zulu culture. Some people believe a person is not properly married if they do not honour the umabo ceremony. It is believed that a couple that gets married and does not do umabo will, at a later stage in their marriage, experience some difficulties in their relationship (lots of quarrelling and misunderstanding between the in-laws or husband and wife) or struggle to have children. Should this be the case – both families will hold a meeting where they will make arrangements to do this ritual.
Like most African cultures, the Zulu nation believes in traditional weddings. Umabo is rich and honours the Zulu culture. Therefore it is desirable that the umabo ceremony is performed regardless of the influence of Western cultures. Most couples opt for the white wedding without the umabo.