This past December I celebrated my 21st Birthday. We all know that in African culture, particularly for a young womxn, a 21st is a big deal. Initially I was not keen to have a big celebration for my 21st, instead I was looking forward to hopefully getting a car for my present, cut a cake and call it a day – (although I secretly always desired to have the big traditional 21st). However (not surprising) my mother was all to0 eager to have a big celebration with all my family members and friends. In the words of my mother, the celebration was for me and not about me, so I had no choice – it was happening, I was going to be Miss Party and planner.
Now anyone who knows my family knows that, we don’t do small gatherings. With my mother, as a natural born organiser and events planner – either you go big or go home. So from October, I had been planning alongside my mother about how we were going to ring in my 21st. I was excited, anxious and dreading the planning.
My family is quite cultural and no stranger to imicimbi (traditional ceremonies) and following cultural practices. As a mix between Shona and Zulu, I am privileged to follow both cultures. However, since the Shona culture does not have a specific ceremony for the coming of age of a womxn, we decided that it was only right to have umemulo to celebrate my 21st.
So for those of you who may be wondering what umemulo is, fear not – I’ve got you covered.
uMemulo is umcimbi, which is done by parents, to their child (girl) for “good” behavior during her childhood. Once a young womxn had reached the age of – 21 or above, then this event may take place – It signifies more on the tradition and culture of The Zulu Tribe. A happy gathering for my family to show and share their pride with me and invited guests. Some of the rituals involve slaughtering a cow (in honour of the womxn omulayo) and ukusina (traditional zulu dancing) involving a umkhonto (spear). A womxn’s Umemulo ceremony signifies that the she is now ready to be an adult and run her own affairs. A cow is slaughtered a day before the ceremony – congratulating the young womxn for growing up, and also to thank the ancestors for keeping the daughter safely.
Behind The Scenes
A lot of preparation happens before the actual day and emotions are high. Butterflies filled my tummy as things began to materialise and the realisation that it was really happening. Some of my friends, grandmother, abo-aunty and siblings were there to help with the preparations. The other maidens (izimpelesi) girls started to arrive for rehearsals and it was all starting to sink in. You can imagine how stressful it can be. Two days after my exams, a week before umcimbi I was accompanied by impelesi yami (my best friend/sista who was my main maiden for the ceremony) to go to collect umkhonto from my maternal grandparents.
We got back to joburg the following day after a night kwaNongoma to fetch the spear and only left with a few days before Pardy time. So as suburban girls that we (izimpelesi zami and I) are, my mother hired traditional zulu dancers to come and help us learn ukusina and the songs that would accompany the dances. We had 2 days to learn and perfect 3 songs. Now I’m no singer and quite frankly should not be allowed to sing in public alone, and now I had to lead the crew for the ceremony (horror face) – thank God for Busi (my main maiden). Rehearsals were interesting – I did lose my cool quite a few times when I couldn’t get the steps right and when everyone was trying to have a say and forgetting their role. But I had to take several deep (i mean really deep) breaths and remember they didn’t have to be there but they were and I was grateful for that (thanks ladies #BESTTEAM). The day (umemulo) was about having fun and revel in the celebration of my day.
THEE Day 5 Dec 2015
The nerves kicked in! As guests were being seated outside, where we would sina, I got dressed and prepped privately. I was dressed in traditional Zulu attire, covering my shoulders with animal skin (instead of the layer of fat taken out of the cow’s stomach) and a black skirt made of cowhide (isidwaba). Finally at one pm everyone was seated. It was time. Despite what felt like my heart beating out of my chest, we assembled outside and the singing began. With people gathered around Es’cgawini – my dad led me out to the center of the gathering and Izimpelesi followed behind me, elders ululating (felt like a princess for sure). It was such a beautiful moment!!!
After every song, a few of us would step out and approach the audience starting with my family members and then friends. I would leave a spear in front of them and go back to the line to join the other girls then who ever I gave the spear to would follow and pin money on my head (only family allowed to pin money to my head, the rest would put it in a basket). I had a hair net on to pin the money (cha ching, I’m talking notes). After an hour of dancing, singing and money giving/collecting, people were starving and parched! It was HOT, marinating in the sun!!!
After the traditional part, I had the western part of a 21st celebration, speeches, lectures, etc. I changed out of my traditional attire and into a modern african print two piece. The day was an awesome success. A Blessed day filled with so much love and laughter! One I will never forget…
Images: Sphe Photography