The Xangani (Shangaan) people
In the south-east lowveld of Zimbabwe reside a unique and wonderful people of Zimbabwe that have for centuries managed to preserve their culture to date. The MaChangana people (SHANGAAN) are proud of their hunter gatherer culture which recognises the importance of respecting the environment.
The five Chiefs of the MaChangana; Tshovani, Sengwe, Mpapa, Mahenye and Gudo and their respective Headmen, being custodians of the MaChangana Culture have despite the interaction with tourists managed to hold onto their traditional way of life. In fact, to date they have started making efforts to promote their tradition and culture.
A MaChangana Promotion Association that includes local councillors, Members of Parliament and interested members of the community has been set up to maintain and promote the culture and traditions of the MaChangana people and to ensure that this heritage is passed on to future generations through an annual cultural festival.
Besides promoting the rich and diverse traditions of the MaChangana people, which include dress and beadware, food and traditional hunting methods, music and dancing, poetry and storytelling (Karengano and Tsekelelo), home building and wall decorations, Saila (annual fish drives), male initiation to adulthood (Ngomeni), and female initiation to adulthood (Khomba), this culture and arts festival also seeks to promote the history of early settlements and recording of historical events.
Some elements of the MaChangana culture and tradition that are still in existence include:
MALE INITIATION TO ADULTHOOD (NGOMENI)
Circumcision as a rite in the passage to adulthood has always been a potent force in Changana culture. Before being considered an adult, uncircumcised Changana men and boys are obliged to spend a month in isolation from their families at remote secret bush camps undergoing strict instruction and tuition as to the ways of adulthood.
After the actual act of circumcision, each initiate spends time recovering from the operation and taking further instruction while in the bush. At last the great day arrives when all preparations for the final “passing out” of the initiates are in place and the NGOMENI (ceremony of approval) is held at certain Chiefs’ villages as appropriate.
Initiates dress all in white, with beaded head-dresses and shorn heads. They carry striped pairs of ceremonial sticks which they have each made while out in the bush. Led by the ‘professors’ and protectors they have studied under in the bush, they gather in regimental lines outside the Chief’s village, heads downcast in supplication and wait…
Excited and nervous mothers and families gather in anticipation, dressed traditionally in Chibabela skirts and carrying sleeping mats made from reeds for their initiate sons and brothers to sit upon, since during the final ceremony initiates may not let any part of their bodies touch the earth.
Now the initiates shuffle forward, heads down, into the Chief’s presence, accompanied by the ecstatic and chanting mothers who lay mats for them as the long lines snake into place and the initiates are seated before the Chief and headmen. They beat their striped sticks in unison – an eerie and powerful sound….
The colourful women dance troupes of the host village perform a stamping, jumping dance in front of the initiates and the Chief. The ceremony is long, exhausting and many young initiates droop in the heat, to be offered water from gourds by their protectors.
At last the initiates stand, considered to be adult men now! As they exit the ceremonial ground, their families fall into place beside them, dancing and singing with joy and escorting them home, enveloped in clouds of happy dust, to their individual villages where the festivities will continue unabated for days.
FEMALE INITIATION TO ADULTHOOD (KHOMBA):
Much as Changana men undergo certain rites of passage to be considered adult, so do Changana women, but circumcision is never part of the ceremony. The girls undergo a month of strict isolation from village life, with teachers to guide them, and are instructed in the ways of child-bearing, home-building and culture that adult women are required to know.
When they pass out, they are said to have undergone Khomba, and wear red caps with pins adorning the rims, which passers-by are expected to contribute to by donating more pins. Great ceremony is observed, but not in as spectacular a way as the male Ngomeni.
SAILA (ANNUAL FISH DRIVE):
In October 2011, two of the local traditional Chiefs, Tshovani and Mahenye organized a Saila – a traditional and a sustainable method of harvesting fish.
The SAILA employs the use of traditional tools such as fish traps, nets and interlaced reed screens. These fish drives used to be done annually based around the great rivers of the Gonarezhou Park- the Save and the Runde rivers, and all the harvested fish were shared equally among the two chiefs and their people.
In an effort to try and restore the glory of the Changana tradition, the current Changana chiefs received National Parks permission to continue this valued tradition. Stakeholders were informed and invited, including National Parks. This function was also supported by Parks since they supplied food and fuel.
A team of about sixty men was selected to begin the SAILA preparations, this included cutting of the reeds and making of the screens. A suitable pool was also located in the Runde River and the day of the SAILA appointed.
Before the SAILA began, an elder entered the pool first and walked across twice, with traditional medicine in his hands, to dissuade any crocodiles from attacking people, after which the fish harvest commenced. On his command, the team got into the pool and started pushing the reed screens.
Crocodiles were encountered twice but were not a deterrent and it took about four hours to push the SAILA screens through the eighty metre long pool. Though it was such a risky and gruesome quest, the fish harvest was only about 35kgs, but the elders seemed well satisfied with the proceedings. The species with the highest number caught was tiger fish and other fish species were identified after the whole process.
MUSIC AND DANCING:
Many different, exuberant dances are performed, with names such as Muchongoyo, Chokoto, Marula, Chinyambele and Chigubu.
Men wearing grass, cowrie shell and porcupine quill headdresses and armbands, are often adorned with wild animal skins or goat skin skirts, and wear gourd leg rattles.
Women wear the traditional Chibabela skirts, with multiple strands of twisted beads wrapped around their hips and adorning their necks. Wire bracelets adorn their bare ankles.
A kudu horn is treasured as a lead musical instrument, as are wood and skin drums. Musical wind and string instruments such as Tingoma, Chizembe, and Chitende are still made. Women also enjoy the piercing sound of tin whistles to lead their dance troops.
POETRY AND STORYTELLING (KARENGANO AND TSEKELELO):
A vibrant tradition of oral story telling survives, with engaging and amusing, often dramatic and semi-tragic animal and human characters as the protagonists. I call it Changana rap! Chanting and repetition engage the listeners, who frequently and enthusiastically respond with known chorus lines.
FOOD AND TRADITIONAL HUNTING METHODS:
Food is locally produced; maize and sorghum being staple crops, and herds of brightly coloured Nguni-type cattle are kept. Traditional beer is brewed from sorghum. Well shaped, very large clay pots are skilfully made for storing beer and water, and for cooking every day meals. Delicious and potent palm wine is made by tapping the growing tip of Hyphaene palms (Ilala palms). Traditional hunting methods are revered, with the construction of well-crafted, multiple barbed fishing spears, fish traps and bows and arrows.
Such is the life of the MaChangana people, who live on the borders of the Gonarezhou National Park and the Greater Limpopo Trans-frontier Conservation Area.