Changing material culture among the Ndebele after colonisation


IN the last issues I dwelt on the ethnicity of the Ndebele people and also alluded to the fact that, ethnic groups do not always stand as opponents to the development of a nation and that they sometimes complement efforts at developing an inclusive nation.
The Ndebele, like other African people, combined functionality and artistic traditions that were carriers of their cognitive culture.
The surfaces of items that they made, such as sleeping mats, clay pots, leather coats, (ingubhamazwi), headrests (imithiya) carried motifs that were part of their culture.
The decorative designs were repositories of their intangible heritage, each with rich, specific meanings and associated histories.
Colonisation, principally enacted through Christian evangelism, sought to change the beliefs of the Ndebele.
The basis of material culture was thus battered and there was little left to sustain the traditional material culture.
A notable example is how Tshaka’s short stabbing spear called the ‘assegai’ revolutionised warfare at the time.
The spear could not, however, compare to the gun and historians say that was the reason why Mzilikazi was keen to acquire some from the missionaries and other traders.
The greatest change to material culture took place after colonisation.
Though taking place at a faster pace, not all areas were changed at once.
Items of material culture provide much more than utility, some carry decorative designs which increase their worth or value with time.
Some come in attractive colours that add value to the items, the same objects, depending on the degree of artistry in their manufacture, colour code, decorative designs, will vary in value and thus their possession will correspond to different socio economic status.
High value items were the preserve of the royalty and the elite (Abezansi).
An item made from a rhino horn belonged to the king; the ruler always appeared fully clad in the prized leopard skin.
When the beads were introduced, certain colours of beads were reserved for the royalty.
In addition to value addition, new items of material culture were prized and initially found their way to the capital town and residence of important chiefs. According to historians, pink coloured beads (isantubane) were a preserve for the royal queens.
This means that the entry point for exotic materials and items was the Ndebele royal residence.
Excavation records of the Old Bulawayo at the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo provide ample evidence for that.
Here were found ox-wagons, gold chains, chairs, Western clothes such as boots, pairs of trousers, shirts, hats, smoking pipes, guns and ammunition, beads of a myriad colours, a bullet mould and horse saddles, among several other items of exotic origin.
Most of the new items were used as substitutes, for functions that had until then been performed by indigenous items.
For example, the broad brimmed hat replaced the ostrich pompom headgear.
The chair replaced the headrest and stool which doubled as a pillow.
The smoking pipe likewise replaced a cruder locally made pipe.
The boots replaced sandals.
The new items might have looked somewhat different but they performed the same functions.
Historians note that it was common for the king to revert to traditional attire during ritual ceremonies such as Inxwala.
For certain events and ceremonies, traditional regalia were still being regarded as superior or more appropriate.
This was so prior to colonisation.
After colonisation, the ceremonies were discontinued together with their relevant regalia, songs and dances.
However, there were some exotic items that were retained during ritual ceremonies.
The question that may be asked is why the new items were adopted and used in favour of the old ones.
Convenience seems to have been an important consideration.
The cast iron three legged pot quickly replaced the clay pot as a cooking vessel. The pots, which are still in use today, were obtained through trade and the same went for enamel plates and cups.
Durability was another important consideration. The three legged pot, made from cast iron was more durable than a clay pot that could break once it is dropped.
The enamel cup was more durable than the gourd cup.
Aesthetic value was also important.
Before the beads were introduced, the Ndebele wore items made from twisted fibre.
Plaited grass had also been worn around the wrists.
Through contact with the white traders, hunters and missionaries, the Ndebele got to acquire beads.
As noted by Ndebele elders, beads were the most prized items of trade in Matabeleland in the 19th century and the ladies of rich families, especially members of the royalty, always turned out on ceremonial occasions richly adorned with colourful strings of beads.
Beadwork is very important to the Ndebele.
They used beads in traditional ways as in other societies; they also used beads as a means of communication, especially in the form of love letters.
The colour and arrangement of the beads denoted the intention.
For instance, red means passion or anger, deep blue signifies elopement and pale blue are a symbol of true love.
Although there is a hierarchy of chiefs within Ndebele society, their structure is much looser than the Zulus even in the usage of material culture.
There were items that were new and some of them had to be found, this was the case with shirts, trousers for men and blouses for women.
The traders, hunters and missionaries traded cloth.
The Ndebele acquired these items and the women quickly used them in the place of the richly pleated leather skirts.
To be continued


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