We’ve been talking a lot lately about the different stages involved in a Zulu wedding, and with today being Valentines Day it seemed only appropriate that we should continue our theme of love, and look at something that happens right at the beginning of a relationship between a Zulu boy and girl – the exchange of a beaded ucu necklace.
Zulu beadwork is not only beautiful to look at, the patterns and colours used often contain hidden messages – little brooches* passed between couples courting are sometimes erroneously referred to as ucu, but in truth an ucu, given to a man by a young woman, has even greater significance. Far simpler than the intricate brooches, a traditional ucu is made of a string of white beads, up to five meters long, sometimes finished off with a blue and white tassel. The white is a symbol of love and purity, with the blue tassel indicating chastity and fidelity. The ucu acts as an engagement ring of sorts, and is initially worn by the man at the couple’s engagement ceremony, and afterwards by the woman, although in some instances both the man and the woman wear an ucu.
It’s important to note that an ucu is never made with black beads, with black being the colour of sorrow and despair – although when combined with blue and white, it also a symbol of marriage, so it’s necessary to understand the colour combinations used in Zulu beading. But a black ucu, particularly one finished off with a yellow tassel, is not something any man wants to receive! The pale yellow is referred to in Zulu as uthuvi benkonyane, the excrement of a calf, so the colour combination expressed in the form of an ucu is not a pleasant message! One such ucu was supposedly placed around the neck of a dog belonging to a man who had broken off his engagement to his girlfriend – his dog wondering around the village wearing a black and yellow ucu was all the jilted fiancée needed to say!
* The correct term for these beaded brooches is ibheqe