Umemulo, Coming of Age Ceremony

Last week we wrote about the initiation ceremony for Zulu boys, and this week it’s the turn of the girls, well actually young women.

Traditionally umemulo is centred around the idea that a girl has maintained her virginity until she’s ready to find a long-term partner, although supposedly in some contemporary circles women are taking part in the ceremony much older, and after they have lost their virginity. Also more and more young girls are shying away from the umemulo ceremony because it is considered embarrassing in modern society. Even in rural villages, girls have begun to rebel against the idea. Some believe that without this important rite, girls are more likely to engage in sex at a young age, falling pregnant out of wedlock, and contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

Community members pinning money to a 'bride's' head
Community members pinning money to a ‘bride’s’ head

The umemulo ceremony is a coming of age ritual that’s performed when a woman reaches a marriageable age, nor3mally 21 or older, and is presented as a virgin to the community by her family as a public announcement of the young girl’s readiness to be courted and enter into a marriage that is blessed by her parents. But while the ceremony only take place when a girl is a young adult, the preparation for the ceremony starts many years before when a girl has her first period. From that day onwards, she is sat down and taught about being a Zulu girl, woman and mother. In some villages in KwaZulu-Natal, girls attend virginity testing every month until the age of 21, or until they get married. These classes are not only about virginity testing, but also offer lessons on life and the challenges that they will go through as women. Here, a girl is taught respect for herself and to not allow anyone to treat her otherwise.

Before the umemulo ceremony the girl, who is referred to as a bride, traditionally spends at least a week indoors and no one must see her, not even her mother and father. The only visitors are girls from surrounding areas, her ‘bridesmaids’, who come during the night to dance with her. The family buy a cow for the bride and present it to her on the eve of the ceremony, when she is allowed outside to welcome her cow, but only after covering herself with a blanket. After welcoming the cow the girls sing and return to the room. Spirits are very high as potential husbands and the family boys slaughter the cow. Every single part of the cow has a part to play in the ceremony, with the cow fat being used to wrap around the bride on the day of the ceremony. This fat must not break as this is seen as a sign that the girl is no longer a virgin.

On the eve of the ceremony, all the girls must sleep by the river. They leave the bride’s home in the middle of the night in song, completely naked and only covered by a blanket as they head to the river. They spend the night by the river, sitting around a fire and singing and dancing. In the early hours of the morning the bride is taken away and tested to confirm whether or not she is still a virgin. Once the test is finished, the older women sing and shout as confirmation that the ceremony can continue as planned.

The girls then bathe in the river and wait until the father of the bride calls for them. The girls are all dressed in traditional Zulu attire and the bride is presented with a spear (umkhonto), a symbol of her victory and strength. When she gets to the front of her home she will throw the spear down and wherever it lands her father, or head of the home, will run shouting words of praise and dancing to show his gratitude and pride. After the girls have cleansed themselves the girl’s family and the rest of the community will join in the festivities. When guests arrive the young woman points the spear at guests and they pin gifts of money to the garment on her head.

The money serves the practical purpose of assisting her financially in setting up a home, and secondly, it signifies the well wishes of the community for her future married life.

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