Like the leopard skins that we discussed here, beer (utshwala or umqomboti) has strong links to the customs of Zulu speakers. Traditionally made exclusively by women, beer used to be a staple part of diet in the nineteenth century, with King Cetshwayo apparently referring to it as ‘the food of the Zulus’.
Today the brewing and drinking of utshwala is more of a tradition than it is a part of everyday life. Beer forms an integral part of many ceremonies, such as funerals, marriages and lobola negotiations. An important aspect of traditional beer is that it is always drunk with the ancestors who are thought to provide good fortune to one’s household, provided that they are shown respect (ukuhlonipha amadlozi). Sometimes a small portion of utshwala will be poured onto the ground where the ancestors are thought to live, but usually beer in an umancishana (a small, undecorated pot) will be left for the ancestors in the back of the house or hut. Another interesting point to note is that beer should never be drunk alone but rather it should always be shared amongst family and friends.
During ceremonies or customary practices, there is an order in which people drink utshwala. The woman responsible for brewing the beer must always drink first in order to show that it is safe. The next person to sample the drink will be the person to whom the ceremony is dedicated. This is so that the ancestors know who to focus their attention on. Subsequently, the host or head of the household will drink the beer, followed by the oldest in the paternal line, as they are the persons closest to the ancestors.
So while beer may no longer be ‘the food of the Zulus’, it still very much feeds the soul, reconnecting people to their families, and their ancestors, who are always ever present.
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