Xhosa umkhapho ritual
Did you know?
The isiXhosa language is spoken by many distinct clans including the Thembu, Bomvana, Mpondo, and others.
The Xhosa people of South Africa believe that when a person dies, umkhapho rituals should be performed in order to facilitate the movement of the deceased to the realm of the ancestors. Such a movement is considered necessary so that they can be free to return and advise the living later.
Ritual slaughter is required for the umkhapho ritual. The nature of the animal slaughtered depends on the social status of the person being buried. Oxen may be slaughtered for a very important person, while a goat may be slaughtered for others.
Before a Xhosa umkhapho slaughter takes place, the officiator calls on the ancestors of the clan by name. After the ritual throat slitting, blood is collected in a dish and a small strip of meat, known as the intsonyama, is cut from the inside muscle of the right foreleg and roasted. No salt should be used on the meat.
Male kin, followed by the female kin, in order of seniority, each eat a small portion of the meat. The general feasting will only take place after the intsonyama has been consumed. This is a very sombre occasion and no fermented sorghum beer is consumed.
After a variable period of mourning, the umbuyiso ritual is performed. Umbuyiso literally means to bring the spirit of the ancestor back home. The umbuyiso ritual is often prompted by dreams in which the deceased person appears to a member of the family and says that they are hungry. An ox is slaughtered and the intsonyama is again cut and consumed.
Unlike the umkhapho, the umbuyiso is a very festive event involving the brewing of fermented sorghum beer, some of which is offered to the ancestors, with the living drinking the rest.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Eastern Cape Tourism
Tel: +27(0)43 701 9600
How to get here
The Eastern Cape is the centre of Xhosa culture. Both Port Elizabeth and East London airports are serviced by SAA and BA/Comair. Mthatha Airport can be used to access the Wild Coast.
Best time to visit
Xhosa umkhapho rituals aren’t open to the general public. You’d need the services of a specialist tour operator, and the permission of the village chief to attend such a ceremony.
The coastal areas of the Eastern Cape are at their best between January and May.
Around the area
The Wild Coast is known for its stunning beaches, unspoiled landscapes, fishing, swimming, and surfing. Take care, as the seas here can be rough.
Tours to do
Numerous hikes and horse trails are available along the Eastern Cape Coast.
Self-drive, or the services of a tour operator are recommended when visiting the Wild Coast. Alternatively use the hop-on and hop-off backpacker Baz Bus.
What to pack
The Eastern Cape can be extremely hot in summer. Sun protection and insect repellent are necessary.
Where to stay
If invited to attend an umkhapho ritual, you’d mostly likely overnight as a guest in the village, perhaps for a small fee.
Other accommodation options along the Wild Coast include family-run hotels, community-owned campsites, eco-backpacker lodges, and self-catering cottages.
What to eat
Eastern Cape seafood is hard to beat. Try traditional delicacies such as umpoqhoko (maize and sour milk) and umngqushu (a maize and bean melange).
You’ll find crafts and trinkets for sale in many of the villages, and along the roadside.