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XXhosa tradition is an extremely powerful social force binding together these people of Eastern Cape province, most evident in Xhosa beliefs revering their ancestors. The original ancestor is Tshawe, but it is direct family members that Xhosa people call upon for guidance, support and to turn the tide of favour.
The Xhosa number approximately 7.1-million, the majority of whom live in Eastern Cape, and ancient traditions remain strong in this proud people. They are descended from the Nguni, who began migrating south from central and northern Africa more than a thousand years ago.
The Xhosa comprise a number of clans such as Gcaleka, Ngika, Ndlambe, Dushane and the Qayi. A certain amount of intermarriage with the Khoisan people they found here also gave rise to clans like the Gqunkhwebe.
Enchantment winds through the Xhosa language, dress and rituals. Their language is often called the ‘click’ language because of its three dominant clicks, which entered the isiXhosa language when the Nguni arrivals mixed with the Khoisan.
In Xhosa culture, women are easily recognised by their heavy dress, matching turban and coloured dots decorating their faces. If a woman has children, whom she has raised to be adults, then it is usual to find her seated among her peers smoking a long-handled pipe.
Beadwork similar to the Ndebele is an integral aspect of Xhosa tradition. It forms part of the ornamentation that reflects the different stages of a woman’s life. A certain headdress will be a worn by a newly married girl, while a woman who has just given birth to her first child will wear a differently styled headdress.
Xhosa beliefs recognise the presence of ancestral spirits and a supreme authority. The spirits of those who have passed on are honoured in rituals and ceremonies. They are called upon for guidance, support, or to turn the tide of fortune. The ceremonial slaughtering of animals is one of the many ways by which ancestors are invoked.
Xhosa beliefs dictate that people turn to a diviner or healer, usually attired in a headdress and shawl of fur, when needing advice on how to deal with the spirits, help with illnesses, or to ward off evil from unnatural forces such as the tokoloshe − a potentially malevolent goblin who attacks at night. Other figures are the huge lightning bird (impundudu), and the gentle abantu bomlambo − aquatic human-like beings who accept into their family those who drown.