Praise poet and cultural activist, Jessica Mbangeni, strongly encourages women to pay a special interest in their culture and heritage before dismissing it as ‘backwards’.
A single mother of two, Mbangeni, lives seamlessly between the different realms and has taken it upon herself to educate others on the origins and deeper meaning behind some Xhosa traditions, especially around the coming of age of a woman.
Despite most city-based women’s struggles with coming to terms with traditions and applying them in their day-to-day lives in the same way their parents did, Mbangeni says people are quick to dismiss cultural rituals without even wanting to learn and understanding them.
“As modern black women we disown our traditions and heritage and call them ‘backwards’, yet we are quick to adopt other people’s cultures, especially those of Eastern origins without even understanding their meaning. For us to know where we are going, we need to first find and then embrace our own roots and be anchored,” she explains.
“Traditions are an authentic and a necessary way of life, no amount of education or wealth should divorce a person from their culture. It’s too easy for us to discard that which we were brought up with and choose ‘sophisticated’ ways of living without appreciating that our culture is our foundation and an important part of our being.
“You find that when the going gets tough and life catches up with us, we consider Asian ways of life, such as going to a Bhuddist retreat to rid ourselves of stress, instead of looking for solutions within our culture,” explains Mbangeni. She adds that modern, black women needed to change their mindsets and begin authentic conversations with elders from their families as part of the learning process.
“On the surface our cultures look shocking and can be unpalatable. Yet, when they take the time and interest, they find the beauty of these. Take for example Intonjana, a girl’s right of passage to womanhood. It is one of the most misunderstood traditions and others even compare it to female circumcision, which results in genital mutilation.
On the surface our cultures look shocking and can be unpalatable. Yet, when they take the time and interest, they find the beauty of these
The truth is that this is a beautiful time and the young woman is isolated for a specific time so that she can meditate and come to understand what transitioning from a girl to a woman means. During this time, she gets words of advice from women from her community. It has more depth than a 21st birthday, but is a similar concept.”
Mbangeni says the various traditions have specific roles as one charts her life.
“I have no doubt that we would be much more powerful if we didn’t undermine our cultures,” she adds.
Bridget Nkuna, founder and MD of Owami Women and Children Development Foundation also subscribes to the notion that one’s culture is an important aspect throughout the journey of life. Nkuna is unapologetic about the importance of cultural values and describes herself as a modern traditionalist.
“We’ve become modern girls, yet our values are still African. We say I’m able and capable of doing things for myself, but there are those who need me to consult the elders, who travelled the road before my generation.
“Our traditions have their own beauty and charm and I fail to understand why it is so easy for modern, successful women to discard traditions such as ilobolo as irrelevant, yet be quick to embrace other cultures and even religions,” says Nkuna.
A mother of three, she reveals that she would be disappointed if her daughter suddenly lost interest in her traditions. To prepare her young children, she lets them experience the journey and explains the importance of culture in an easy-to-digest way.
“I believe that ilobolo is still as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. The format may have changed from the groom offering his bride’s family live cattle, to conducting electronic, monetary transactions. However, what has not changed is the fact that ilobolo is about building a relationship between the two families.
“My daughter is only nine, but I tell her that I will accept ilobolo for her one day because it will be a token of her fiancé’s family thanking our family for bringing up my child to become one of them. Not doing it would be the biggest disappointment to me because it would mean that I have lost my values and sense of identity – something I pride myself in.”