Nambya traditional marriages

by Rutendo Mapfumo,

— NEVER Tshuma is a stumpy, bow-legged youth, with a nose that spreads half across his pimply face and for a Nambya man, it is time to marry. As is the norm, he has to go through rigorous tests for maturity and depth of character in order to beaccepted by the bride’s family.

Early in the morning, the time that elephants normally bath in the Zambezi, (euphemistically known here as Kasambabezi) before daybreak, the girl’s aunts or grandmothers take him to the river for his first test.
Dense bushes and thorns grow on either side of the path to the river. Thorn bushes tear their clothes and feet and help shake off the lethargy of sleep. It is a test of strength.

Nambya women sing at a gathering

Quickly they strip him and bath him in cold river water, systematically watching out for the crocodile. Here many a times, the crocodile is not seen coming but the trained eye of the baNambya elders can easily notice the crocodile by its sentry-post eyes that form a lining on top of the water as it swiftly moves for its prey.
Never is cold but he should not shiver, for, shivering and gnashing of teeth from the cold is a sign of weakness. The aunts take their time to clothe him. Yes, he has passed this one but more is yet to come.

The Nambya occupy the swathe of land between Hwange town and Zambezi and share part of the land with the Tonga.
They both centre their diet on fishing and here the Zambezi is the vein that carries the blood of life.
After the mighty Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River, immediately narrows into swift gorges and a plethora of uncharacteristic meanders, frothing and seething on its journey to the Indian Ocean but not before passing through Kariba Dam.
The stretch between the falls and Kariba has banks frequented by the Nambya and Tonga people, the indigenes of the southern banks of the river since time immemorial.

Here marriage is still something else. The initiation and acceptance tests could act as deterrent as much as they encourage long lasting marriages. Normally, marriages are encouraged in winter, when its dead cold and the man’s strength of character can be tested.  Family gatherings in preparation for welcoming a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law have always been a joy for most parents. Slaughtering of the fattest goat, the cleaning up and the rearranging of the homestead is done to give the warmest welcome to the new member of the family.

In most cases the homestead is nothing more than a cluster of laid back mud-and-pole huts, thatched with spear grass. But it is home still. The edgy movement of different members of the family in trying to negotiate the payment of the bride price makes the two different families hate or love each other.
But like in any modern day society there has been heated debate on whether the payment of lobola is still necessary, with some arguing that the process has been commercialised and some viewing marriages as a “safe haven” and marriage certificates as “title deeds’’ to secure one’s property which needs to be protected.
Traditionally, in Nambyan society an unmarried woman or man was termed “incomplete’’ until he found a spouse to complete her or him. A retrospective look into how some societies such as the baNambya tribe carry out this practice would assist in determining whether the practice still has any relevancy in the modern society.
In the Nambya culture, marriage has been conducted in basically three ways, which include kuhwaya, tobela and kutizhisa. As the societies get more and more enlightened some other forms of marriages have outlived themselves, for instance kutizhisa and tobela.
For the couple to be pronounced husband and wife, the groom has to go through a process that shows appreciation by paying what ishasha. The payment would be in the form of goats. Payment is categorised differently and includes chivulandomo, imbuji yokwa tate namai and, pyangi lani yo kuno. After these payments, the groom to be goes to his in-laws with izhendeji for a place to sleep.
Early the following day, the grandmother or aunt takes the bride for the cold bath. They oil the groom, taking note if he is a weakling or not for cold water symbolises the hardships of life.
Another test for the groom is called mashaja. In this case, a meal of sadza and meat is prepared and placed in one plate from which the bridegroom and the bride eat at the same time and throw the first morsels away at the same time.
Thereafter the groom is given a final test for “greediness” in which he shares his food with the bride’s younger sister. They monitor if he does not eat more than the girl, to see if he is caring.
The bridegroom also goes through reproductive tests with elders. The young man is made to suck a row egg and if he vomits then he is not productive and if he can stand the raw egg then he is a man.
The final test is masturbating in front of the elderly men who make him ejaculate in water and if the sperm sinks then he is a powerful man and if it floats, his marriage proposal is disapproved.
He is given a second chance to prove his mettle by going back to his elders to be given some kubhikilwa herbal concoction to strengthen his manhood.
The bride also visits her in-laws where she proves her womanhood by doing household chores. When she arrives at her in-laws she is not supposed to get into the house before they pay her a welcome fee. In the process called kusapa bwinga, she is paid in the form of chicken and the payment was known as makwelelo.
However, in all ways the bride’s virginity is very important and is celebrated. If the bride was a virgin, the family of the groom would carry a pot full of beer to the in-laws as an indication of the virginity and also praise the parents of the bride that they took great care of their child. If she is deflowered, she fails the test.
The bride also goes through bedroom lessons so that she is a complete woman.  Her grandmothers teach her how to handle a man practically and theoretically. The idea is to kit or tool her so that she satisfies her husband.

Of interest is the fact that inheritance is still abound.  In cases where the bridegroom dies, the brother of the deceased takes over the wife in what is called kungwina mumba. This is done even without the consent of the wife herself. If she refuses, her father would then return all the malobolo and the ishasha originally paid.
In this case if she wants to remarry somewhere else, she can, but the children from the previous marriage remain with their original family.

The passage of time has seen so many aspects of the Nambya culture change, though not much. Modernisation and the technological advancement have changed the value of marriages in Nambyan society.
The infusion of the other cultures has seen some unappealing aspects of marriage being dropped although the payment of lobola remains essential in all marriages.
However, even though the other forms are falling by the wayside, paying lobola is still central to all marriages.
Due to modernisation, the payment of the lobola has been hijacked by parents who view this as way of self-enrichment.
This has, to some extent influenced an increase in single parents as some sons-in–law cannot stand parting away with their dollars, some couples have opted for what is called “steady date’’ or “live –in’’ boyfriend or girlfriend where the couple stays together without paying lobola.

Traditionally, in the Nambya society, kuhwaya, as a form of marriage, was practised by the wealthy and is said to be more dignified than other forms.

According to the director of the Nambya Cultural Association, Lawrence Chinyati, the kuhwaya form of marriage is a type of marriage which creates an inseparable bond between the joined families. Families from both the bride and the groom gather as the bride formally introduces his groom in the form of a ceremony.  After the ceremony the groom brings two goats, a he-goat to be slaughtered by his family members and a she-goat to be slaughtered by the bridegroom’s family. This symbolises unity among the two families.

Kutizhisa is another form of marriage but most women don’t like it because it is done against their will. When a girl is born, her aunts and the grandmothers match-make her, with their desired man. The “desired man’’ would pay all the lobola and then the girl would be asked to go stay with him as his wife despite her tender age.

Kutobela is another form of marriage. This is also an unusual form of marriage as it assaults the rights of the female counterparts. A man approaches a girl he admires and fondles her breasts in public and of course, without her consent and she is then forced to follow him because if she does not follow it invites the wrath of the family’s ancestral lineage and brings a bad omen to her family.
As this would have been done publicly, the two families know what will have transpired. He would then pay lobola. The payment of the bride price is procedural.  Firstly after the bride to be approves the proposal, the groom looks for a mediator, izhendeji, the go-between.Izhendeji goes to the groom’s family to ask for a hand in marriage, if the two families agree, then the right steps are taken.

Far away from the cities, the Nambya remain largely closed out and neatly held together by their cultural beliefs. Divorce is still not common. It takes a lot of trouble to divorce. As for the future of this tribe, only time will tell.

reprinted from The Herald Online