|THE SOCIOLOGY OF TSHIKANDA
The sociological significance of Venda initiation is particularly well illustrated by tshikanda, the 'puberty' school that is not a puberty school but a prelude to the pre-marital initiation school, domba. It has a claim to be considered in the same light as the 'puberty' school (vhusha), because its milayo, songs and dances are largely interchangeable, and the Venda themselves choose to call it vhusha ha halwa (vhusha of beer). It is, of course, absurd that a girl should attend two puberty schools, if indeed they are puberty schools. Thus, I suggest that vhusha is not really a puberty school, but a school that is generally expected to take place after a girl has had her first menses; and that vhusha ha halwa, or tshikanda, is another, similar school which should take place shortly before marriage. The question also arises whether one should call these phenomenon 'initiations', when the second is largely a repetition of the first. However, even if there are not enough novelties in the content of tshikanda to warrant the category of 'initiation', at least its form and sociological meaning entitle it to be regarded as a new phase in the social progress of a Venda woman.
Stayt (1931:112) and van Warmelo (1932:53-54) describe tshikanda as part of the domba pre-marital initiation school for boys and girls. According to van Warmelo, it takes places shortly before domba; but Stayt reports that it lasts for one night at the beginning of domba. Both reports are based on the accounts of informants.
After attending two zwikanda (plural form) in the Thengwe district in 1957, I reported briefly that it is a separate school lasting four or five weeks (Blacking 1957:11). I subsequently attended tshikanda in other districts, and all schools lasted at least a month. I therefore discussed the conflicting reports with some of the old ladies in charge of the schools, since I thought that the initiation might have changed over the course of thirty years. My informants insisted that it had always lasted a month and, although it is possible that in some districts it may last only one night, I believe this to be unlikely, both because it provides the girls of ruling families with their only official opportunity to learn certain songs and dances, and because of what I consider to be the history of the other initiation schools for girls.
The important Venda social distinction between nobles (vhakololo, i.e. children or patrilineal descendants of a chief) and commoners (vhasiwana) is observed differently at the three initiation schools. Girls who qualify as nobles attend a separate vhusha, at which they must graduate through three stages which are called by the same names as those of the commoners' vhusha. Nobles merely 'wash' (-amba), whereas commoners dance and are 'sung for' (-imbelwa). Commoners may not attend the nobles' schools, but nobles who have passed the first stage of their own school may attend commoners' schools, in order to learn the songs and dances. This is entirely voluntary, however.
Because there is no music at the nobles' vhusha, girls of noble birth could attend domba and subsequently be married without ever having performed the songs and dances of the commoners' vhusha or learnt the 'wisdom' (milayo). If there were no mechanism by which nobles were compelled to learn the skills of the commoners' vhusha, rulers would lose control over the initiation of commoner women in their districts. The existence of tshikanda, which consists chiefly of a repetition of the songs, dances and 'wisdom' of vhusha, ensures that every noble woman knows all about the commoners' schools, which are always held in the households of rulers, as well as about her own school, which a commoner may not attend. This important function of tshikanda further confirms that it must have always lasted more than one night, which would hardly be adequate for learning over forty new songs and dances and numerous milayo.
The existence of separate schools for commoners and nobles, with and without music respectively, can be explained by reference to Venda political history. Although the three girls' schools are sponsored by headmen and chiefs, most of whom are the descendants of the ruling clans who came to Vendaland about two centuries ago, there is good reason to believe that at least the commoners' vhusha and the domba school were taken over from the original inhabitants of Vendaland (see Blacking 1968). Hence the new rulers might have instituted tshikanda, or have developed it from a simpler original, as a means of establishing their influence over initiation that 'belonged' to commoners, and of incorporating their women into the pattern without sacrificing their exclusiveness. It is, perhaps, significant that at tshikanda, in contrast to vhusha and domba, girls do not have to recite the name of their parents' lineage and clans, which would imply an emphasis on family rather than political allegiances.
All the evidence suggests that vhusha and domba were originally rites of passage associated with physiological processes of puberty and childbirth respectively, and that girls had to attend them at these stages in their lives. Two hundred years ago, before the ruling clans arrived, Vendaland was relatively sparsely populated, and these rites were almost certainly organised by families and lineages. The ruling clans brought with them a more comprehensive social system, by which people could be grouped in larger territorial units, and government was maintained through chiefs, headmen and formal age-sets (mirole), which have now become obsolete. Vhusha and domba were 'nationalised' by the new rulers, and accordingly became socially, rather than physiologically, oriented. The ritual and symbolism associated with them has of course increased in quantity, if not in style, and some of it was introduced scarcely more than sixty years ago.
The way in which tshikanda is organised further emphasises the position of the nobles. When a chief plans to hold a pre-marital domba school, he first sets up tshikanda in his capital for all girls of noble birth in the country and for all commoners in the district round the capital. Then all or some of his headmen hold zwikanda (plural of tshikanda) in their own homesteads for the children of commoners in their districts. A chief calculates the beginning of his domba according to the end of his own tshikanda, so that his headmen may still be holding their zwikanda after the chief's domba has begun. This does not delay recruitment for domba because the commoners generally like to stand back and let noble girls join domba during the first few weeks of the school. After tshikanda, girls are supposed to 'rest' for a month at home before going to domba. However, this is not always observed: for instance, in 1957 chief Ne-Thengwe let tshikanda run for seven weeks, and then set up domba within one week of 'burning' tshikanda.
The number of girls attending tshikanda varies from as few as two or three, to as many as thirty to forty. Large numbers are only likely at the schools where all the nobles in a chief's country come together. Most of the initiates will attend domba which follows the tshikanda, but there are always some who joined the previous domba in 'mid-stream' and thus need to attend only tshikanda to complete their cycle of initiation.
While tshikanda is being held, novices stay at their ruler's place, and they are required to work for him. One of the functions of the schools is to provide a labour pool for rulers, and it is no coincidence that tshikanda is usually held after the harvest, when rulers will need help in entertaining parties of people from their wives' homes, and it is easier for the families of novices to produce the large payments of thirty pots of beer, from which tshikanda gets its subsidiary name of 'the vhusha of beer'. The beer that is paid to rulers, and to the instructors attract visitors and enhance the prestige of rulers, which depends very much on their ability to give to their subjects. The beer should be brought on the last day of initiation, but payment may be postponed for a number of reasons.
All except the final rites of tshikanda take place in the ruler's council hut (tshivhambo). A medicine man who is a specialist in making ritual fires, and who is therefore called maine wa mulilo, is summoned to inaugurate tshikanda by kindling a fire in the middle of the council hut with a fire-drill. He also provides medicine which ensures that novices will not be bewitched whilst they are away from their homes.
At Thengwe, this was made of the roots of the muavhatsinde tree (see Stayt 1931:10), ground and mixed with fat and the roots of the leguminous shrub mugumwa (Sesbania Sesban L. Merr.), which is widely used in South Africa by African herbalists.
All body hairs are shaved, and candidates wear only a pubic covering (sheo) when they enter the council hut for their initiation. They are not supposed to wash until the last day of the school, and their food should be brought to them by their mothers. I noticed that the rules concerning confinement in the council hut and the taboo on washing were not always observed. However, all novices were expected to spend each night in the council hut, after learning songs, dances and milayo until about midnight. They are supervised by two ritual 'mothers', who are called ematei (master of novices) and Tshana tsha ematei (ematei's hand). Because all novices have reached the same stage, they are not assigned guardians, as they are at vhusha. Commoners and nobles, who have passed vhusha separately and in different years, now undergo together the same initiation. There is no distinction between them, as far as the performance of dances and rites is concerned: their rank at the chief's capital may be discerned only by the order in which they are grouped in the hut, and the fact that the nobles sleep in a separate hut.
A senior noblewoman manages the nobles' vhusha and a senior commoner manages both the commoners' vhusha and tshikanda. The organisers are generally wives of rulers, and in particular the surviving wives of a deceased ruler. The commoner who directs tshikanda is assisted by a noblewoman whose special responsibility is the welfare and behaviour of the noble novices.
Although the musical instruments, songs, dances and milayo of the three initiation schools for women almost certainly belong to the earlier cultures of the commoner clans, it can be seen that they are organised in such a way that the influence and interests of the ruling families predominate. When I asked Venda why the ceremonial of vhusha should be repeated for a month at tshikanda, I was always given one or more of the following reasons:
An important function of tshikanda is that it ensures that rites of commoner clans are respected, but that they are controlled by the ruling families. Rulers maintain a balance of power by capitalising on the cultural interests of the commoners and by giving to certain senior commoner women considerable power over both noble and commoner women alike.