Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Cultural Plants

By Lindinxiwa Mahlasela

One of the striking exhibitions at Albany museum, Natural Science is Xhosa Plants. It’s a unique exhibition because it lands itself on a very important matter regarding heritage in South Africa; TRANSFORMATION. Yes Xhosa Plants exhibition speaks about transformation.
In this exhibition curator Mqwathi, otherwise known as Mr Cimi, tells us the various uses of certain plants in Xhosa societies. Simultaneously, he reminds amaXhosa and Africans at large that ‘WE ARE BOTANISTS’!! Significantly, the exhibition disputes the colonists’ idea that Africans are people without culture and heritage and therefore shouldn’t be represented in museums thereof.
Isibindi, umavumbuka, and ummemezi are just some of the plants that amaXhosa used (and still use) as cosmetics. Ummemezi – literally means calling aloud or figuratively ‘take a look’ was largely used by young females seeking the attention of young man. It lightens ones skin quickly like the contemporary ‘make ups’. However it is said that it may cause some damage to ones skin especially the risk of skin cancer. Umavumbuka nesibindi on the other hand was used to mitigate the risks that ummemezi could do and maintain the beautiful glowing skin. Determining the extent of the usage of these ‘make up’ products among amaXhosa women isn’t something that I have explored yet. Notwithstanding that I argue that they are still in use. So ladies, next time you go shopping for cosmetics, consider ummemezi because it might work wonders for you!
Unfortunately at some stage in our lives we come across difficult challenges. They become so difficult that one tend to believe in magic powers. Among amaXhosa certain plants are a stimulus for such magic. For instance uLuzi is one such plant. The bark of uLuzi tree is usually prepared by an aunt and would be tied around ones’ neck during initiations. Also, when one has serious challenge uLuzi will be used as magic to overcome such challenge. This includes cases where young women have difficulties falling pregnant, young man not finding jobs, and many other difficulties that people find themselves having to face. Similarly, INtelezi is used to make one likeable, lucky and protected. Some families even put it on rooftops so that they are protected against lightning and witchcraft.
Often I hear people wishing each other ‘good luck’. It’s especially the case when one is about to engage in an important exercise like writing examinations or travelling and many other activities that people deem important and require some intervention for them to achieve. Xhosa Plants shows us that amaXhosa went beyond the mere ‘good luck’ in wishing one another success and blessings.  To them the ‘wish you good luck’ practice is both practical and rooted in belief system. For instance, when young men complete their initiation they carry umnqayi, a stick that is believed to have power to bring blessings to the young man. Intonga yoMnquma is perhaps the most commonly known stick among amaXhosa. When men travel to faraway places they would carry it. When there is thunder and lightning it would be put on the floor to protect the family from being struck by lightning. During family gatherings when rituals are performed men would carry iminquma nemisimbithi which I guess serve the purpose of cleansing their bodies so that communication with the departed cannot be interrupted by bad spirits. Similarly, impepho is burnt when one interprets dreams, during meditation and of course during family ceremonies where rituals are held.
Ukhukho is a traditional mat. It is used for sleeping and as a couch especially by women. Additionally ukhukho is inherent in initiation practices. A bride has to have one. It is called uMahambehlala. Literally uMahambehlala means sitting all over the place. This has negative connotations. How the term was conceived and its true meaning needs to be investigated. Marriage is an important status that brings pride and enhances families’ dignity. It is therefore doubtful that one of the institutions properties would be mocked. Lastly, young men coming from initiation school sit and sleep on ekhukhweni for a considerable period of time.

Xhosa Plants exhibition has to an extent articulated transformation in museums especially in regard to exhibition content and knowledge systems. For centuries ethnographic galleries seem to have been the only exhibitions one could find in museums. This was consistent with racist attitudes that viewed natives as some creatures that should be studied to satisfy curiosities and be preserved before they perish. The current dispensation requires exhibitions that emancipates heritage of the marginalized in order for them to take pride in their knowledge systems rather than calling them ‘superstitions’. 

1 comment:

  1. Camagu! Makube chosi kube hele! Isala kutyelwa sibona ngolophu. Knowledge is power.