The Venda or Ba venda (Vhavhenda or Vhavgona) are an amalgamation of Bantu-speaking Southern African people living mostly near the South African-Zimbabwean border. The Vhavenda or the "Venda" as they are popularly called, are perhaps the only Black nation south of the Vhembe River (Limpopo River), whose country was not named after the people. The name "Venda" means land or country. It has no prefix or suffix to indicate that it is a land inhabited by a certain people. That is why its inhabitants are Vhavenda or the Venda, meaning the people of Venda. The country became a kingdom when Dambanyika, established himself at Lwandali in 1688.He consolidated the kingdom and became the first Thovhele of the modern Venda society. This happened at a time when most, if not all, Black nations in the sub-continent were still living in scattered communities.
When the bantustan of Venda received nominal independence in 1973, their population stood at 200,000. Currently, there are about 3.5 million Venda speaking people in South Africa according to 2011 census whilst there are about 600,000 venda people in Zimbabwe.
The Vhavenda people are located on the North and West of Makhado in the Limpopo province of South Africa. The region they inhabit borders Zimbabwe and it is where the Shashe and Vhembe rivers meet. The word Vhavenda and Venda are used interchangeably when referring to the Vhavenda people, however the word Vhavenda better describes the people, whilst Venda refers more to the language. The Venda also lives in Zimbabwe near the border with South Africa. “The Venda traditionally occupy an area in and around the Soutpansberg Mountains in the northeastern section of South Africa's Northern Province, close to the borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe.”
“Their new home is a beautiful place with fertile soil and rolling hills thickly wooded with forests of subtropical wild fig and stinkhout trees and indigenous ferns and flowers. The mountain itself is often shrouded in mist and whereas the surrounding countryside is hot and dry, the mountains receives an
annual rainfall of nearly 2,000 millimetres in places.”
Attacks by marauders in the first part of the nineteenth century changed settlement patterns. Most chiefs and headmen relocated their villages from the low-lying regions to areas high on the mountain slopes, directly under cliffs.
Traditionally, homesteads were partitioned off by hedgerows, wooden palisade fences, or stone walls. Most of the older settlements are reminiscent of miniature Great Zimbabwe ruins with their walls, stones steps, passageways, and terraces.
Modern building materials have replaced traditional ones in many instances. Customary homesteads are being replaced by houses of Western design, and settlement layout favors a grid system instead of the haphazard arrangement of the past. Most villages have access to electricity, piped water, and telephone communications.
The Venda language, TshiVenda or LuVenda, is a Bantu language. It emerged as a distinct dialect in the 16th Century. The majority of Venda speakers live in the northern part of South Africa's Limpopo Province, but about 10% of its speakers live in Zimbabwe. The Venda language is related to Kalanga (Western Shona, different from Shona, official language of Zimbabwe) which is spoken in Botswana and Zimbabwe. During the Apartheid era of South Africa, the bantustan of Venda was set up to cover the Venda speakers of South Africa.
In the 20th Century, the TshiVenda vocabulary was similar to SeSotho through association, but the grammar shares similarities with Shona dialects, which are spoken in Zimbabwe. Today about 875 000 people in South Africa speak Tshivenda. The Tshipani variety of Tshivenda is used as the standard.
The majority of Venda speakers live in South Africa, where "Venda" is an official government language, but there are also speakers in Zimbabwe. Before South Africa became a democratic country, the Bantustan of Venda was set up to cover the Venda speakers of South Africa. Throughout this area, variants of Tshivenda are spoken.
The Venda Language, spoken by about 6,00,000 Africans. As a result of inhabiting different regions, various dialects have evolved. This variation has also effected the customs and rituals, though the difference is not too conspicuous.
Venda's economy is reportedly dependent on agriculture and forestry but the majority of the people, seventy per cent, work within South Africa. Most households in the villages maintain gardens during the summer months to grow the staple crop, maize. Other crops include pumpkins, sweet potatoes, groundnuts, sorghum, and finger millet, with the latter two grains frequently used to make beer.
Vegetable gourds (marankas) are grown for use as containers, scoops, or spoons. Communal land, which is held in trust by chiefs and headmen, may be used for summer crop production if permission is given. After the first and subsequent rains, women gather the new leaves and flowers of certain plants to be used as a vegetable relish (maroho). There are fruit trees in most gardens; the most commonly grown fruits are mangoes, papayas, avocados, bananas, and plantains. The Venda may have been primarily herders in the past. During the 20th century their cattle holdings—especially the herds of their chiefs—increased from a few to an appreciable number; they also keep goats, sheep, pigs, and fowl. Venda also has rich deposits of coal, fertile soils and plenty of rainfall. Cattle ranching and production of sub-tropical fruit are reported to be areas of high economic potential.
Commercial irrigation farms have developed on a small to medium scale along many of the rivers; on those farms, vegetables are grown and orchards of mangoes, avocados, litchis, and citrus flourish. Tea is well suited to the climate and soils of the eastern mist belt of the Soutpansberg Mountains, and around 2,200,000 pounds (1 million kilograms) of tea is produced annually for blending with imported Ceylon teas. Informal markets exist in the main towns and along the major roads where women sell fruit and vegetables that are produced in Venda or come from the neighboring Levubu commercial farms. Animal husbandry was traditionally limited but is on the increase, with many royal families building up large herds of cattle and goats.
Woodcarving, traditional pottery, baskets, and beadwork are the main Venda handicrafts and are sold locally to tourists or sent to the major cities in South Africa, where there are large markets for these items.
Mat weaving by hand using traditional motifs is commercially practiced. The traditional brightly colored clothing of Venda women has become a home industry in many villages.
As a general rule, women work with clay and soil and men work with animals and wood, but there are exceptions, such as women collecting firewood as part of their domestic duties. Hand hoeing of land in preparation for planting and keeping the land clear of weeds are the work of women, but in commercial operations the mechanical preparation of land by means of cattle-drawn plows or tractors is a man's job, as is crop spraying.
All land is communal under the trusteeship of the chief, who allocates the use of land in the interests of his community. The fact that these chiefs do not have title deeds to the land that they traditionally claim has led the government to state that such communal land is state-owned and that the state need not pay royalties to the chief and his community for using resources on communal property.
Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is unilineal through the male line, with one complicated and rare exception: In cases where a woman has married a wife or wives and children are born (fathered by the spouse's husband or other men she has allowed to sleep with her wives), technically, descent is on the female side. However, in practice the spouse is metaphorically seen as the "husband" because she married the wives and thus is addressed as "father" by the children; descent therefore is still on the "male" side.
Cross-cousin marriages are preferred but not compulsory, and a young man's choice of a wife may differ from that of his parents. If a girl vehemently dislikes the man to whom she is betrothed, subject to the consent of the man, the betrothal may be broken and other arrangements made. Bargaining, usually through a third person, about the bride-price and marriage arrangements can take a long time.
With more young persons moving to the major industrial towns and cities, traditional marriage practices are diminishing, with young men and women marrying for love. Cross-cultural marriages have become more common.
Polygyny is practiced; the number of wives depends on the wealth and status of the husband. The higher a man's traditional status is, the more wives he can marry. Chiefs and headmen generally are wealthier than commoners, and for them caring for multiple wives is seldom a problem, with headmen having up to six wives and chiefs being entitled to many more. A wealthy commoner may marry more than one wife, as tends to occur with businessmen. Men past the age of fifty frequently take a young woman as a wife to bear children and take care of them in their old age.
An unusual form of marriage occurs when a wealthy woman, normally a headwoman, marries a wife or wives. She usually is already married to a man. Her husband or other chosen men may be the biological fathers of the children who are born, but metaphorically she is the "father" of those children. The children must address her as "father," while her biological children call her their mother.
A new wife is expected to live with her mother-in-law, who teaches her about her husband's likes and dislikes and his family. This continues until the birth of the first child, when she moves into her own house close by. Marital residence thus is patrilocal.
A household has one wife and her offspring, who share a single hearth and eat together. In polygynous marriages each wife is given her own house and courtyard, which is physically separate from those of the other wives. The husband has his own sleeping area (pfamo), which is usually adjacent to the household of the senior wife, who keeps order among the other wives. The husband's relatives generally live in the surrounding homesteads, and this system gives children access to their aunts and uncles.
Traditionally, all land is communal, under the trusteeship of the chief. However, every man has indisputable rights to the land he occupies and uses. His sons are entitled to the use of his land but may also ask the local headman to allocate fresh portions of land. Movable property—livestock, household utensils, and the proceeds of agriculture and trade—passes to the oldest son or, in the case of a polygynous marriage, the oldest son of the senior wife. This son becomes the undisputed head of the family unless he has disgraced himself in the eyes of the family, in which case the son next in line is appointed by the deceased's oldest sister with the consent of his brothers.
A woman may possess property, normally the surplus proceeds of her labors, and may dispose of it freely. Usually in the case of her death, her youngest son inherits. In a polygynous marriage, if the senior wife does not have a male heir, the oldest daughter is recognized as the legal heir but may not become the head of the family; that duty usually passes to her late father's oldest surviving brother. An exception to this practice occurs when a woman marries wives and no male heir is born; then the oldest daughter becomes the head of that family. Brothers may inherit the wives of a deceased man.
Infants and children are looked after by their parents and grandparents as well as by uncles and aunts who frequently assume the duties of parents in loco. Children frequently refer to these relatives as their father and mother. Children are introduced to responsibility and preparation for their later roles in life at an early age, with boys being sent out to herd goats at about the age of five and girls accompanying their mothers or aunts to collect water or firewood or caring for their baby brothers or sisters while the mother is working on the land. There is always sufficient time for play after the allotted tasks are correctly done. Corporal punishment is rare.
Positions of traditional leadership are hereditary, passing normally from the father to the oldest son of the senior wife. At the death of the father, it is the duty of his oldest sister (makhadzi) to introduce the heir to the family or suggest a new heir if that son proves to be incapable. If the heir is too young to become the head of the family, she fulfills that role as a regent.
The makhadzi of a royal family is frequently one of the main advisers to her brother, the chief. She may act as a regent in his absence or after his death. Her participation in many of the traditional rituals is essential for the well-being and prosperity of the community. For many activities, the chief's younger brother or oldest surviving uncle may appear on his behalf.
Access to chiefs by those who are not family members is normally difficult, and persons with problems have to work their way through a hierarchy of counselors before being granted an audience with the chief. This is a remnant of the system used to guard divine leaders in the past.
After 1910 Venda was governed by the central government of the Union of South Africa (later the Republic of South Africa) under a system of commissioners until it received independence from the South African government in September 1979. Independence was rescinded in 1994, when all homelands and independent states created by the apartheid government became part of the democratically elected government of South Africa.
Venda is divided into thirty-two chieftaincies with different status levels, of which several are disputed, with these chieftaincies having been created in the past for political expediency and the smoother running of an "independent" Venda. Traditionally, the status levels were paramount chief (khosikhulu), senior chiefs, petty chiefs, and headmen. During the black liberation struggle and particularly since the late 1980s, traditional leadership has been undermined by resistance organizations, because traditional leaders were considered puppets of the white nationalist government. Civic organizations developed in many towns and villages and ruled through intimidation. In the early twenty-first century a system of mutual tolerance is maintained between Venda traditional leaders and civic organizations. Villages and towns have been combined to form local councils to deal with issues relating to local government.
In the past persons involved in antisocial activities were taken to the court of the headman for minor infringements or to the court of the chief for serious issues, where usually a fine would be imposed. The size of the fine depended on the seriousness of the transgression as well as the numbers of previous offences committed by the accused. Witchcraft usually was punished by death, and murder by banishment or death. When the accused was pronounced innocent, the plaintiff would be fined.
As the concepts of Roman-Dutch law became entrenched in Venda society, many issues were no longer taken to traditional courts but instead were reported to the police. Today a person accused of a serious crime is apprehended, imprisoned, brought to trial, and sentenced, usually with a term of imprisonment. Judicial courts are becoming more sympathetic toward common law, and judgments may be based on fundamental traditional norms and values rather than purely on Roman-Dutch law.
Although there is evidence of internecine warfare in the past, physical conflict between clans no longer occurs. However, people seen as opponents have been killed under the guise of ritual murder. Between 1820 and 1850 many raids by BaPedi (Sotho), Swazi, and Zulu marauders took place. The coming of the first white colonialists was met with resistance, including the burning of the first white town in the Soutpansberg region in 1867. Further clashes with traders and government administrators continued until around 1900. Since 1994 many Vhavenda have been dissatisfied with the activities of the predominantly Sotho government of the Northern Province, and periodically talk of creating a separate province occurs.
Unlike many ethnic groups, the Venda race has mostly retained retained their original native religion and thrived on indigenous customs and traditions to lead a close knit community life. The Venda people believe in a supreme or high God called RALUVHIMBA.The name is composed of the prefix Ra-, which is honorific and perhaps connected with the idea of 'Father'; luvhimba is the eagle, the bird that soars aloft. It symbolizes the great power which travels through the cosmos, using the heavenly phenomena as its instruments.
Raluvhimba is connected with the beginning of the world and is supposed to live somewhere in the heavens and to be connected with all astronomical and physical phenomena. . . .
A shooting star is Raluvhimba traveling; his voice is heard in the thunder; comets, lightning, meteors, earthquakes, prolonged drought, floods, pests, and epidemics- in fact, all the natural phenomena which affect the people as a whole- are revelations of the great god. In thunderstorms he appears as a great fire near the chief's kraal, whence he booms his desires to the chief in a voice of thunder; this fire always disappears before any person can reach it. At these visitations the chief enters the hut and, addressing Raluvhimba as Makhalu [Grandfather], converses with him, the voice of god replying either from the thatch of the hut or from a tree nearby; Raluvhimba then passes on in further clap of thunder. Occasionally he is angry with the chief and takes revenge on the people by sending them a drought or a flood, or possibly by opening an enormous cage in the heavens and letting loose a swarm of locusts on the land.' (H.A. Stayt, The Bavenda, Oxford, 1931, p.236)
Raluvhimba, it is said, was wont to manifest himself by appearing from time to time as a great flame on a platform of rock above a certain cave. With the flame there came a sound as of clanking irons on hearing which the people shouted with joy and their cries passed on throughout the country. The Chief mounted to the platform where he called upon Raluvhimba, thanked him for revealing himself and prayed on behalf of his people for rain, felicity and peace.
He is at times greeted spontaneously by the whole people in a way that is most unusual amongst the southern Bantu. The Rev. G. Westphal of the Berlin Mission relates that in 1917 a meteor burst in the middle of the day making a strange humming sound followed by a thunder-like crash. This portent was greeted by the people, not with terror but with cries of joy. Another Missionary, the Rev. McDonald, tells how after a slight tremor of the earth the was an extraordinary clamour among the people, the lululuing of women, clapping of hands and shouting 'The whole tribe was greeting Raluvhimba who was passing through the country.' People say that during an earthquake they hear a noise in the sky similar to thunder. Then they clap their hands to welcome the mysterious god and pray: 'Give us rain! Give us health.'
Dr H.A. Junod says that Raluvhimba is regarded as the maker and former of everything and as the rain-giver. If rain is scarce and starvation threatens, people complain: 'Raluvhimba wants to destroy us,' they say the same if floods spoil their fields. Prayers and sacrifices are offered in times of drought. There is some notion of Raluvhimba as Providence. He takes care no only of the tribe as a whole but of individual members. When a man has narrowly escaped drowning he will say: 'I have been save by Raluvhimba, Mudzimu.'
Raluvhimba is identified with Mwari (or Nwali) whose earthly abode (like Yahwe's on Mount Sinai) is in the Matopo Hills of Southern Rhodesia. Every year the Venda used to send a special messenger (whose office was hereditary) with a black ox and a piece of black cloth as an offering to Mwari. The black ox was set free in the forest to join the god's large herd which had accumulated there.
They also believe zwidutwane, (water spirits), which live at the bottom of waterfalls. These beings are only half-visible; they have only one eye, one leg, and one arm. One half can be seen in this world and the other half in the spirit world. The Venda would take offerings of food to them because the zwidutwane cannot grow things underwater.
For the average person, good or ill fortune, including sickness, often is controlled by his or her immediate ancestors. When there is trouble or an unexplained death in the family, a diviner (mungome) is consulted, the magical divining dice are thrown, and a prognosis is made. In many cases the interpretation will be that one of the ancestors must be appeased, usually through the ritual sacrifice of a black goat for commoners or a sheep for royals at the grave of the troublesome ancestor.
A mungome uses an intricately carved wooden divining bowl (ndilo) to discover witches. Belief in witchcraft is very prevalent even among the educated, and although the killing of witches is considered murder, it occurs regularly. When the diviner is unsuccessful, a witch doctor (nanga) is consulted. Such witch doctors are thought to have magical powers in addition to divining skills and can place spells on people, who believe that they can die unless they are cleansed by the nanga who cast the original spell.
Ceremonies usually are accompanied by chanting, singing, music, and dancing. Rites of passage are important, particularly the passage from childhood into adulthood. They are conducted as a series of initiation ceremonies at the age of puberty for boys and girls. Such ceremonies are separate, except for the final one, the domba, in which the sexes come together for certain rituals. Births, marriages, and funerals are ceremonial occasions involving families, but there also are ceremonies to ensure the fertility of the land, good harvests, good rains, and the well-being of Vhavenda society.
The female initiation and rite of passage has similar cultural meaning to musevhetho and murundu within the Vha-Venda culture.
Murundu is circumcision rites for boys. In some other areas it is called mula/hogo. The Vha-Venda people reported that this ceremony is attended by ordinary people not members of the royal family. It is said that the first person to be admitted is the son of the traditional doctor in charge of it. The reason why members of the royal family do not attend is because it is seen as having the Vhalemba origin.
Boys Initiation: The Thondo - Morundu Initiation School:
Two distinctly different initiation schools existed in Venda. The Thondo is the older of the two, which each Venda boy should pass through to attain manhood. Elaborate ritual governed the setting up, building and maintenance of the school, under the dictates of a traditional healer. It was a highly secret school where boys were trained in the self discipline, endurance, manners and tribal etiquette.
Venda boys were circumcised at the Murundu or Morundu initiation school. The murundu circumcision is considered to be preparatory stage for boys to manhood and perceived as a preventative measure against sexually transmitted diseases. Murundu is hosted during winter in the bush far from the village. Milubi, (2000), states that boys at murunduni are taught certain behavioural expectations that the society will have on them as adult men. It is said that after boys have been circumcised, the elders tell them that they have sharpened the “spear” (spear refers to circumcised penis) and with the spear they would be able to strike the “thulo”/girl. This means that such a boy has permission to have sexual intercourse. This is understood as a way of preparing initiates for the future.
Vhahwira - Muwhira: Circumcision and vhahwira costumes were introduced by the North Sotho, which include the Ba Roka and Lobedu.The photograph to the above right was taken by Duggan-Cronin. He wrote: These Vhahwira are in the Thondo school, which is a continuation of the Morundu or circumcision school. Their very effective disguise is composed of a series of grass mats wrapped round them. One is carrying a typical old-fashioned Venda battle-axe.
The costume to the left represents the same supernatural Vhahwira, who is known as the recruiter. Deaf and dumb, he communicates by whistling and swishing a wand. The character is made up of reeds and body parts of hawks, owls and hammerhead birds. It was collected in the Sekororo Area by J. Witt during the early 1960's. Later it became the property of the Potchefstroom University Collection. Few examples are known, as these were often burned at the end of Thondo.
Musevhetho is the initiation rite for girls that initiates a girl from a baby to the stage of puberty (i.e., before the girl starts menstruating) (Milubi, 2000). This rite is referred to as “u kwevha”, it involves elongation of the girls’ labia minora, which is sometimes called sungwi, and said to be equivalent to the murundu. Musevhetho initiation comes from the Bapedi tribe wherein the girl should perform the exercise of labia minora. The role of this initiation school among the Tsonga or Shangaan, according to Xitlhabana, cited in Milubi (2000), is referred to as “mileve” (i.e. sexual appetizer). This is said to harness men into a fulfilling relationship.
Women who have elongated labia minora are perceived and perceive themselves as having attained a higher level than those who have not. They perceive themselves as having an advantage of acquiring marriage and can sexually satisfy men better than those who have not elongated. Thus, those who have not elongated are always ridiculed by those who have elongated by calling them names such as shuvhuru, master-mistress and also through the usage of generic terminology (Milubi, 2000).
According to Stayt (1968), musevhetho has been introduced into Vha-Venda by the neighbouring Basotho, where it is called ‘mula’. The musevhetho is very popular among a small section of the people; particularly where vhusha or circumcision has the strongest influence in educating young girls and boys regarding the culture. Musevhetho is believed to play an important role in reducing early sexual engagement amongst young girls and boys (informant). For example, girls who are not virgins are ostracized at ‘musevhetho’ initiation school. The practice is believed to encourage girls to abstain from sex and discourage girls not to lose their virginity before marriage. At these schools, girls’ virginity status is checked by the older women (vhomazwale). Musevhetho is believed to play an important role in preventing unplanned teenage pregnancies.
The most important part of the proceedings is the operation, which all the initiates must undergo. It is said by Vha-Venda people that children of all ages must attend and quite young children are brought to the ceremony by their mothers. The functions are held in a small hut outside the village known as ‘nonyana’, which is the spirit of the ‘musevhetho’. The boys are sent all around and dance to perform antics for the amusement of the people. This is a fascinating event, because these boys never speak to any person, but carry on all communications between each other and not with those who did not graduate from the ceremony (Stayt, 1968).
According to Stayt (1968), the girls often attend at nonyana’s hut for a day and a night. They will see the spirit and be returned to their homes until they are considered to be enough initiates to warrant the operation. On the appointed day, they are taken to a secluded place on the river bank, where an old woman performs the operation of cutting the clitoris. At the same time, the girls are branded with a mark on the outside of the thigh. The brand is like two inverted U’s joined together or sometimes it may be two round dots. The brand is seen as a password for the initiate to have access to attend when these ceremonies are taking place. Without being questioned if a person qualifies for entry, the brand serves as a proof for the possessor that she has undergone the operation.
Hali, Sangiwi (female circumcision)
The circumcision rite for girls is called by the Vha-Venda people as “Hali,Sungwi.” Female genital mutilation may be in the form of surgical removal of the clitoris called clitoridectomy. The procedures were once commonly referred to as female circumcision (FC) and are said to be now dominant throughout the international community.
After the circumcision ceremonies at the river, the girls should proceed to the kraal of the headman who has sanctioned the proceedings. Hence, the girls are given permission to socialise with the boys who went through murundu. The feast begins where dancing and singing; with beer drinking; feasting and sexual licence continues for a fortnight. After the festival, the girls are taken to the river bank and smothered with fat and red-ochre, and brought again to the kraal for a few days to rest, but later return to the river where they are washed, except the brand. The initiates mentoring the initiands would accompany the girls to their respective homes where the celebration continues (Stayt, 1968). The senior elders are elders who represent tradition and wisdom of the past and their role is to teach and train the initiates (responsible for the initiation ritual).
Stayt (1968), states that the Vha-Venda transitional period supplements the teachings of the “vhutambo” “vhutuka and the vhusha for socializing girls and women. It is said that those who have taken part are full members of the tribe and are fully prepared for immediate marriage. However, the final act of these ceremonies is identical. All end with the washing at the river, combined with the cutting of hair and fresh adornment of the body. In this way, it is perceived as a graduation of the severance between the old status and the new status.
Girls Initiation – “There are three phases of initiation for Venda girls; Vhusha, Tshikanda, and the Domba.
Vhusha: Vhusha is the initiation for girls. The ceremony is sanctioned by the royal family, because it is seen as the first initiation ceremony because it is held at the royal place, unlike musevhetho, which is attended by the commoners/vhasiwana. Stayt (1968) states this is one of the ceremonies that is attended by grown up females or matured girls. This ceremony takes place during winter and summer and during the school holidays. The VhaVenda girls are expected to attend in order to learn good manners and regain their identity
Ndayo is a dance, but more of a physical exercise, there to make the girls suffer and honour the old ones. The movements reinforce the pattern of seniority. Dances are also employed in the treatment of people with certain conditions such as demon possession. This dance usually takes place in the courtyard of the king, who often supplies the musical instruments. During the initiation, the girls spend the whole week with "luvhundi” all over their bodies and do not wash, even when they eat.
Domba: The domba is a pre-marital initiation. The preparations are made by the families for the girls to be ready and to prepare what is necessary to attend the ceremony. Entrance fee is paid before the girl’s admission.
The Vha-Venda people believe that the ceremony has deep meanings, and it is not possible to witness what is happening within (teaching, ritual performance and bath) since it is a secret ceremony.
Historically, girls used to stay with the chief for the entire duration of the initiation school, which ranged between 3 months to 3 years. Nowadays girls only spend weekends at the ruler’s kraal, due to schooling.
The Vha-Venda people believe that “domba” opens the door to full participation in the society. Seniority of age is an important principle amongst the Vha-Venda social organization, and as women grow older they become more powerful, respected and play a leading role in rituals and ceremonies, and are given a status as, “mme a domba” (the mother of the ceremony). Many people are of the opinion that domba should be ‘set up’ during the time of reaping, when there is an economic surplus, and continue until the planting season of the following year, but others insisted that it should be both ‘set up’ and ‘burnt’ at a time when the maize is beginning to sprout (Young ,1965).
Many metal bracelets and anklets glint as the domba line shuffles forward, in slow, rocking movement, to a drowsy tempo and the line of arms ripples up and down, like the python fertility god whom they revere and represent. All dancing is accompanied by chanting, some in the form of question and answer. High pitched voices reply to the booming voice of their teacher, a man who today is clad in European dress with perhaps a leopard skin cloak and feathers on his head. He capers on a wooden platform or runs along the line of dancer switching anyone who is out of time or, with another switch, driving away evil spirits.
Itinerant musicians known as zwilombe travel from village to village and can be found where beer is available. Their songs comment on life in general but frequently are very critical of chiefs and politicians, often voicing what the people feel but are afraid to say aloud. These musicians are considered slightly insane and therefore are protected from retribution. The instruments used are single-string bows with calabashes as resonators and the thumb piano.
Groups play a variety of drums, including the large ngoma drum with its throbbing bass sound; flutes made from special reeds that must be ritually cut; trumpets made from animal horns; stringed instruments; and rattles that usually are attached to the legs of dancers. The most unusual instrument is the large wooden xylophone (mbila).
Various rituals are particular to the Venda and certain aspects are kept secret and not discussed with westerners, however, it is known that the python dance, conducted at the female coming of age ceremony (iconic to the Limpopo region) is usually where the chief chooses a wife. Girls and boys dance fluidly, like a snake, to the beat of a drum, while forming a chain by holding the forearm of the person in front. Once a wife has been chosen a set of courtship and grooming rituals take place over a number of days.
The python dance of young women during the domba is well known; the dancers move one behind the other, with the hands resting on the hips of the girl in front, emulating the movements of a snake.
Tsikona dance: Most ceremonies are accompanied by dancing. The tshikona is a royal dance, each sovereign or chief has his own tshikona band. Tshikona is played at various occasions for funerals, wedding or religious ceremonies, this can be considered as the Venda 'national music / dance', which is particular to Venda in South Africa.
The tshikona is also traditionally a male dance in which each player has a pipe made out of a special indigenous type of bamboo growing only in few places around Sibasa and Thohoyandou (which no longer exists). Each player has one note to play, which has to be played in turn, in such a way as to build a melody. Tshikona is frequently performed to welcome important visitors (including tourists) to villages.
The tshigombela is a female dance usually performed by married women, this is a festive (winter months) dance sometimes played at the same time as the reed flute dance of the men (tshikona). Tshifhasi is similar to tshigombela but performed by young unmarried girls (khomba).
Phala-phala's were made from the horns of kudu or sable antelopes and used to call the people together for various gatherings. Each horn produced it's own "note" and according to Duggan-Cronin, weird tunes were the result.
Venda drums are considered sacred and come in two forms. The smaller narrow example is held between the legs. A far larger round form usually has four elegantly carved handles where it is often attached to a pole or tree. Both types are called Ngoma, a generic name for drums over a large swath of Africa.
Pottery utensils made by women and wooden utensils carved by men have become curios for the tourist trade. This trade has led to men becoming sculptors, creating a variety of nontraditional sculptures for the lucrative overseas art market.
Traditional medicines are made from a variety of plants whose leaves, bark, roots, and juice are used for that purpose. These materials are combined with animal fat, brains, entrails, or genitals. Exceptionally powerful medicine is made by replacing the animal ingredients with ingredients from human beings. Herbalists work only with plants, while witch doctors use all of these ingredients. Modern clinics are found in most villages. When Western medicine does not provide the desired results, people resort to traditional medicines.
The traditional belief is that after death a person enters the world of the spirits as long as he or she has undergone the initiation rites that make persons full members of adult society. The highest status after death is that of an ancestor (when the deceased has had children), and it is usually the ancestor spirits of the mother's family that have the greatest influence over the living. The spirit world generally is perceived as being below, under the ground, in caves, or under deep pools of water such as Lake Fundudzi, where certain clans believe there is a complete village under the water where on a still, dark night the household fires can be seen and singing and dancing can be heard as well as the sounds of cattle and sheep.
Venda Traditional Dress
Traditionally in the Venda culture, the Venda wore only clothing made of skins which were obtained by hunting.
Venda Culture: Infants
Venda Culture: Male Dress
Venda Culture: Female Dress
These days woman wear the towel when they attend the Tshisevhesevhe ceremonies. When a girl is engaged the husband buys a towel for her to cover her face with in case she meets one of her betrothed. Married ladies dress in a dignified manner, thus demanding respect from the community. She wears the Tshirivha –which is made from the skin of sheep or goat and is well decorated. The ears of the goat are made up into small studs and fastened at the shoulder part of the skin on the decorated side, where they act as the eyes of the Tshirivha.
Old women, past child bearing, wear a skin similar to the Tshirivha but made with goat skin complete with head and neck. This garment Phale is stretched lengthwise instead of broad wise. This skin, when properly prepared, reaches nearly to the ankles.
Venda Culture: Status Clothes
In Venda culture, there are some clothes that are worn only by specific people indicating their status, rank or power.
A bride of the king, headman or chief wears the Thau indicating her status of being married to the royals. When she confides, instead of wearing the tshirivha (goatskin) witch is worn by commoners, she puts on the Gwana (sheep skin).Her accessories also differ from those of the commoners.
The traditional healers, who are most close to the gods, can never perform their duties without putting on the Palu, which is a bluish cloth with many white or coloured spots and stripes and it is associated with ancestors. Accessories such as the beads Tsilu la Ndou are worn around her neck; crossing over her chest are white beads, Mpakato; on her arms, copper or brass bracelet Mulinga can be seen and terracotta beads of ancient origin all denote the divine powers given to her by the ancestors. It is felt that the ancestors will not be able to communicate with her if she is not totally clad in this attire.
The Malombe (those possessed by ancestral spirits) during the Malombo dance also wear the Palu. Should it not be included the ancestors will trouble the Venda people. Palu stands for Nwali - "God himself”.
The Malombe dancers will also wear the Matongo, pieces of fabric of different colours, which have a meaning. Red stands for soil or God, blue for the sky, which brings rain, black stands for darkness or the dead and white for happiness.
Thahu were worn as adornment. It is suggested they were specifically there to promote fertility. The article Musidzana wa Tshirova makes further suggestion that these phallic objects are the representation of a male genital organ and the tassels, semen, the latter most likely no more than the authors fantasy and/or false discovery.
Venda Culture: Dance Groups:
Dancers wear a Tshithuza which is a beaded or crocheted skirt decorated at the hem by tassels or pompoms. Around the calves they wear Thuzwu or Tshwayo. When the mutuzwu fruits are dry, the seeds are taken out and they are filled with little stones. As they perform Venda culture dances they make a noise just like a rattle, thus complementing the rhythm of the drum and the song.
Musangwe: Venda Bare knuckle combat
In northern South Africa, men of the Venda tribe continue the centuries-old tradition of musangwe, a form of bare-knuckle boxing that helps young men cope with present-day challenges.
Musangwe is Venda combat that is said to have started in the late 1800s. Musangwe has always pitted villages such as Gaba, Tshifudi, Tshaulu, Ha-Lambani, and Tshidzini. There are no prizes awarded to the winners. The fighters fight for personal pride and the bragging rights for their villages. A fighter enters the ring and holds his arm out with a clenched fist.
He circles the gathered men, waiting for someone to take him on. Soon another man holds out his fist and the fight is on.
A silence falls over the spectators - all of them are men or boys, women are not allowed near the musangwe ring - as the two opponents circle each other warily.
Musangwe has grown to be one of Limpopo's most watched cultural events. It is held annually everyday between 16th December and 1st January. It is held at Tshifudi village next to the cattle deep.
The ground where Musangwe takes place is prepared with charms and herbs obtained from Maine (traditional healer). The preparation with herbs and charms is done by the president of Musangwe. The ancestors are told that the Musangwe tournament is officially on. It is said that only one fighter has died in a Musangwe tournament since the tournament started in the late 1800s. The unfortunate fighter died in 1929, and his spirit is summoned at the commencement of each tournament to protect all participants.
Venda, in Limpopo Province, South Africa is famous for its biodiversity and cultural richness. Its sacred sites are watched over by special custodians, the elder women of the community, known as Makhadzi. These women have come to be known as the "rainmakers" of South Africa, due to the capacity of their cultural rituals to invite rain to the area. For the people of Venda, practices such as these play a vital role in maintaining the health and integrity of their local ecosystems and of the wider community.
The Makhadzi are the matriarchal spiritual leaders of the community. The Venda people have come to understand their land through a philosophy called Mupo - meaning all natural creation, all that is not man-made. Mupo refers to a great order of things, of which human beings are just one small part. Mphatheleini Makhaulule of The Mupo Foundation explains "Mupo is a word that describes the origin of creation, of all creation, of the Universe. When we look at Nature, it's Mupo."
Today, the traditions and practices of the Makhadzi are coming under increasing threat as the sites within which they carry out their traditional practices - and have done for hundreds of years - are now being brutalised by construction projects. During 2007-2008 a road was built across a sacred rock and the river near to the Phiphidi Falls. Phiphidi Falls is one of the sacred sites where the Makhadzi carry out their rainmaking rituals and their celebrations around the fertile, life giving qualities of seed. The sacred rock was broken up in order to make way for the road, and most recently, a series of chalets for tourists have been constructed beside the falls. The Makhadzi are deeply pained by the destruction of their traditional territory and especially their sacred sites.
In light of these increasing threats to the traditional Venda way of life, the Makhadzi and a number of members of the community came together to form a community organisation. They named it Dzomo la Mupo or Voices from the Earth.
In 2009, in order to help rebuild the confidence of the community and their energy to fight for their rights and their sacred spaces, an eco-cultural mapping exercise was carried out with the Dzomo la Mupo. Makhadzi were joined by representatives from across the Venda sacred sites network and by indigenous groups from as far away as the Altai and Colombia - there in solidarity having been through similar processes in their own cultural contexts. The eco-cultural mapping process was co-facilitated by The Gaia Foundation and marked a significant turning point for the community. A renewal of confidence and identity, the mapping process restored the communities faith in the need to stand up against the forces which threatened them.