Umemulo is a very important ceremony most Zulu girls do as they enter into womanhood. Before, this ceremony was strictly awarded to a girl who had respected her body until the age of 21.
Times change and so does the way of doing things. These changes have caused a division within the Zulu culture. On the one side there are families that have accepted and conformed to the changes in society and on the other hand, there are still families who have stood firm in the original rules and ways of doing things. This is why we find that today one can have Umemulo at 30 years of age just as long as she is not married. Personally, I feel it really defeats the whole purpose of the ceremony. This is supposed to be simply a way of showing appreciation and respect to your family and community. The whole family together with the community she grew up in come together to thank this girl for understanding and respecting herself, their teachings and wishes.
Zulu culture and the coming of age
The coming of age of a girl (Umemulo) in the Zulu culture is prepared for years before the actual ceremony. It all starts when a girl has her first period, this used to be between the ages of 13 and 14. From that day, she is sat down and taught about being a Zulu girl, woman and mother.
Honestly, it seems that everything in our culture revolves around cows! It doesn’t matter if it is a celebration or joining families together – a cow is always involved. Everything that is expected from her and the disappointments of womanhood are made very clear from that first period. At 14 years old this seems like a walk in the park but the reality is out of 10 girls in a community only 4 will make it as virgins to their Memulo. This is a very beautiful ceremony that will live in you forever. At the end of it all, this is a very special day for every Zulu girl and this is why even at 30 years of age, everyone wants to experience this day. In one word I would say “pride” best describes this day for everyone that is involved.
In some villages in Kwa-Zulu Natal, girls attend virginity testing classes every month until the age of 21 or until they get married. These classes are not only about virginity testing but also all the lessons of life and challenges that they will go through. Here, a girl is taught respect for herself and to not allow anyone to treat her otherwise. Today modern society, media and environment has caused more and more girls to shy away from this beautiful ceremony because it is considered uncool, exploitative and embarrassing to young girls. Even in the village, girls have began to rebel against the idea. As a result of this, more and more girls as young as nine years old are having babies and contracting all sorts of sexual infections.
It is still very hard to believe that as the years go by, more and more girls will not have the privilege of experiencing Umemulo, such a wonderful and beautiful ceremony.
The Umemulo ceremony
For the whole week the girl who is turning 21 years old is referred to as the bride, she sits in her room with her bridesmaids and is not allowed out and the bridesmaids assist her with everything she needs.
The family buy a cow for the bride and present it to her on the Friday which is the eve of the ceremony. Then she is allowed out but must cover herself with a blanket to welcome her cow. After welcoming her cow they sing and return to the room. Spirits are very high all around the yard as potential husband’s and the family boys slaughter the cow. Every single part of the cow has a part to play in the ceremony, the cow fat is used to wrap around the bride on the day of the ceremony. This fat must not at any point or circumstances break, because this is a sign that the girl is no longer a virgin. The other parts of the cow are used for deeper, private traditional rituals.
On the eve of the ceremony, all the girls must sleep by the river. They leave the brides home in the middle of the night in song while completely naked and only covered by a blanket as they head to the river. They all spend the night there around the fire singing and dancing. At the early hours of the morning the bride is then taken privately and tested to find out whether she is still a virgin. When the test is done, the older women run, singing and shouting as confirmation to all the people left behind at her home that the ceremony can continue as planned.
The girls then bath and get ready by the river and wait until the father or male guardian calls for them. The girls are all dressed in Zulu traditional wear and the bride is presented with a spear – this is a symbol of her victory and strength. When she gets to the front of her home she will then throw the spear and wherever it lands the father or the head of the home must run shouting words of praise and dancing to symbolise his gratitude, excitement, love and pride before the whole community.
In our culture every child belongs to the community so the head of the home will thank the community for helping to raise and protect this girl. After all this, the community is welcomed to come and join the family for traditional beer and food. They all come bearing gifts and each is presented to congratulate the the girl who is now a young woman. They all pin money onto the bride and in the olden days, this was the perfect opportunity for a young man with cows to propose marriage.
For the rest of the evening everyone sings, dances, eats and drinks in celebration of a young woman who has made everyone proud. Now show me a girl who wouldn’t be proud to be the centre of such a memorable ceremony.
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