“X” is for Xhosa

I pulled the an alternate “X”  story out of the web search.  This is an educational tidbit for your viewing pleasure.

The Xhosa are part of the South African Nguni migration which slowly moved south from the region around the Great Lakes, displacing the original Khoisan hunter gatherers of Southern Africa. Xhosa peoples were well established by the time of the Dutch arrival in the mid-17th century, and occupied much of eastern South Africa from the Fish River to land inhabited by Zulu-speakers south of the modern city of Durban.

The Xhosa and white settlers first encountered one another around Somerset East in the early 18th century. In the late 18th century Afrikaner trekboers migrating outwards from Cape Town came into conflict with Xhosa pastoralists around the Great Fish River region of the Eastern Cape. Following more than 20 years of intermittent conflict, from 1811 to 1812 the Xhosas were forced east by British colonial forces in the Third Frontier War.

In the years following, many Xhosa-speaking clans were pushed west by expansion of the Zulus, as the northern Nguni put pressure on the southern Nguni as part of the historical process known as the mfecane, or “scattering”. The Xhosa-speaking southern Nguni people had initially split into the Gcaleka and the Rharhabe (who had moved westwards across the Kei river). Further subdivisions were made more complicated by the arrival of groups like the Mfengu and the Bhaca from the Mfecane wars. These newcomers came to speak the Xhosa language, and are sometimes considered to be Xhosa. Xhosa unity and ability to resist colonial expansion was further weakened by the famines and political divisions that followed the cattle-killing movement of 1856. Historians now view this movement as a millennialist response both directly to a lung disease spreading among Xhosa cattle at the time, and less directly to the stress to Xhosa society caused by the continuing loss of their territory and autonomy.

Some historians argue that this early absorption into the wage economy is the ultimate origin of the long history of trade union membership and political leadership among Xhosa people.   That history manifests itself today in high degrees of Xhosa representation in the leadership of the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling political party.

Language is mainly Bantu origin that encompasses about 18% of south African populations but can also be understood with Zulu speaking people. Among its features, the Xhosa language famously has fifteen click sounds, originally borrowed from now extinct Khoisan languages of the region. Xhosa has three basic click consonants: a dental click, written with the letter “c”; a palatal click, written with the letter “q”; and a lateral click, written with the letter “x”. There is also a simple inventory of five vowels (a, e, i, o, u). Some vowels however may be silent. In other words, they can be present in written language but hardly audible in spoken language. This happens especially at the end of the word. This is because the tone of most Xhosa words is lowest at the end.

Folklore and Religion

Traditional Xhosa culture includes diviners known as amagqirha.This job is mostly taken by women, who spend five years in apprenticeship. There are also herbalists amaxhwele, prophets izanusi, and healers inyanga for the community.

The Xhosas have a strong oral tradition with many stories of ancestral heroes; according to tradition, the leader from whose name the Xhosa people take their name was the first King of the nation. One of Xhosa’s descendents named Phalo gave birth to two sons Gcaleka, the heir and Rharabe a son from the Right Hand house. Rharhabe the warrior wanted Gcaleka’s throne but was defeated and banished and settled in the Amathole Mountains. Maxhobayakhawuleza Sandile Aa! Zanesizwe is the King in the Great Place in Mngqesha. The Zwelonke Sigcawu was crowned King of the Xhosa on 18 June 2010.

The key figure in the Xhosa oral tradition is the imbongi (plural: iimbongi) or praise singer. Iimbongi traditionally live close to the chief’s “great place” (the cultural and political focus of his activity); they accompany the chief on important occasions – the imbongi Zolani Mkiva preceded Nelson Mandela at his Presidential inauguration in 1994. Iimbongis’ poetry, called imibongo, praises the actions and adventures of chiefs and ancestors.

The supreme being is called uThixo or uQamata. Ancestors act as intermediaries and play a part in the lives of the living; they are honoured in rituals. Dreams play an important role in divination and contact with ancestors. Traditional religious practice features rituals, initiations, and feasts. Modern rituals typically pertain to matters of illness and psychological well-being.

Christian missionaries established outposts among the Xhosa in the 1820s, and the first Bible translation was in the mid-1850s, partially done by Henry Hare Dugmore. Xhosa did not convert in great numbers until the 20th century, but now many are Christian, particularly within the African Initiated Churches such as the Zion Christian Church. Some denominations combine Christianity with traditional beliefs.

Clan Names

Xhosa clan names (isiduko (sing.), iziduko (pl.) in Xhosa) are family names which are considered more important than surnames among Xhosa people.[citation needed] Much like the clan system of Scotland, each Xhosa person can trace their family history back to a specific male ancestor or stock. Mentioning the clan name of someone you wish to thank is the highest form of respect, and it is considered polite to enquire after someone’s clan name when you meet them. The clan name is also sometimes used as an exclamation by members of that clan.

When a woman marries she may take her husband’s surname, but she always keeps her own clan name, adding the prefix Ma- to it. A man and a woman who have the same clan name may not marry, as they are considered to be related. (Which I found interesting.)

There is a long list of names availble at this link.    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xhosa_clan_names


The Xhosa settled on mountain slopes of the Amatola and the Winterberg Mountains. Many streams drain into great rivers of this Xhosa territory including the Kei and Fish Rivers. Rich soils and plentiful rainfall make the river basins good for farming and grazing making cattle important and the basis of wealth.

Traditional foods include beef (Inyama yenkomo), mutton (Inyama yegusha), and goat meat, sorghum, milk (often fermented, called “amasi“), pumpkins (amathanga), Mielie-meal(maize meal), samp, beans (iimbotyi), vegetables, like “rhabe”, wild spinach reminiscent of sorrel, “imvomvo”, the sweet sap of an aloe, or “ikhowa”, a mushroom that grows after summer rains.

Please check out this link for an interesting array of food choices: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_African_cuisine#Typical_South_African_foods_and_dishes

Arts and Crafts

Traditional crafts include beadwork, weaving, woodwork and pottery.

Traditional music features drums, rattles, whistles, flutes, mouth harps, and stringed-instruments and especially group singing accompanied by hand clapping. There are songs for various ritual occasions; one of the best-known Xhosa songs is a wedding song called “Qongqothwane, performed by Miriam Makeba as “Click Song #1”. Besides Makeba, several modern groups record and perform in Xhosa. Missionaries introduced the Xhosa to Western choral singing. “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika“, part of the National anthem of South Africa is a Xhosa hymn written in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga.

The first newspapers, novels, and plays in Xhosa appeared in the 19th century, and Xhosa poetry is also gaining renown.

Several films have been shot in the Xhosa language. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a modern remake of Bizet‘s 1875 opera Carmen. It is shot entirely in Xhosa, and combines music from the original opera with traditional African music. It takes place in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha.

More on this aspect can be found here:   http://www.everyculture.com/wc/Rwanda-to-Syria/Xhosa.html


The Xhosa People of Today

This section did need verification according to Wikikpedia.

Under apartheid, adult literacy rates were as low as 30%, and in 1996 studies estimated the literacy level of first-language Xhosa speakers at approximately 50%.  There have been advances since then, however.

Education in primary-schools serving Xhosa-speaking communities is conducted in isiXhosa, but this is replaced by English after the early primary grades. Xhosa is still considered as a studied subject, however, and it is possible to major in Xhosa at university level. Most of the students at the University of Fort Hare speak isiXhosa. Rhodes University in Grahamstown, additionally, offers courses in isiXhosa for both mother-tongue and non-mother-tongue speakers. These courses both include a cultural studies component. Professor Russel H. Kaschula, Head of the School of Languages at Rhodes, has published multiple papers on Xhosa culture and oral literature.

The effects of government polices during the years of apartheid can still be seen in the poverty of the Xhosa who still reside in the Eastern Cape. During this time, Xhosa males could only seek employment in the mining industry as so-called migrant labourers. Since the collapse of apartheid, individuals can move freely.

After the breakdown of apartheid, migration to Gauteng and Cape Town is increasingly common, especially amongst rural Xhosa people.

Resources are from:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xhosa_people   , http://www.africanholocaust.net/peopleofafrica.htm#x


I hope you enjoyed this little bit of history brought to you by the letter “X”.



6 comments on ““X” is for Xhosa

  1. Did enjoy that very much, thanks, you’ve had a busy day:)
    maggie at expat brazil


  2. I had a lot to catch up on this week. Whew, I can take a breather for a few moments! Time for my biscuits and tea!! lol ..and I get to read now! Yay!
    I sure appreciate your input!


  3. WOW – Very intense and informative reading, Liz. You kept yourself busy researching, didn’t you? Well done!! 🙂


    • I wish I had the time to go through every cultural link and see what the history of the people holds. I find such value in each and every bit that I research. Whether it be turmoil, tests of faith, foods , arts, rights of passage, love, it all has bearing on how we live today. There are usually some similarities that can be found that link us to each one. Thank you for stopping in!


  4. Good morning My Dear Liz,
    This article has me thinking. I have long desired to know more of my own origin. I had been looking towards Kenya but now that I read about the Xhosa people, their love for telling stories and their love of mountains, I will do some research in that area also. What I do know is that I am a mountain’s person. I enjoy waking up and looking towards a wall of mountains standing clear in a distance from me and that I love music and to tell stories–traits that come out of the Xhosa clans.
    So, I sincerely thank you for this article. It has been most helpful to me.
    Love you, Lady.



  5. I love the history of theses people. It’s so sad that so much was lost but yet they seem to persist. I’ve read a number of histories about South Africa. I was not aware of this history and very much appreciate your spending time telling us about this. 🙂


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