Traditional festivals of Chiredzi

In most cases traditions which are often presumed ancient and unalterable have been deliberately revised to highlight and suit certain modern societies.

But that has not been the case with the Tshangani people of Chiredzi in Zimbabwe. The society is still rooted in its traditional culture and the people still gather and feast celebrating their traditional practices.

Since time immemorial, the people have preserved their cultural traditions, which have elements that have come under heavy criticism from some social and legal quarters.

One of the most criticised and controversial traditional practices by the Tshangani is virginity testing.

The Tshangani live in Tshovani rural area, in the heart of Chiredzi, about 250 kilometres from Masvingo.

The Southern Times recently travelled to the area to unravel the secret behind the Tshangani people and their culture and to get first hand information about the significance of the ‘Komba’-the Tshangani people’s traditional festival that involves virginity and fertility testing.

It is an annual carnival held in November where girls camp at the chief’s homestead to receive traditional indoctrination about marriage.

As preparations for this year’s festival intensified, the usually peaceful and serene area was a hive of activity.

The festival, better known outside Chiredzi as ‘Zvikomba’ festival is slated for the summer season with hundreds of girls registering their participation.

The Tshangani maidens congregate and camp for three months to undergo traditional teachings on how to abstain from premarital sexual activities and the preservation of virginity until marriage.

The festival also prepares the girls for marriage as they are taught how to satisfy their spouses in bed and how to raise their children.

The teachings are conducted by elderly women at the ‘Zombo’, which is a traditional camp constructed of wood and cow dung.

On the night of arrival at the Zombo, the girls, clad in kilts (traditional outfits made of animal skin) would spend the night singing and dancing in preparation for the festival, believed by the Tshangani to be one of the most colourful cultural events on their calendar.

They would be donning their traditional attire of beaded necklaces with various colours. The beads are colourful with woolly tassels hanging from the left shoulders to the right hips.

They also wear animal skin skirts and anklets with oval shaped attachments and tassels on the heads.

After dressing up, the girls gather at chief Tshovani’s homestead where the chief’s six wives and elderly women inspect them before they are taken to the Zombo where they spend three months receiving traditional teachings on marital issues.

“We are taught how to satisfy our partners in bed and we go through a lot of practice. We are taught several methods and this involves the use of thorns and heavy clay pots.

“After learning all sorts of bedroom antics, we are compelled to undergo virginity and potency tests. They are done in private and the outcome is strictly confidential,” says Rushy Sithole who participated at last year’s festival.

She says virginity tests are carried out early in the morning.

“The girls are taken to the river at around 2am in the morning. They are ordered to strip naked and submerge half their bodies in the river for sometime.

“The belief is that virgins can stay for more than an hour in the water and nonvirgins cannot stay that long. The cultural philosophy is that nonvirgins cannot withstand the cold and they quickly shiver out of the cold water,” she says.

Sithole says during the girls’ stay in the river, those easily susceptible to cold would be taken out, a clear indication-according to Tshangani belief-that they are not virgins.

Some girls however confess before they go to the river that they are not virgins and will not partake the ceremony.

Nothisi Machoka who was also consecrated at last year’s festival says during the girls’ stay in the Zombo, they cook for themselves under close supervision of the elderly women and are subject to punishment if they do anything against the Komba institution.

“Just like any institution, Komba is a traditional institution and wrongdoers are subjected to punishment. The girls are not allowed to bath until the festival is over and only those menstruating are allowed to bath,” she says.

Chief Tshovani Hlarisi of Chiredzi said despite the rapid changes in his people’s way of life over the years, their culture has not changed.

“We have preserved our tradition and culture since time immemorial. The same festivals, culture and way of life that our forefathers and ancestors observed are still the same cultures that we are following today.

“We managed to preserve our language, the culture of nose and ear

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piercing. Even the structures of our houses, homesteads and other infrastructure that identifies the Tshangani people has not changed,” he said.

The Chief said if a Tshangani man marries a woman who is not of Tshangani origin, the woman is compelled to go through the Komba festival to familiarise with her husband’s tradition.

He added that the maidens should have their heads clean during the festival.

“The girls should have their hair cut until the entire ceremony is over. They are not allowed to associate with the outsiders and female counterparts during their stay and it is taboo for men to visit the Zombo,” Chief Hlarisi said.

For those three months, no one is allowed to loiter around the Chief’s homestead and the Zombo.

“Village boys would be guarding the Zombo with whips and these will beat any person who defies their orders,” the Chief added.

After the ceremony, elderly women and the chief’s wives order the release of the girls from the Zombo and a carnival called Handani takes over.

Wild celebrations and dance follow this. The villagers spend the whole day feasting at the chief’s homestead.

The Handani carnival brings together villagers, chiefs and herdsmen living around Chiredzi to celebrate this achievement.

“Parents of the girls bring gifts ranging from goats, cows, sheep and fowls among others to the elderly women and the Chief’s homestead as a token of appreciation for the three month job.

However there is no doubt that those dealing with matters of human rights view the practice of virginity testing with unfavorable eyes. They have criticised it as a violation of women’s human rights, while those who maintain that they are of the traditional cultural school are of the fact that it ensures abstinence from premarital sex.

The Domestic Violence bill has some amendments made to Clause 3, which deals with the issue.

This includes the inclusion of the term ‘forced virginity testing’ and ‘genital mutilation’ as constituting domestic violence.

Over the past few years, debate has been raging over the initiative by Chief Naboth Makoni to conduct virginity testing in Manicaland province.

Chief Makoni thinks the practice would help reduce the HIV/AIDS pandemic but ironically-according to research and media reports-his area is one of the hardest hit.

He argues that virginity testing dissuades young girls from premarital sex which would supposedly enhance their chances of marital bliss via enhanced respect from the husband, safeguarding them from AIDS and other ailments.

Although the view sounds sensible, it does not hold water when put under scrutiny.

A recent report by a South African paper on virginity testing revealed that the practice had even exposed the girls to HIV/AIDS.

The papers says the girls stuffed meat into their private parts to fool the examiners. It added that others resorted to anal sex to keep their perceived “virgin” status, a practice that easily spreads AIDS.

International human rights institutions are also vocal on the issue of virginity testing.

December 2006
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