New brides lend beauty to dignified Xhosa rite

[caption id="attachment_35110" align="alignright" width="200"] FULLY EMBRACED: Nyameka Habe, before she took off her makoti attire last month. Picture: FREDLIN ADRIAAN[/caption]

THE way a newly wedded Xhosa bride – makoti – dresses up has for many years distinguished her from other women: a black doek or head scarf up to the forehead, a small tartan blanket over the shoulders, long-sleeved tops, a bath towel wrapped around her upper body, a woollen scarf around her waist and a long shweshwe print skirt.

La Femme spoke to elders and custodians in the Xhosa community who are familiar with this custom to understand its significance.

Dr Reverend Xoliswa Somhlahlo-Zauka – a lecturer at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and a minister at St Stephen Anglican church in New Brighton said: "There are different stages of life's progression in our various cultures and  makoti dress code is an indication that one has passed the girl stage and is now a woman, similarly to a young man initiate or a traditional healer initiate."

She said although the modern-day makoti attire has been slightly adapted from its original, it still held a great deal of significance.

"It is important that Xhosa makotis adhere to this attire to honour and preserve our culture," Somhlahlo-Zauka said.

Depending on the family, Somhlahlo-Zauka said a makoti may have to wear the attire for three months to a year and for some, until they have a child. In some families, as a sign of respect, a married woman may never wear trousers again. Former chieftainess of Amambombo in Keiskammahoek Nosiseko Ngqika, who now sits on the executive committee of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional leaders, confirmed this.

"The change of dress code is a symbolic transition to welcome a young girl to womanhood – the first of a number of stages a married Xhosa woman assumes over the years. She may no longer do some things she used to do when she was still a young unmarried girl," Ngqika said.

"Because we find working makotis  nowadays, a lot of families have become rather lenient and newly wedded brides may sometimes only wear their traditional attire when they come back from work. When a  makoti proudly wears her attire anyone can easily see that she is married."

Having once been a makoti herself Ngqika said part of the practice also taught one to embrace culture and gave makotis a dignified place in the community. She said secondary to the makoti stage one became umfazana (young woman) before becoming umfazi omkhulu (woman elder).

Somhlahlo-Zauka said sisters in-law are usually tasked with clothing a makoti, during a special ceremony called utsiki, part of which includes giving the bride a new name.

THE Rev Dr Ruby Somhlahlo-Zauka and Chieftainess Nosiseko Ngqika gave La Femme a break-down of what each makoti clothing item represents:

  • Covering the head with the black doek is a sign of respect towards elders. "You can't address elders bare-headed as a new bride", they explained.
  • The ankle-length print skirts cover the bride's legs, indicating that she is not a girl anymore. It also serves to avoid attention from possible suitors.
  • The meaning of the bath towel is similar to that of the modern wedding band.
  • The small tartan blanket symbolises the nurturing and protective qualities which the family expects from the bride.
  • The scarf that hides the waist, concealing the bride's frame, is also believed to protect her fertility.
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