The day after getting back to Siphofaneni from our trip to Mozambique, we heard that a lebola ceremony would take place at our neighbor’s homestead the following weekend. During this traditional Swazi celebration, the groom pays a dowry (15 cows in this case) to buy the bride from her father. This event happens a few months before the wedding, and Swazis take this and any possible opportunity to host a big party. The weekend began on Saturday night when the cows were brought to our neighbor’s homestead. Historically, the groom would walk with the cows, at times for over 100 km over a few days, from his homestead to that of the bride. But, in recent years, the cows are often transported by truck to a place near the destination and walk the rest as part of the traditional ceremony. This time, the cows only had to walk about 1 km from the center of Siphofaneni.
We did not witness the arrival of the cows, but I did get to watch and take part in some of the second phase later in the traditional weekend. On midday Saturday, the men and some of the women gathered in the kraal, strewn with droppings, partially chewed corn stalks, and lots of fertile dirt, to witness the slaughter of two cows, one for the groom and one for the bride. I came late and did not see this killing, but from what I was told, the men used a long spear and repeatedly stabbed the cows near the heart. When I arrived, the men were busy skinning one cow. The other cow was already skinned and butchered, so I helped the guys by taking a couple of the severed legs that were hanging on the fence and put them into a wheelbarrow.
As a few of the guys continued to chop at the ribs with a hatchet and remove the inners, I turned my attention to the second cow. This cow was to be used later in a ceremonial game. The men were preparing the beast by cutting away the hide from the legs and the side of the torso, and by making slits along the edges of the skin to serve as handles. The main idea of the game was to take a long time to transport the cow from the kraal to the kagogo house (where the bride's father stays), a distance of about 100 meters. The bride’s family and friends pulled on the back of the cow and the groom’s people pulled on the front of the cow. Before the game, a man approached me and told me that because I was named Mandlenkhosi (in siSwati, power of the king) that I should pull on a horn. He tricked me into playing the game with the groom’s family rather than our neighbors, the bride’s family. The rest of the day, Babe Dlamini (the father of the bride), joked with me saying that I was a traitor and that I was supposed to pull on the tail.
The game was so much fun. We began in the kraal with about 20 people surrounding a semi-skinned cow with its head dangling. People held the horns, ears, legs, or skin. The game symbolizes the unwillingness for the bride’s family to accept the last cow because the acceptance seals the sale of the bride to the groom. The bride’s family resists giving up possession of the bride. Imagine the cow there with people pulling on all ends, the skin acting as a gurney to carry the dead cow to the house of the bride’s father. We all chanted “Lugege lugege inyama” repeatedly, as if we were deck hands raising a halyard. We carried the cow about 20 meters, pulling and retreating, slipping in wet droppings as we walked, before putting the cow down to rest and re-grip. As I pulled on the horn, the head kept twisting, as 2 men pulled on one side and one on the other, and my hands slipped. Along the way, people who could not fit around the cow would tickle members of the other team and impede their pulling. It became a laughing matter, because everyone (but me) knew that the game had only one outcome, and nobody won or lost. A few times the hide rubbed against my leg and smeared some blood on me, and on a few occasions, I fell and had to get to my feet quickly before being trampled. After about 10 minutes of pulling, we finally got to the house where the bride’s father lives. The idea of getting a large cow through the narrow door was befuddling. This cow was a bit wide. The members of the groom's team grabbed somewhere on the head or part of a leg and heaved, and the cow finally slid through the door and onto the smooth concrete floor. As I pulled, a woman gave me a big bear hug and pushed me toward the wall to keep me away from the many platters of food laid out in the center of the rondavel. I thought that she was a member of the “tail” team getting a bit carried away, but when I turned around I realized that I must have cleared the food by mere centimeters. Whoa!
So the day continued with the men gathered around trays of meat and buckets of tjwala (beer), and with the women gathering around jugs of emahewu. One of our neighbors repeatedly said “I’m happy today” as he kept offering me some of his “happy juice” that he was enjoying. It was a bit funny. I had to try some, as it could only cause minimal dizziness and diarrhea or worse, so I put the 3 liter bucket to my lips and took a swig. The guys told me that the drink was made from bananas. It tasted like the bananas had sat out un-refrigerated for 3 days, and actually, they had. A while later, a second bucket arrived. One of the guys said that this brew was made from popo. I tried this one, but it was not your well-known microbrew. From that point, I decided to drink only the emahewu for rest of the day. The men continued to drink and talk for many hours more, so I decided to go home, planning to return on Sunday for what the bride's father called the "meat race".
I woke up Sunday and donned my running shoes. I was ready to make the bride’s father as proud of me as he is of his sons. Lauren and I arrived in the middle of the morning, and the men were all huddled around the big trays of fresh meat and buckets of tjwala. Babe Dlamini (the bride's father) welcomed me, inviting me to sit with the older married men. Within 3 seconds, a make noticed a Lauren near the men and shot out of somewhere to rescue her. She grabbed Lauren by the arm and took her to where the women hang out. For us to be together would be culturally wrong!
The older married men sat on nice chairs, some padded, and used a small chair in the center of the circle as a table. In the center were a jug of tjwala and a tray of freshly-coked meat. Babe had a man give me a piece of meat. After I ate it, he said in siSwati, "Udla inyama," meaning eat meat. I obliged and took another piece. He then said "Natsa," meaning drink as he pointed at the tjwala. Babe Dlamini commanded one of the other men to fill a cup with tjwala, and he insisted that I drink it all down. This was Swazi peer pressure. Babe said that I was drinking "the drink of the day." The bomake had made it specially for the weekend.
After a time with the mkhulus and older married guys, I went to the next group of younger married men. They were sitting on large concrete blocks, and some less comfortable chairs as they sat around more tjwala and meat. They offered me some more meat, as every now and again a guy would bring the meat out as it was done cooking. The guys offered me some of the tjwala, saying that this brew was made from bananas. Another beer offered to me was made from popo, evidently the two "drinks of the day." After a few minutes with the married guys, some of the younger boys called me to the fire where the meat was cooking.
The braai pit was not too elaborate. It had 2 large black cast-iron kettles with large pieces of cow meat simmering over roaring fires. Every now and then, a teenage boy would use a large stick to stir the meat and add water as needed. Next to the kettles, the young men were cooking some cow meat on a metal grill set on 4 cinder blocks, hot embers providing the heat. Before cooking, the guys cut slits in and salted the meat. Next to the braai area, the remainder of the men, unmarried, sat under a large tree, sitting on small concrete blocks, old rusty farm equipment, used wire spools, and whatever else might be lying around. They talked about soccer, life, America, and joked about people's nicknames. I really enjoyed chatting with the guys, as these are the guys who will speak to me as a peer. My age and married status means that I should hang out with the younger married men, but I am more comfortable with the younger unmarried guys.
While I was talking to the guys, my friend Mphilo tapped me on the shoulder and pointed toward the house. He said "Titfobile is dancing." I looked up and she was dancing a traditional Swazi dance as the gogos watched and sang. She was smiling as her shawl she had to cover her shoulders flapped in the wind. She wore a bandana to cover her head too, as married women must cover their head and shoulders at all ceremonies. She looked like she was having so much fun as she raised her legs and clapped behind her knees, just as the dance goes. The gogos, most of them will not remember the day so well as they share a bucket of tjwala throughout the day, always enjoy watching people dance.
After watching Lauren dance and spending a bit of time talking with the unmarried men in their teens and 20s, I rejoined the married guys. They were fun too, but they talked a lot more in siSwati, so I just listened and watched. I had to listen well as I tried to follow the conversations. The men offered me a bit more tjwala, and I emptied the cup. Lauren thought that the drink is not too acidic, but after not eating but a few pieces of meat since breakfast, and being in the hot sun, that might not matter. I was feeling a slight effect. I chatted as much as I could in siSwati with the guys, and within a few minutes, Babe Dlamini realized I was back. He had been monitoring the quality of the tjwala for a while, and he wanted me to be satisfied. He asked me in siSwati, "Ngidzakiwe yini?" meaning "Are you drunk?" The answer is one that he did not need to hear. He was going to make me drink another cup regardless. I drank the cup, after he insisted that I could not share it. As Babe Dlamini was talking with us, he looked over at his chair, and a drunk man was sitting in it. He was angered, as he was the host of the party and he would be the only man to sit in his chair. He walked over and pushed the man out saying to him passionately in siSwati. I stayed and talked with the men for a while longer, and then Babe Dlamini called me over saying, "Are you ready to race?" I was excited to race. I liked being the center of attention. When I stood up, I was a bit happy. The juice plus the excitement for the race made me just a bit giddy, and well, maybe a bit tipsy too.
So I had no idea what I was supposed to do in the race. There was an old plastic peanut butter tub that contained some kind of meat. Later I was told that it was the cow's vagina. There were 2 teams yet again, the same as for the cow carry game. This time I played for the bride's team. Before the game started everyone from the celebration stood around the race track, a dirt strip between the front doors of 2 adjacent homesteads. Each team piled inside their house. The groom's team went into the kagogo house and our team went in the main house. We were just about to start, and Babe yelled, "Mandlenkhosi, you go first!" I had no idea what to do, but I was willing. Suddenly the groom's team ran from their house with the meat and threw it on the floor inside the main house. It was our job to block the meat, grab the container, run full speed to the other house, and slide the meat on the floor through the legs of the other team. The game continued until everyone had a chance to run with the meat. At the end of the game everyone dispersed and the party continued.
The time was then around 2:30pm, and people were getting hungry. The idea of meat was a good one, as everyone had not had any meat since the morning. The bomake had been cooking all day to feed the hundreds of people. They could cater any event anywhere! Lauren helped for a couple hours in the kitchen cooking baked chicken in the wood oven. Imagine cooking everything with wood, having to keep the fire going for hours on end! Every 10 minutes the women had to go outside to get some "cool" 80 degree air to avoid getting light-headed from the scorching temperature in the kitchen. They had so much good food: chicken, beef, spinach, pumpkin, macaroni salad, tuna salad, beetroot, rice, and the list goes on. The amount of preparation required to cook and serve the food to the people was amazing.
We stayed for a bit after we ate, feeling bad to "eat-n-run," but when we say many other people leaving, we felt that it was okay. We said goodbye to Babe Dlamini, and he held his shake for nearly a minute as he talked. He likes us a lot. On the way out we finally met the groom. I think that for the duration of the party he was probably sitting on the floor in the kagogo house talking with the other men his age. He did not get around to talk to everyone, but I assume that this is the Swazi custom. Lauren and I both left happy, looking forward to the wedding ceremony in the early part of next year.