It’s been four months since our last lesson. I realise that as my brain sends the car down unconscious turns, around familiar doglegs and across cautious intersections, through the streets spattered unexpectedly ngomkhemezelo-nje, ngovivi lokusa. The radio plays in the background – Ezanamuhla on uKhozi FM, JGZ spouting promises of an end to corruption while union leaders gxeka and suggest ubumbano rather than ingxabano.

And then I arrive, we xhawulana and enter, the house heavy with the silence of the last few minutes of the weekend.

“Dad was wondering about your… radio silence.”

“Ja, you must have been busy!”

I explain about the new job, and the new system, and we chat about the perks of teaching at a school and having holiday-time.

And then I hear about Nomvula’s upcoming marriage, and am relieved to admit that politics and other matters of severity won’t play a part in today’s lesson – even though the politics of a traditional Zulu marriage might present more of a challenge.

There are four iziqu to do with marriage, and they mostly favour activity for the bride and passivity for the groom:

QOM – to choose, to engage, to prefer. The bride qoma’s the groom – uyaqoma – whereas the groom is qoma’d – uyaqonywa.

GAN – to wed, to choose. As above – intombi iyagana, indoda iganwa.

SHAD – to undergo Christian marriage or marry by civil rites (as opposed to traditional marriage). Not as strict on the passive rules, as the word is borrowed from isiXhosa – tshatha.

END – to travel to marriage, to be married. It is an ancient isintu root denoting travelling, still found in Chichewa, Kiswahili and other languages.

These actions, of choosing and travelling, are all tied up in the fact that marriage is patrilocal. The bride’s people will always be the strangers, and the bride will have to be initiated into the husband’s family group. The bride’s family, joined spiritually with her groom’s through the exchange of ilobolo, continues to be honoured by the fact that her maiden isibongo and izithakazelo are used when addressed her, even as she is uNkosikazi kaSibanibani.

So when we deal with the names for the complex interconnections created by marriage, we must start with a simple premise – all Zulu kinship terms are relational, not absolute. There are different words used for the same object depending on your relation to that object.

The parents of the bride are umukhwe and umkhwekazi, but only to the groom. The ‘in-laws’ to him are ubukhwe or ubulanda, both abstract essential nouns denoting the wife’s father’s umuzi or umndeni.

The parents of the groom are ubabezala and umamezala, but only to the bride. Her in-laws are simply umndeni, the family. To them, she is the outsider. She is umakoti, derived from an ideophone for behaving like a bride – respectfully, the hair woven into the inkehli, izihlonipho peppering every sentence.

{We talk for a while of the potential for abuse in this system, and about migrancy and urbanisation. Then we return to the A3 page we’ve cocreated, and I continue}

The bride (or fianceé) is also ingoduso – the one-taken-home-to-one’s-parents.

The parents of both the bride and groom refer to each other as umna(k)wethu (with the usual -wethu, -wenu, -wabo pattern found in umfowethu) or more simply as umnawe. {this is a term I didn’t give you in the lesson, but it’s a nice catch-all term, meaning both fellow parent-in-law, parent-in-law or younger sibling}.

The siblings-in-law refer to each other as umlanda (groom referring to bride’s people), umlamu (a noun denoting the bride’s in-laws and disturbingly related to a verb, lamuza, denoting “marry one’s wife’s sister”)  or the more usual udadewethu and umfowethu.

{on the page in front of us is a complex web of interrelationship, to which I add one more set of concepts}

umkami / umkakho /umkakhe as opposed to umyeni.

my wife / your wife / his wife as opposed to “the stranger” (husband).

Which brings us back to the fact that a woman is the one who marries a stranger, to whose umuzi she travels in order to be part of umendo there, an endless travelling among strangers. That she is the one who qoma’s with the spear, picking her man from among the others.

I tell you a few izaga about marriage, we glance through some charts on iziNyoni and imiThi and suddenly, the rhōdodaktūlos eōs a faded picture through the windows, our lesson is over. I pack the flurry of charts and dictionaries back into my bag and we say our goodbyes and wish each other well for Phasika. I feel my brain waking up despite the dull grey sky, as I drive off with the Vuka Mzansi Breakfast Show warbling in the background.



It is only later, about an hour ago, that I realise something. It’s just a theory, mind, but it’s interesting, so bear with me.

The verb ukuKHa means “to pick flowers”, “to gather or pluck fruit”, “to draw or dip up water at a river” or “take a fancy to, be attracted to”. The passive is KHiwa.

My wife is the one whom I picked, the u-m-KHa–mina. Her family is the the thing picked by me, the ubu-KH-w-e.

Maybe that’s easy for me to say, though, because her Zulu name is uKhethiwe (the Chosen one).


PPS I’ve just discovered that there’s a proverb for umendo that’s even better than the one I used in the title:

umendo ngumthobisi wamagagu – marriage is the tamer of the cheeky.