Unwele olude, more usually heard as nwel’olude, is an expression of a wish for prosperity, and I’ve always understood it as directly relating to a wish for the person to experience a sustained period of happiness. It’s most often said on the occasion of someone’s birthday, along with other lovely phrases such as ‘khul’ukhokhobe’.
But why is it hair? Why not say ‘long life’ or ‘long may you be blessed’?
When grief strikes, the hair is cut. It is usually shaved off completely. The resultant change in a person’s appearance is part of a complex interaction between behaviour and speech which makes clear to anyone that they are bereaved.
That last word leads me to the same conclusion – you have experienced the harvesting or reaping of a person close to you, and as such you cut off your hair, abstain from smiling or laughing or the playing of music, and deny yourself many basic daily joys.
A person who does not observe the obligatory period of grief, and so breaks taboo (e.g by engaging in sex, by eating something they shouldn’t, or by behaving in a raucous manner) is described thus:
udlala ngegeja kuziliwe
“He plays with the hoe in a time of grief”
Agriculture was not permitted during the time of abstention due to grief. However, it’s quite clear that the sexual association of the hand-plough and the penis is intended (for the most part). But I digress.
So… if you wish someone ‘long hair’, you’re wishing that they have an unbroken period of joy, long enough for their hair to grow long.
My uncle (who was also my godfather) passed away at the end of last year – and a few weeks later my wife’s great-aunt (the oldest and only surviving member of her generation) also passed. And coincidentally, somewhere in the middle there, I cut off almost all my hair.
It was a shock – mostly because of the profusion of pure white hair a few millimetres long at the temples. Age comes for us all, I thought. It felt like a reaving, of some kind. Like a harvest of joy. And just like that harvest, My hope is that new things will grow from the harrowed fields.
When I popped in to work in the strange vacuum between Christmas and New Year, I was met by Noel – the long-suffering person on whom I practise my chiChewa – who pronounced the following sentence:
You have been transfigured. Transfiguration has occurred.
Given all the talk about hair last year, it’s interesting how much it can change the way people perceive you. I was marked by the visible change.
So, when someone’s birthday comes round, wish for them to have no more haircuts!