The Story of the Abakwetha Blanket
Mandela day is just around the corner so we decided to tell the story of some of the great Xhosa traditions. One of our most special cultural blankets is the Xhosa Abakwetha Blanket - the striking white blanket with the red stripes, so what better way than to start with sharing the rich cultural history of this beautiful blanket.
Young Xhosa men from the age of 17 are eligible for Initiation or "Ulwaluko". The group of initiates are called "Abakwetha" which means a "group of learning". During the time of initiation, which can be anything from 1 to 3 months, the young men are taught by their elders. The elders pass down stories of history, culture, traditions and modern day lessons in terms of relationships, respect, family, finances and ultimately, the role of a man in society. Initiation occurs during June or December and boys are isolated from the families in a "Sutu" or a reed/thatched hut constructed specifically for the occasion. During this time all the boys have to wear is...the Abakwetha Blanket. It is either wrapped around their entire bodies, including their heads (more often in the cold June initiation slot!) or is often wrapped around their waist - most often in the warm December initiation period. This blanket is the only thing they have to protect them from the bush and the elements for the entire time they are "in the mountain". The most significant moment of initiation is when the boy is circumcised. A traditional surgeon or "ingcibi" uses a spear to slice off the foreskin. At which point, the boy must show no fear, emotion or pain and is only allowed to shout "NDIYINDODA!" which means "I am a man!" The Foreskin is then pinned to the blanket.
In Nelson Mandela's book, Long Walk to Freedom, he writes: "He took my foreskin, pulled it forward, and then, in a single motion, brought down his assegai. I called out 'Ndiyindoda!' I looked down and saw a perfect cut, clean and round like a ring. Immediately after the blow had been delivered, an assistant who followed the ingcibi took the foreskin that was on the ground and tied it to the corner of our blankets. Our wounds were dressed with a healing plant. (…) I count my years as a man from the date of my circumcision."
The boys then spend 8 days going through very specific rituals that include painting their faces and bodies with mud, not being allowed to eat or drink with their hands, and visits from the traditional attendant to treat their wounds with local traditional medicines.
At the end of the entire initiation or"ulwaluko", the abakwetha race down to the river to wash themselves. The "Sutu" or hut where they went through their transition is burned, along with their blankets! This marks the end of their childhood and entry into manhood. They are then given new blankets of all sorts of colours and patterns. They emerge to their families as men and hold a huge celebration. The young men receive many gifts... mostly of more blankets!
In South Africa there are many groups working with the traditional leaders to ensure that these historical practices can continue safely.
At Blankets and Weaves, we are celebrating Mandela day by marking all our Xhosa Blankets down from an already crazy low price of R280 to just R267, plus we're giving the difference on each blanket sold to the Nelson Mandela Foundation :) only until 21st July. Have a look at all of them here.