Summary and Conclusions

Tshikanda, or vhusha ha halwa, is an intermediary initiation school between the 'puberty' and pre-marital schools, vhusha and domba. It lasts about a month, and in 1958 it cost ten shillings and thirty to forty pots of beer. The beer is often paid during the course of the ensuing domba, and therefore adds to the splendour of that school. One of its chief functions is to enable girls of noble birth to learn satisfactorily the songs and dances of the commoners' 'puberty' school, which they do not perform at their own initiation schools, all of which are held at the home of chiefs and headmen, whom many girls of noble birth will marry.

The songs and dances of tshikanda are generally the same as those of the 'puberty' school, vhusha, whose lessons they reiterate. Thus the main difference between the two schools is that at vhusha more attention is paid to the individual status of each novice, who passes through three distinct stages and then acts as a graduate, with special responsibilities towards junior novices; and at tshikanda all noble and commoner girls are brought together into one age-group for training, and all have the same status, as girls of marriageable age (khomba). At vhusha the chief persecutors of recalcitrant novices are senior unmarried girls, but at tshikanda the 'prefects' and 'fags' of vhusha are all treated alike. Thus tshikanda is less individualistic and more public than vhusha, from which (ideally, though not always in practice) it leads girls on to domba, which is essentially a public initiation, whose dances are held in the open khoro where rulers hold their council meetings. At domba the most noticeable distinctions between girls in the dancing chain are the length of their hair, which signifies not noble or commoner birth, but the number of days they have attended the school.

For vhusha, a girl is taken from her home to the council hut of her headman, where most of the singing, dancing and instruction takes place; the final meeting is held in the courtyard of one of the headman's wives, with a few spectators, whereas that of tshikanda is held in the public meeting-place, with a larger audience of women. The final public rites of domba are also held in the public meeting-place, but in the presence of a great crowd of men and women. There is a further rite of domba in which a girl is, as it were, once more returned to her own home, ready for marriage. The concluding event of tshikanda, the drama of Thovhela and Tshishonge, serves chiefly to amuse the married women who organise and act in it, and most of the action seems to pass over the heads of the shy novices. I doubt if it teaches the novices anything at the time, but it does express certain themes of Venda history and culture, and in particular the political situation which seems to be responsible for the present form of tshikanda, if not for its very invention.

The existence of tshikanda poses a problem: why should the Venda hold two initiations whose content is almost identical, and why should they refer to tshikanda as a 'puberty' school when novices may have already attended the 'puberty' school, and be long past the stage of puberty? The problem becomes perfectly clear when we consider the meaning of the word vhusha and the sociology of tshikanda.

Formerly, before the arrival of the ruling clans, it seems that vhusha was more strictly related to the physiological onset of puberty, and had to be held for a girl as soon as she reached that stage. Like the Bemba chisungo, it was the concern more of families and clans than of any central political authority. In its present form, however, it cannot be regarded as a puberty school for commoner girls: it is an initiation school which a girl may attend at any time after she has had her first menses. On the other hand, the vhusha for nobles, which is private and without music, really does take place directly after a girl has attained puberty. Thus we have the word vhusha used, apparently indiscriminately, for rites that take place either at puberty, or at some unspecified time after puberty, or even after domba, which is supposed to precede marriage.

I questioned many people, but never discovered a satisfactory explanation of the etymology of vhusha and domba, except that they might be translated as 'the opening' and 'the ripening' respectively. They should not, however, be translated as 'puberty' or 'fertility' rites, with suggestions of magical overtones. Quasi-magical rites do indeed take place at both schools, and the 'growth' of the novice is emphasised. But physiological growth is not as important as the social development: vhusha and domba mark the first and last stages in a Venda's preparation for institutionalised motherhood. Thus vhusha is held on or after puberty, not because puberty itself is important, but because it is the first sign that a girl may be prepared for the birth of (legitimate) children. The rites of vhusha, tshikanda and domba may each independently be divided into van Gennep's classic categories of separation, transition and incorporation; but at the same time they may be regarded in toto as a single institution concerned with the preparation of girls for social motherhood. This birth of the first child crystallises a marriage alliance that may have been arranged long before a girl attained puberty. If vhusha is seen not as a puberty rite but as an initiation school that prepares a girl for aspects of motherhood that are related to the results of puberty, then there is no inconsistency in the use of the same word to describe rites that are held at different physiological stages and under different sociological circumstances.

An explanation that I was given of the word tshikanda still further emphasises the sociological importance of the rites. Tshikanda is a 'piece of leather', and in the milayo of tshikanda (which are also repeated at domba) the leather skirt of married women is given special names. Two little 'tabs' at the bottom of the skirt are called milevhe, referring to a woman's labia minora, which must be lengthened by manipulation. This operation is begun often long before puberty, its importance is emphasised at vhusha, and it must be stopped after a girl has attended tshikanda. The word tshikanda, therefore, refers to a culturally induced phenomenon that physical anthropologists have, in other contexts, called the Hottentot apron, and it is interesting that the Venda also think of it as an 'apron'. Tshikanda marks the end of a period of physical preparation which is considered necessary for a woman to be acceptable to her husband.

Finally, tshikanda brings together noble and commoner girls in a way that tends to reinforce the current political system by promoting the power of rulers, by strengthening associations of women and maintaining patriarchy, and by preparing girls for the institution of marriage as approved by the state. It is not so much by its teaching and symbolism as by its social organisation that tshikanda has made, and continues to make, its impact on Venda society. It is important to know milayo and to have attended tshikanda, but it is not necessary to have understood everything. The teaching situation is more important than what is taught.