JOHANNESBURG - A lot has been said about Zulu maidens parading bare-breasted in public, but those who understand the culture say it is a matter of pride and not shame - well unless one has eaten of the forbidden fruit so to say.

Thembelihle Qwabe, a journalism student from the University of Johannesburg, recently took part in a traditional initiation ceremony to transition into womanhood and a world of good fortune that includes - but not limited - to finding a good husband, rewarding career or general luck in life.

Two years ago her sister, Popi Qwabe (24) and her friend Bongeka Phungula (28) were murdered in Soweto. With a bullet wound, Qwabe was found by locals on a Friday in Naledi. She had been shot in her head. Sadly died on her way to Jabulani Hospital. Her friend Phungula, was found dead in neighbouring Tladi the following day.

Thembelihle says the case against the man suspected of committing the heinous crime seems to have collapsed. 

Murdered: Bongeka Phungula and Popi Qwabe

For the bubbly university student, the traditional ceremony to enter womanhood offered a logical and perhaps necessary way to put the trauma and pain of losing her sibling into perspective. 

Rather than give up on her own life, the freedom of expressing her pride in her body has awakened a new desire to live life to the fullest. 

Known as “Umemumelo” the ceremony conducted by the Zulus is centred around the transition of maidens into womanhood.

Thembelihle, who has been invited to be part of the Karabo Mokoena Foundation, vividly recalls the traditional process she underwent. Mokoena was murdered in 2017. 

Mokoena's married lover and father of three, Sandile Mantsoe, is in custody and is standing trial for the murder of the 24-year-old, whose burnt body was found by a passerby in Lyndhurst in April last year.

"I have been invited to participate in Karabo Mokoena’s memorial lecturer for the killing of young women," said Thembelihle, who works part-time at Starbucks to pay for her university tuition.

Minister of Social Development Susan Shabangu will deliver the lecture at the Soweto Theatre on 12 of May.

"That is the same day that my sister and friend were murdered," laments Thembelihle.

Now 28, her transition to womanhood ceremony carried out in 2016 seemed a bit late, but Thembelihle explains that things have changed. Age and other criteria are no longer strictly adhered to. 

A maiden wears a cow placenta around her neck and chest. PHOTOS: Thembelihle Qwabe/ANA

"Nowadays 'Umemulo' is not so strict anymore in the setting of its rules. It is still done for at the age of 21, but an older maiden can still qualify to have the much sought after traditional ceremony. It all depends on the pocket of their parents," said Thembelihle, who was 26 when she had her Umemulo. 

Unlike in the olden days when every young girl in the community had their own beads, it is now acceptable to hire such accessories for the special day.

The ceremony prepares the individual mentally and emotionally with emphasis on increased awareness of self-worth, responsibility and virtue. Chastity is considered very important and the lack of it may affect the ceremony.

Apart from being a virgin, the maiden is expected to have exhibited virtue and respect towards older people in her community. She is expected, through her behaviour, to win over those elders who conduct the ceremony. This may include having to undergo a "virginity test".

The coming of age ceremony with a touch of modernisation... nails polished and the neck piece has parts of a Christmas decoration.

In the lead up to and during the ceremony older women teach initiates about sex and related matters including the prevention of HIV. Maidens are taught to be proud of their bodies - hence their ability to parade bare-breasted in public.

"It is a matter of pride," explains Thembelihle, adding that in her estimation Umemulo is something every Zulu girl dreams of. 

In her case, Thembelihle's Umemulo was financed by her mother, Nomsa Duduzile Ngwenya, and grandmother, Mantshangase. The ceremony was held at her village, Jozini, in KwaZulu-Natal.

Two women clean the intestines of a cow and remove the placenta which to be worn around the neck by a maiden in the ceremony.

The ceremony was meant to take place at her father’s home, but because he did not raise her as a child it took place at her grandmother’s house in the village. 

A spear, which can be bought or made, is used as a symbol to invite the maiden's paternal and maternal families even where the parents are no longer together. 

The maiden's mother's family accepts the invitation by preparing a meal and accommodating the maiden and other girls from the community that accompany her on the day. Invitations in the form of spears are exchanged to allow the ceremony to go ahead with their blessing.

Parents derive pride for raising their daughters in an upright manner and the ceremony is an opportunity for them to make a statement to the community about their good parenting skills.

On the day of the ceremony, parents endure anxious moments as their daughters are put through traditional tests of chastity, that include the mystical cow placenta test. 

"Traditionally, girls are asked to wear a freshly removed placenta of a cow around their necks. If it splits at any time during the ceremony the assumption is that the person wearing it has engaged in extramarital sex," explained Thembelihle. 

She said there are consequences for such an anomaly. 

"If it splits the ceremony stops because the old ladies call you out. You have to pay a fine to the old women that accompany you for them to buy a goat to cleanse the maidens that accompany you," said Thembelihle. 

She said the sanction depends on one's parents and how strictly they follow cultural practices. "If a maiden fails the virginity test the whole community shares the disappointed and the offending person is treated like a complete fraudster."

Asked if she would have any qualms about having her photographs of her during the Umemulo published, Thembelihle says she is completely comfortable and proud to show off her culture to the world. 

“These images define who I am as a Zulu woman. I am proud of who I am and who I have become because of this experience,” she said.

Thembelihle also spoke glowingly of another traditional Zulu ceremony - the reed dance.

Every year in September young women attend a reed dance held in a village called Kwa-Nongoma at Enyokeni, where the Zulu king Goodwill Zwlithini resides. 

Hundreds of bare-breasted maidens are paraded before the polygamous king and in some instances, he chooses a new wife from the group. Other men from the royal family can also choose maidens for themselves during the reed dance. 

“The Maidens do have a choice if they want to marry the king or not. No one is ever forced,” Thembelihle said.

Those who participate in the reed dance are given certificates a gown for those who have reached 21.

"We are slowly losing the meaning behind the beauty of this ceremony ... this is a good way of uniting people and teaching young women how to conduct themselves in life. How to love and appreciate who they are by taking pride in their bodies," said Thembelihle of her culture.

African News Agency/ANA