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Many years ago, all Zulu people had holes in their ears. We say that their ears were pierced. In the holes, the people wore earrings. The earrings were made of ivory, clay or horn. The Zulu word for ear piercing is ukuqhumbuza.

Why did the Zulu people pierce their ears?

We do not know for sure why the Zulu people pierced their ears. There is a story that the Zulu kings said all Zulu people must pierce their ears. Then the people’s ears were opened and they heard the words of the their king. Then they obeyed him.


The kings wanted their people to listen to them, and obey them. So the kings said that everyone must pierce their ears. The kings said that the zulu people must not be isicuthe. lsicuthe means to be deaf, or disobedient, or to have unpierced ears.

Ukuqhumbuza was very important to the Zulu people. After ukuqhumbuza they stopped playing like children. They had to obey the king.


Here is a story about the ukuqhumbuza of two boys. Their names were Themba and Gwalagwala. They were the sons of a rich Zulu chief. Themba and Gwalagwala’s father had many goats. Themba and Gwalagwala herded their father’s goats.

Their father also had many cattle. When the boys were 11 years old, their father decided that they must look after his cattle. So the chief decided that it was time for his sons’ ukuqhumbuza.

The chief said that his sons’ ukuqhumbuza feast must be in the winter. Winter was a good time for feasting. The people finished harvesting their crops before winter. So in winter the people had little work to do. And there was plenty of food and beer for feasting.

When winter came, the chief called all his people together.

The chief said: “It is time for my sons to have ukuqhumbuza. The ukuqhumbuza feast will be at the time of the new moon. The children of the same age as my sons can also have ukuqhumbuza. After the feast I will choose which of my sons will be your chief after me.”


The people were very excited. Ukuqhumbuza would change their lives very much. After the ukuqhumbuza feast, the children could work like adults. Everyone looked forward to the feasting and dancing. And they wanted to know who would be their next chief.

Themba and Gwalagwala did not care who would be the next chief. They did not care about the feasting. They only thought about the ear piercing. They must go first because they were the chief’s sons. They knew that they must be very brave. They must not pull away or cry out when the sharp umkhonto or spike went through their ears.


Themba was very excited. He said to himself: “After the ukuqhumbuza feast I will herd my father’s cattle. I will talk with the other boys about cattle. We will be like men. We will learn to fight with sticks.”

Gwalagwala was scared. He thought about the pain and the blood when the sharp umkhonto went through his ears. And he did not want to look after the cattle. He was afraid of the big cows and bulls.


A few days before the new moon, the chief sent a messenger to another village. The messenger

went to get an old woman to come and qhumbuza. This woman, or isalukazi, was very good at qhumbuza. She knew how to stop ears from swelling up after qhumbuza. She used special roots for this.

Many people came from other villages to the ukuqhumbuza feast. They brought food and beer. They also brought presents for the children.

When the new moon came up in the sky, the people went to the gate of the cattle kraal.


The children stood in the kraal waiting for ukuqhumbuza.

Themba and Gwalagwala were very scared. They rubbed their ears hard. Then their ears felt dead and they would not feel the pain of ukuqhumbuza.

Gwalagwala said quietly to Themba: “Please go first.” Themba nodded his head and walked forward. He stood in front of isalukazi. Themba was very scared. He felt sick. His hands were wet with sweat. lsalukazi put her hand on Themba’s head. Themba shut his eyes and waited for the pain …


Suddenly Themba heard a loud cry behind him. He turned around and saw Gwalagwala running into his mother’s hut. Gwalagwala ran away to his mother because he was scared of the pain.

Gwalagwala’s mother was not at the ukuqhumbuza feast because she had her monthly bleeding. If women had their monthly bleeding, they were not allowed at the feast. If men slept with their wives the night before, they were not allowed at the feast. The people thought. “If the children see these people, their ears will swell up and get sores.”

Themba knew that Gwalagwala could not have ukuqhumbuza now because he saw his mother. His ears might swell up and get sores.

The chief said to isalukazi : “Go on with ukuqhumbuza.”


lsalukazi again put her hand on Themba’s head. Themba’s ears were not dead any more. But he was so worried about his brother that he was not afraid of the pain.

lsalukazi pierced umkhonto through Themba’s ears. She did this so quickly that Themba did not feel the pain. Then isalukazi put corn stalks tnto the holes in Themba’s ears.

The chief smiled at Themba. Themba went to his father. The chief patted Themba’s shoulder. Themba said: “Father, please may I go to my brother.” The chief said: “No, my son. Sit here at my feet.”

Themba sat and watched while isalukazi pierced the ears of the other children. When ukuqhumbuza was finished, the chief stood up. He walked with Themba to the middle of the kraal. All the people were very quiet. They knew that the chief was going to say something important.


The chief said. “My people, you have waited a long time for me to choose who will be your next chief. I did not know which of my sons to choose. Our king gave Gwalagwala’s mother to me. If I choose Gwalagwala, the king will be very happy. But Themba’s mother is my first wife. And she is one of our people.

“It was very hard for me to choose. So 1 waited for my sons to show me which one 1 must choose. Tonight we saw that my son, Gwalagwala, is igwala, a coward. But my ·other son, Themba, is very brave. My people, I choose Themba to be your next chief.”


All the people clapped and cheered. The chief killed a beast for his son. The people ate and drank and danced until late that night. But Themba went to sleep early. He was very tired. He wanted to be strong to herd cattle the next day.


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