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First-Fruit Ceremonies in Southern Africa

What First-Fruit Ceremonies are and why they are held.

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First-Fruit Ceremonies, which are held annually to celebrate the new harvest, have long been part of southern African cultural life, and are still proudly celebrated by, for example, the Zulu and Swazi nations today.

What Happens at First-Fruit Ceremonies?
In very simple terms, at a First-Fruit Ceremony the king or paramount chief eats (or tastes) the new season’s harvest, and is the first person in the nation to do so. This happens in a formal, ritualised manner, involving the use of special medicines created by his herbalists. The First-fruit Ceremony infuses the harvest with the blessing of the ancestors. The ritual then filters down through the various levels of authority, to tribal chiefs, sub-chiefs and head-men, and eventually the common farmer and his family. To eat the new crop before the king was considered 'treason' and a sin against the tribal ancestors.

"The other tribes will not begin to eat the early pumpkins of the new crop until they hear that the Bahurutse have 'bitten' it". David Livingstone writing about the Tswana.

What are the Origins of First-Fruit Ceremonies?
First-Fruit Ceremonies originate from the strong relation between agriculture and people’s ability to survive, the dependency on crops for food for the next year and the whims of the weather. Both the Zulu and the Swazi peoples live in regions that have summer rainfall -- in good years there is sufficient rainfall to provide a good crops, but in years of drought, which are common, the result could be devastating, creating shortages and starvation.

When Is the First-Fruit Ceremony Held?
The First-Fruit Ceremony is held when the new season's crops ripen at the end of spring/early summer, which in the southern hemisphere is in December or early January.

The Future of First-Fruit Ceremonies
Both the Zulu and the Swazi nations still celebrate First-Fruit Ceremonies. In modern South Africa, and to some extent in Swaziland, the ceremony is often seen as a way of uniting the nation to a common cause and strengthening traditional culture in societies bombarded by westernisation. Unfortunately, the ceremony has also become the focus for tourism and runs the risk of becoming a staged performance to please visitors rather than a central pillar of traditional culture.

There has been additional controversy over the 'barbaric nature' of the Zulu First-Fruit ceremony, which involves the savage beating to death of a bull, in a process which takes around 20 minutes. In December 2009 Animal Rights groups in South Africa attempted to halt the ceremony citing the 'barbaric nature' of the animal sacrifice. The courts found in favor of Zulu 'tradition'.

What Names are Given to the First-Fruit Ceremony?

  • Zulu -- umkhosi
  • Swazi -- incwala
  • Sotho and Tsonga -- loma
  • Venda -- thevuola
  • Nguni -- ulibo or shwama
  • Bhaca -- ingcubhe
  • Mpondo -- ingxwala

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