The Herald, June 1 2004
AUNTS (Vhomakhadzi) rule the roost among many tribes, especially the vhaVenda people.
They ensure that wealth circulates within the tribe and are beacons of conflict resolution and management, who also double as leaders of traditional rituals when it’s time to communicate with ancestors. (Ndivho muamba zwifele)
They have the final say on many issues within the clan, although in theory they claim subservience to their brothers, who they regard as fathers.
Because of the power they wield in the family, aunts have occasionally been accused, rightfully or wrongly of being notorious “witches” by members of the clan when things are not going on well.
Their influence in the clan keeps the bully husband under check and the cat and mouse battles between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law at the barest minimum.
They are also the answer to the lobola (tshimalo) nightmare that haunts most young couples these days as some in-laws are demanding as much as $8 million as lobola payment.
Cattle that the aunts’ husbands normally pay as lobola are passed on to pay for their brothers’ wives.
But who are the vhaVenda who allow the aunt so much power and influence? According to the official year book of the Republic of South Africa 1975, second edition, the vhaVenda have some historical connection with the Rozvi Kingdom of Zimbabwe.
Their first king was Dambanyika. Some have called him Dlembeu or Velelambeu. After crossing the Limpopo River into South Africa, Dambanyika and his people settled in the Njelele area near present day Makhado town, more than eight centuries ago.
Historians say that the vhaVenda appear to have migrated from the region surrounding the big lakes of Central Africa and made their home in what is known as the Dzata Ruins, a stone wall structure similar to the Great Zimbabwe. The vhaVenda obviously thought that they had found their “Promised Land” as Dzata, in literal terms, means “a good place”.
After Dambanyika, his son, Thohoyandou (head of an elephant), took over and formed a greater Venda nation by bringing together various clans. They are found in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Those that are in Zimbabwe migrated from down south during Makhado’s reign. Makhado was one of the prominent Venda chiefs who fought in some wars with the Boers.
He had been taught how to use a gun. Makhado was also known as the Lion of the North after beating down a contingent of 450 Boer commandos under Paul Kruger, sending them into flight. But his son, Mphephu, was however defeated by the Boers and he fled to Zimbabwe in 1898.
Later, the warring parties reconciled and Mphephu went back to South Africa, leaving behind some of his people here. It should be noted that the vhaVenda have a rich history of myths and legends, some of which still influence their daily life.
There is a clear bureaucracy where the aunt leads proceedings when they appease the spirits of their departed parents, who are in turn expected to pass on the prayer to God (Raluvhimba).
LESSONS FOR TODAY
The various ethnic groups that make up the nation of Zimbabwe have a rich cultural heritage.
Although culture is dynamic, due to the urban-rural migration, most cultural practices are still passed on orally from generation-to-generation because Africa remains largely oral.
Unity and respect of one’s culture ensures continuity of some cultural traits. In a family set-up, both male and female members still perform their defined roles, like management of the family system.
While the role of the aunt is almost non-existent among some ethnic groups, the power that the vhaVenda aunts have means that they are to a certain extent, a matriarchal society.
It would be interesting to see what researchers come up with, if they investigated the role of aunts from all the ethnic groupings, and compare and contrast how Western civilisation has affected each grouping.