A Goat That Is A Cow That Is Speaking
In African spirituality, umcimbi serves as both church and parliament where family/clan law is legislated and enforced; as well as where spirits occupying this mortal coil commune with those beyond, in the place called eMbo.
A mcimbi, for our suburbanite friends who may not know, are those lively parties we’re always throwing where there’s a lot of singing and smoke coming from the back of the house.
They come in a range of variants: small mcimbi like igogogo (literally “a single drum of home-brewed liquor”) or “idinara” (not quite sure what this was called before it became the Xhosalised version of “dinner”) only need the presence of people for the spiritual magic to happen.
But our magic comes in other forms too. Stronger forms that require nonstop singing and dancing and the beating of drums for days on end to invoke what the Judeo-Christians call “a joyful noise unto the Lord”. Even stronger are those that require animal sacrifice.
All magical animals are referred to as a gender-neutral cow — inkomo. It could be a sheep, a goat or even an actual 1 ton, 8-stomached bovine of either sex — they all become inkomo when it comes to performing the magical things that come with the eating of animal flesh during umcimbi.
“Do I look like data bundles to send messages to your ancestors?” a faun-coloured goat with steely gaze, short horns and downturned contemptuous ears appears to ask in one of the best memes to come out in recent years.
“A goat that is a cow that is speaking” — ibhokwe eyinkomo ethethayo — forms the first rung in the ancestral communications system. The goat is a cow because for the work at hand, a promotion to the calibre of a nobler, 8-stomached bovine is warranted. It speaks because this is the GSM network, the fibre optic cable that links the corporeal realm with that of the spirit world known as eMbo.
For amaXhosa, the consumption of goat meat is exclusively site specific — consumed in situ, as it were. You would be hard pressed to find goat meat being served in a Xhosa home without it speaking for or to something.
The goat almost always speaks. It is an animal that is used to introduce seismic changes to the family unit — both nuclear and extended. A newborn child and a new makoti (young bride) are both introduced by way of goat messenger to the ancestors. Ulwaluko, the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood — otherwise crudely known as “initiation” — requires an utterly obscene amount of goat, even by Xhosa standards. A whole goat for each milestone along the road from Boyz II Men — up to four entire goats for the entire process from day one to the final homecoming day.
The cow is, of course, first prize. It is the ancestor-making animal owing to its sheer corpulence — being able to feed an entire village in a single sitting — and the difficulty that comes with wrangling a single (often neutered) bull from the herd, in preparation for the equally difficult slaughter that comes thereafter. It is the animal by which one is raised from ordinary dead kinfolk who gradually fade from the collective memory of the clan; to honourable ancestor deserving of reverence and honour, remembered from one generation to the next, in perpetuity.
For the magic of the animal sacrifice to take place, a specific order of events must occur. In the case of both the cow and the goat, a generous piece of the animal’s tenderloin is removed and grilled directly on hot coals seasoned with a little salt. This is known as intsonyama, and it is served only to members of the clan hosting the mcimbi in a ceremony known as ukushwama. To partake in this meat when you are not of the same clan or a blood relative of the family hosting the mcimbi is to bring all manner of calamity upon yourself — from slight indigestion to lifelong ill-fortune and even death.
When the mcimbi is that of “a goat that is speaking”, there is also the unavoidable eating of umkhono — one of the forelegs of the animal. This is consumed only by the person or persons for whom the goat has been slaughtered. They have to eat the entire thing, or as much of it as they can, without assistance from anyone. If they are unable to finish the entire “mutton leg”, they may be assisted by any blood relative or fellow clan member.
Whether it be an animal of the “short clothing” variety (impahla emfutshane) or a grand beast of the bovine persuasion, the consumption of the rest of the animal is what literally separates the men from the boys.
Walking into any mcimbi, even the uninitiated will quickly pick up hints and clues as to how things go down. Segregation in seating arrangements along age and gender is the first signal that we shan’t all be eating the same thing. This is how the codes and rules of Xhosa society are reinforced.
At the lowest rung of society are the uncircumcised boys. The foreskinned uninitiated ones upon whom the deepest ridicule is visited. Of the shorter clothing (impahla emfutshane) such as sheep and goats (which are often referred to as the same thing — a goat that is a cow which is or isn’t speaking) the boys may freely partake of the rectum of the animal called undonci. This is normally roasted/grilled on an open fire of the young boys own devising — a fire which, ostensibly, is made for the searing of the other part of the animal reserved exclusively for uncircumcised boys: the hooves. The greatest insult that can ever be directed at a visiting adult male who is not Xhosa is to be served the chargrilled, rubbery white tube that is undonci.
The boys are also given the omasum — or “the bible” — which is the third stomach of the multi-stomached bovines. A tough meat that is hard to clean and even harder to cook which never seems to tenderise with the rest of the tripe in the pot.
Circumcised men — especially older, married men — are served the choicest parts of the animal. The head, neck, chest (the brisket) and ribs of the animal go to the older men who then decide what to keep for themselves and what they will share with the rest of the attendees of umcimbi. They also enjoy some of the more coveted innards which include udakada (sweet bread or pancreas), isandlwana (second stomach) and isibindi (liver).
Young girls share in the remaining innards — ulusu (tripe or first stomach), amathumbu (intestines), umbilini/izibilini (lungs, heart and other related cardiothoracic organs) — with the older women of their clan. Those who are classified as makoti or molokazana — the women who have married into the clan — are sometimes prohibited from eating any or all of the innards. It is believed that these meats, along with chicken eggs (laid or unlaid), act as a contraceptive preventing the very serious and important business of pregnancy from occurring in the young makoti whose main task is to ensure the continuation of the family lineage.
Curiously, young girls and women of the clan are allowed some liberties in this semi-rigid protocol. As members of the clan, they are able to enter ubuhlanti (the kraal), which is usually the exclusive province of circumcised men.
The ability of young girls to enter this hallowed ground places them at an advantage over the boys and makotis of the family as they are able to partake in the same meat as their fathers, uncles and grandfathers. It is partly this practice that brings about the famed and fearsome Xhosa matriarch — that dadobawo (father’s sister) who holds as much, if not more, say-so as any man in her family.
Of course, the magic of the rite — whether it be ulwaluko or utsiki (welcoming a young bride to the family) — does not happen by happenstance or the trick of probability. For the cow or goat to be speaking, a human must speak over it — and the animal must respond with a “roger that” in the form of an audible bleating as the extra sharp spear of the clan’s intlabi swiftly and skilfully slashes its throat. This is how the animal is transmogrified into the required data bundles for the transmission of our messages to the eMbo family whatsapp group — blue ticks guaranteed.