During twenty-two months' field-work in the Sibasa district of the NorthernTransvaal, between May 1956 and December 1958, I had the good fortune to observe and record most of the rituals and dances of the three important initiation schools for Venda girls: vhusha, tshikanda and domba. I attended schools in areas where I had lived and worked for several months, so that my photographs, 8 mm. cine films, tape recordings, and observations of action are accompanied by detailed census material and notes on the social life of the actors and their families, and by different explanations of the actions which were given by initiates, masters and mistresses of initiation, and casual informants.

Stayt and van Warmelo have produced good material on Venda girls' initiation schools, and I have published further information (Blacking 1959, 1965, 1968). I shall not point out certain similarities between practices of the Venda and those of other societies in central and southern Africa; nor shall I discuss a few discrepancies which exist between my own observations and the reports of Stayt and van Warmelo. I am not concerned with a comparative study of initiation, but with what I discovered in Vendaland. Furthermore, there are regional variations both in songs and in explanations of ritual and symbolism, so that what might appear to be discrepancies of reporting are probably differences of practice.

Strictly speaking, Venda girls should attend vhusha as soon possible after their first menses, and then tshikanda and domba shortly before they are married. In practice, they often attend the school in the order tshikanda - domba - vhusha or domba - vhusha - tshikanda. Vhusha may be held several times a year in the head-quarters of any district headman, but tshikanda and domba are held only at intervals of three to five years at the head-quarters of chiefs and certain senior headman, and for girls of several districts. Vhusha may not be held in an area where there is currently tshikanda or domba, so that a girl whose first menses begin at such time may go straight to domba, then attend vhusha when domba has been 'burnt', and finally go to tshikanda some years later just before another domba is to be held in the district. Thus we find that married women may attend pre-marital initiation schools, and young girls may not marry for several years after completing domba, which in theory should lead immediately to marriage.

The first of these two contradictions might perhaps be explained as a response to fear of the misfortunes, such as childlessness, which are thought to be caused by failure to undergo initiation. But this is unlikely, or at best a secondary consideration, because women know of people who have attended initiation and yet suffered misfortune, and of others who have not attended but have been singularly fortunate; and furthermore, a married woman may omit all the rituals, provided she attends the last night or two of domba and pays her fees.

There are in fact positive, social reasons for going to initiation schools. In traditionally oriented Venda society, women hold considerable power and almost undisputed authority in certain fields of religious duty, home management, marriage and divorce negotiations, the preparation of girls for marriage and the control of young mothers. Within this authority system, a woman's status depends chiefly on her seniority, which is established by her attendance at domba, and more precisely amongst age-mates of the same domba by her seniority within the school. The seniority of initiates can be seen at any domba dance: commoners (vhasiwana) dance in front of nobles (vhakololo), and within these groups the first recruit dances behind the second recruit, and the second recruit behind the third and so on. Thus the most recently arrived commoner dances in front of the domba 'chain', and the first noble recruit dances at the back. Since girls' heads are shaven on entry and not cut again until the end of the school, the length of their hair is a further indication of their seniority. Although rank is recognised within a single domba, nobles and commoners perform exactly the same rituals and graduate as a united group. In later life, a senior commoner will have higher status than a junior noble, although she is generally lower than nobles of her own age. (She can, of course, improve her position by marrying a noble.) Women argue vigorously about their age and seniority by assessing the relative 'vintages' of their initiation schools. Another social incentive for undergoing initiation is that a woman who has not graduated is not a 'member of the club': she has no real say in women's affairs, nor any guarantee of assistance from other women in times of crisis, and in particular she may not drink any of the beer that is paid by the initiates and consumed by the initiated at every initiation.

Girls undoubtedly express a desire for esoteric knowledge when they say "we go to domba [or vhusha etc.] because we want to 'learn the laws'" (u guda milayo): and indeed they learn much about etiquette and the correct social and sexual behaviour of married women, although in many cases the instruction confirms what has already been learnt informally from older girls and women. But many of the milayo consist only of special words for common objects or situations, and although most graduates can recite them, they do not understand or care about their symbolism. Their chief value, like the signs and passwords of Freemasonry and other secret societies (cf MacKenzie 1967), is as certificates of identity and attainment which guarantee a welcome in areas where one is not known, and in particular establish a right to drink beer which has been 'paid' by the sponsors of a new initiate. In a society that had no writing, the recitation of milayo may be compared to the presentation of a certificate of matriculation or of a university degree (Blacking 1961:6-7): it supported a woman's claim to the benefits of an inter-district, inter-tribal, pan-Venda, mutual-aid society.

Another reason given for going to vhusha is that graduation makes life physically more comfortable: young girls wear only a diminutive pubic covering (she) and a loose-fitting cotton shirt ()which hangs from the shoulders and is open at one side, but graduates may wear a second as a skirt covering the body from waist to knee. The skirt may indeed be warmer, but there is nothing to stop a small girl from wearing a blanket in the cold weather, just as a fourth former could wear gloves at Sherborne school. The value of wearing a skirt is surely social: it is a sign of status, and a step towards wearing the married woman's skirt, just as a boy who walked with his hands in his trouser pockets at Sherborne showed that he was a sixth former, a house prefect or one of the games élite.

Because the three Venda girls' schools are really inseparable parts of a long rite of passage, and the payment of the vhusha and tshikanda beer is as important a qualification for entry into the society of women as the payment of fees, girls who go to domba first are not immediately granted full privileges of graduation, nor do they expect to marry any sooner. Similarly, boys who go to circumcision school (murundu) at the age of nine do not expect to be called 'men' until they are married. Domba and boys' circumcision schools prepare and qualify their members for entry into the societies of women and men respectively: they do not make them members ipso facto. Likewise, girls may attend vhusha some time after the onset of puberty, because it is not the physiological change so much as the new social attribute of marriageability that is valued. Vhusha confirms and announces publicly a status that has already been acquired; and it is significant that girls must attend it in the areas where they were brought up as children, and that their fees are often paid by the families who will take them as wives for their men.