All non-Christian commoner girls should attend, and many Christian girls do attend, the traditional vhusha ha vhasiwana (vhusha of commoners). Girls of the Zionist and other separatist sects attend the modern vhusha ha vhatendi (vhusha of Christians) sometimes instead of the traditional vhusha, but more often in addition to it. Girls of ruling families, and girls whose noble mothers have married commoners, attend the traditional vhusha ha vhakololo (vhusha of nobles), at which there is no music. The novice 'washes' (-),whereas at the commoners' vhusha she is 'sung for' (-imbelwa).

I shall not discuss the Christian vhusha; and since there is no music at the nobles' vhusha, I shall describe only certain features, especially those which it shares with the commoners' vhusha.

At both nobles' and commoners' vhusha, each novice passes through three stages. On every occasion the ritual is the same, but by graduating to the second and third stage a girl plays a different role in the proceedings and is released from certain taboos. Her progress from one stage to another is determined by the recruitment of new girls for the first stage. The stages are as follows:

Stage I : Muhulu (or muhulo; from -hula = to grow)

A novice is given a ritual companion, and she spends all the time with her in seclusion at the head-quarters of the chief or headman. A noble stays in the headman's pfamo (private hut), while a commoner stays in the less private tshivhambo (council hut). She may not speak to any men except her father and her brothers, until she has completed the second stage (see below). All her body hairs are shaved, and she is not allowed to wear any ornaments.


Novices in the ruler's hut for the commoners' vhusha.

Note the new novice, without a necklace.


On the first day of the nobles' vhusha, each novice is assigned a ritual companion, stripped naked and thrashed twenty-eight times by the woman in charge, fourteen strokes on each thigh. If the novice is weak or sickly, or does not wish to be thrashed hard, she can pay a fine (R1.00in 1957) and receive only eight strokes. For eight days she remains naked and covered only with a blanket. She may be pinched and tormented, and ordered to fag by the senior girls. She is given special instructions by the old ladies,who attend only on the first and last night. For the rest of the time, the novice and initiates of the second stage are supervised by the senior girls, who also eat with them twice a day at the headman's home. Soft porridge and a relish made of ground-nuts and pumpkin flowers (dovhi vhuluvha) are provided by the novice's mother, and the porridge must be cooked in an iron pot.

At the nobles' vhusha, as at commoners' vhusha, food is provided by novices, cooked by girls in their second stage, and enjoyed chiefly by those in their third stage and beyond. On the ninth day, the novice is accompanied to her home, where her family must provide porridge for all the girls. They cook soft porridge, which is called vhuteteha : it must be cooked with fine flour (vhukhopfu) and water, and must not contain any coarse meal (vhuse).

This porridge is served on at least eight wooden platters (ndilo), of which seven are for the seniors and one for the novice, who must eat alone unless there are others graduating with her. In four of the platters the porridge is served in strips (mikonde), and in the other four it is served in round lumps (mabumbulu). The novice eats only the latter. Meat is provided by the novices, but cooked by girls in their second stage. Each novice must give two laying fowls, together with at least two eggs that have been laid by each fowl (and not by any other fowls). If she cannot produce the fowls and eggs, she must pay a fine (25 cents per hen, and 5 cents per egg in 1957), which is then disposed of as the senior initiates think fit. The stomach and a leg of each fowl are given to the head of the novice's household. The novice and the girls in their second stage eat the feet, head, liver and entrails of the fowl, while the senior initiates 'eat' the blood and as much meat as they can stuff down. Left-overs are not given to the novice, but thrown to the pigs. After the meat, roasted ground-nuts should be provided, or alternatively an equivalent payment (85 cents in 1957). After this, the novice's family must provide two cold drink bottles full of pig's fat, which is then smeared on the novice's body, together with red ochre. The novice spends the next eight days at her home and wears the apron of a married woman (tshiluvhelo), with a girdle of beads (tshifunga), cotton tassels (mifhunga) hanging from the waist, and thahu tied behind, representing a baby (cf van Warmelo 1932:54-55 and Stayt 1931:109-110). They also have the 'pregnancy' tonsure (). I never saw commoners wearing thahu, and Venda informants assured me that Stayt's photos are in fact of nobles (see also Dicke 1936 and Duggan-Cronin 1928). The novice's ritual companion stays with her at all times. When the novice removes the apron and thahu, her parents pay the headman a fee (R3.00 in 1957).

A girl of noble rank wearing thahu.

Each stage of the commoners' vhusha continues for six, instead of eight, days and nights. The old ladies are in charge on the first and the last day, which is called tshigogovhalo, but on the other days the novices are at the mercy of the senior girls. Whereas nobles may attend the commoners' vhusha once they have passed their own muhulu, commoners may not attend any part of the nobles' vhusha. When they graduate from muhulu, commoners wear a decorated skirt (tshirrivha) which should be of goat skin, but is sometimes of sheep skin. After the initial seclusion at their homes, they go with a gift of fire-wood to their ritual 'mothers', who cut the hair that has grown since the beginning of muhulu (called thotshi) in the style of .

Stage 2 : U

Opinions vary as to the meaning of u . means literally 'sand', though van Warmelo (1932) also translates it as 'midday'. Some say that u means 'to throw away the dirt', and that this refers to the completion of the first stage of vhusha, in which a novice is humiliated and literally made dirty, as well as covered in 'dirty' red ochre. A more common explanation is that it means 'to refuse salt', and thereby refers to the taboo on salt which a novice must observe until the end of the second stage. In the special language of the chief's capital, is used instead of (salt).

At any rate, whatever meaning is assigned to the title, the second stage marks an easing of restrictions. Although the girls are responsible for cooking for the novices and must do any chores that the seniors demand, they are neither thrashed nor subjected to the other humiliations of the first stage, nor are they stripped completely naked for any dance or ritual. They are now called pfunzi (teacher), and assist in the instruction of those doing muhulu.

During this stage, a novice is given by her ritual 'mother' the decorated goat skin or sheep skin, which she wore as a skirt at the end of muhulu, and which can be used as a cloak over her public covering. This is called -mavu. When she walks out, she must fold her arms and hold her head down. The only other occasion on which tshirivha is worn from the shoulder is when a woman is confined after her first baby and waiting for the umbilical cord to fall off and for the rite of presentation of the baby (Blacking 1964b:17).

 Two views of a novice during the second stage of commoners' vhusha.

Van Warmelo (1932) reports that a novice enters her second stage as soon after muhulu as she has another period, and in the plate below, one can see by the growth of hair that two novices have been recently shaven. The three girls are preparing ground-nuts for their headman as part of their vhusha duties; the girl whose head is completely shaven is in her first stage; while the two girls with the 'pregnancy' tonsures are in their second stage. In most cases, I found that a novice entered her second stage, in which she is called mutei wa matavha (mutei=novice), only when another novice (or a group of novices) was admitted to muhulu. Thus a girl might have to wait only one or two months, or as much as eight or nine months, before graduating from one stage to another. Delays were particularly common during busy seasons of planting or reaping, or when the sponsors could not afford the vhusha fees. In some other cases, vhusha seemed to be held only annually, so that a long 'waiting list' of novices would accumulate and undergo initiation at the same time.

Three novices preparing ground-nuts for their headman's family. The 'pregnancy' tonsure of two girls shows that they are in their second phase.

The next plate shows a vhusha in which many girls were passing the first and second stages at the same time. Since nobles were also present as spectators, and since girls of the first and second stages were dressed alike, I could not calculate how many were graduating. I had all their names, but unfortunately I had no chance of asking questions at a later date, when I was more aware of the pattern of vhusha.

A large group of novices at vhusha.
Three are dancing ndayo.

The distinctions of dress are illustrated in the next three plates, in which the graduates (midabe) are taking the girls down to the river on the afternoon of the last day of the commoners' vhusha. Those in the first and second stage wear skin skirts and walk in front, crouching and with arms folded. Behind them are the graduates, who wear two salempore cloths, one as a cloak and the other as a skirt. At the back of the file are those completing their third stage, who wear blankets and carry the special food that the novices will watch the seniors eat. The graduates are singing muulu, the special song which announces that initiates are walking out, in which they flap the lower lip with the forefinger of the right hand.


Novices and graduates of the commoners' vhusha going down to the river on the last day of the school. Girls in their third stage are carrying food and wearing the blankets which indicate their seniority.


Novices and graduates of the commoners' vhusha going down to the river on the last day of the school. The novices of the first and second stages are walking in the humble position and wearing goat or sheep skirts.


Novices and graduates of the commoners' vhusha going down to the river on the last day of the school. Graduates walk behind the novices, each wearing two salempore cloths.

When the novices finish muhulu, those in their second stage automatically graduate. For them the taboo on salt is lifted, and they may once more talk to all males. There is no special celebration, but they cook for the novices' ritual meal. In some areas, they wear blankets rather than the skin skirts.

Stage 3 : Tshikhwakhwatho (-khwakhwatha=to finish)

Tshikhwakhwatho is not compulsory. Girl who have completed the second stage may go to domba and be married without necessarily attending vhusha for the third time. If they come to vhusha for the third time as dzikhwakhwathi, they come chiefly to see what is going on and to assist in the instruction. Although it is sometimes said that a girl who attends for a third time is unlucky not to be betrothed, a khomba ya mutshelukwa (marriageable girl who has been left over from the previous season), I found that in fact most girls come for a third time and like it, especially in those areas where vhusha is held frequently and not at intervals of almost a year. Furthermore, this seems to have become more common now that marriage negotiations are frequently delayed because of the absence of the future husband as a migrant labourer.

There is another particular general incentive, apart from the particular interest that some girls may have in initiation. If a girl comes to vhusha after passing her second stage, she is appointed ritual companion to a novice. She will be called 'mother of vhukomba' (lit. the state of being a nubile girl, khomba), and she will be given a ritual 'child' (note).

As should be evident from this brief summary of the three stages through which nobles and commoners pass, the rituals centre round the novices undergoing muhulu. It is they who are taken from their homes and secluded, stripped naked and thrashed, pinched, forced to cry and feel humble, soaked in water, deprived of food and warmth of a fire, painted with white clay, smeared with fat and red ochre, and taken back to watch the older girls enjoying themselves in their homes and at their families' expense. All this is designed to show that 'a child is growing up'; and indeed the novices are the centre of attention, although they are completely passive and deprived of personality. During their second appearance at vhusha, in which they become , and afterwards, novices are gradually accustomed to assuming the greater social responsibilities that are expected of marriageable girls (khomba) and married women.