When a girl's breasts begin to show, she becomes phalaphatwa and her breasts are called makumba-milora (lit. pickers up of ashes). When her breasts grow larger she is called thungamamu (lit. with budding breasts). About a year later, people will notice discoloured patches of skin (-khadzi: the word refers also to a lady doctor) above the calves of a girls' legs, and soon after that she will begin to menstruate. Expressions commonly used to refer to this are -sema vhakegulu (to abuse the old ladies) and -vhona (to see the moon); the first menstruation is called -bata pfe (to seize a baboon).

A girl is not supposed to tell her mother that she has seen her menstrual blood. But if, as is often the case, she is frightened and does not know what to do, she will tell her mother, who will whisper words to this effect: "Don't tell me anything about that. Go and tell your mmane" (either mother's younger sister or mother's co-wife). Mmane tells the girl that she has something like bilharzia (mu): she must not say anything about her condition to her companions; she may not wash clothes with them at the river, and she must stop doing -kwevha (lengthening the labia minora). Mmane tells her to come back when she sees the blood again, in order to be sure that it is not a false alarm. She gives her a cloth (muserwa ) to wear for a few days whenever her periods come. This works on a similar principle to tampon, and is a traditional Venda practice.

When she has another period, the girl return to mmane, who tells her she has now grown up and can be married. (Note that although the physical change marks the growth, it must be publicly recognised, and its social consequences stressed.) Mmane then tells the old ladies, who go and tell the girl's father. Finally her father tells her mother, who expresses great surprise at the news; he tells the women that it is their affair and that they should not bother him any further, except to inform him when his daughter will be going to vhusha.

Mmane must tell the lady in charge of initiates () that a girl is ready for vhusha. The lady in charge tells mmane to grind enough snuff to fill two snuff-boxes - one for the old ladies and the other for the young married women (with only one child: vhabvana), who will assist on the first and last night of the school. Initiates in their second or third stages are sent round the district to tell everyone that vhusha for this girl will begin on a particular day. If it is their practice to wait until several novices are ready, the opening of the school will of course be delayed. I shall describe what happens to a single novice, but it must be understood that exactly the same things would happen to any other girl who might be a novice at the same time. Some people said that herself went round to each homestead announcing vhusha, but I never saw this and find it hard to believe, since she has many 'fags' at her disposal. Each family sends to the ruler's place fire-wood, which will be used both to provide light for the rituals and dancing and to keep the women and senior girls warm.

The first day: journey to the ruler's place

On the appointed day, mmane should rise up early and take the two snuff-boxes to , together with the fee for the ruler (R3.00 in 1957). (Note that commoners pay before they are admitted to the school, but nobles pay later!) When has taken the fee to the ruler, she goes to the home of a girl past her second stage whom she will then appoint as the novice's ritual companion, her mme wa vhukomba, whom I will henceforth call 'school mother'. Meanwhile mmane, whom I heard called mme a khomba (mother of the marriageable girl) to distinguish her from the girls' real mother (mme mubebi), has gone to clean the ruler's council hut in which the school will take place and give the floor a fresh covering of mud and dung. It will be seen that several of the 'rituals' which have to be performed are in fact practical preparations necessary for running the school.

At sunset, people gather at the home of the novice, and her 'school mother' must come with all the initiated women of her home. The taking of the novice is accompanied by certain songs. First, the senior initiates come up and call Xaxae! (x is pronounced as ch in loch). This is an ideophone which is supposed to express laughter. Then, punctuated by a rapid drum staccato, they call a long-drawn o, ee. They repeat Xaxae! o, ee, and then sing Song No. 1.

The melody begins with a firm upward movement which expresses determination, followed by a slight uncertainty that suggests a search.

The 'school mother ' covers the novice completely with a blanket. As they take her to the ruler's place, they sing muulu, in which they flap the lower lip with the forefinger of the right hand, and the 'school mother' whispers advice to the novice: "When they say, 'Who is your boyfriend ?' you must tell them his name. When they say, 'Whom have you told that you have seen your period?' you must say that you told your mmane. When they say, 'Weep!' you must weep, otherwise your father will be fined a goat. And if you don't weep quickly, your mmane will pinch and rub your skin hard round your breasts and your private parts. When they ask you if you have played with any youth since you saw your period, you must say 'No!' When they ask you if you have played with boys since your breasts began to grow, you must also say 'No!'

At the ruler's place, before entering the council hut (tshivhambo), they may sing Song No. 1 again, or simply continue with Song No. 2 before entering.

Although the novice herself does not sing this song, it expresses her dismay and her resistance to growing up. The melody is sad and plaintive, descending an octave in a 'minor' mode with increasingly large intervals. The novice is reassured by the following song, Song No. 3, in a 'major' mode with a prominent, 'optimistic' rising fourth at the phrase ndi mudzimu wau (you're lucky: lit. it is the spirit of your departed ancestor).

As they enter the council hut, they sing Song No. 4 . This song refers literally to the novice being accompanied into the tshivhambo. One informant, a man who was an expert on initiation and tended to see sex in everything, said that it also referred to the fact that initiation marked the beginning of serious sexual intercourse and the end of the practice.

Once inside the hut, they sit down and the lady in charge tells mmane to shangula (prepare) the novices (note). This means that the girls must be stripped of all clothing and ornaments. She should have round her neck several strings of beads which are taken off by mmane, who alternately crouch-dances () and takes off a necklace whilst the others sing Song No. 5A.

Van Warmelo (1932 :40) and some of my informants report, but I never saw, a rite in which the novice is 'cut in half' and smeared with ashes to look like a zebra. This is apparently part of her preparations, but it was not done where I attended vhusha. The novice is told that the ashes are the 'medicines' of men, which they put inside women when they lie with them, in order to make babies. The same symbolism for ashes is used consistently throughout all girls' initiation schools.

After this, the novice losha's (a humble greeting) on one side in a quasi-foetal position and hums until one of the old ladies says "masha!" - the signal to stop.

Then they say, "the novice must weep now". She sits on the ground with her legs stretched forward, while her 'school mother ' holds her hands on the novice's head and twists it from side to side while they sing Song No. 6.

They go on singing the simple, descending four-note melody until the novice begins to cry. Although the old ladies come and stare and jeer at her, I could not say that they were malicious or unkind. I was told, however, that girls who were known to be obstreperous were not treated as gently as those whom I saw. If the novice is slow to respond, she will be pinched until she cannot help crying. Sometimes the 'school mother' is expected to cry in sympathy with her 'child', but I never saw this happen. After every song at vhusha, the performer(s) must losha and hum at the same time. There are several different ways of doing losha, but I heard the humming only at vhusha.

After the song of weeping, they usually perform the song by which the existence of a school is immediately recognised, the Song of Vhusha. It is accompanied by a characteristic drum-beat, which 'says' , , tshi mbumbu. This means 'the moon, the moon, washer of the vagina', and it refers to a woman's monthly periods. The novice, assisted by her 'school mother ', is supposed to sing the solo part and dance. Afterwards others dance, always in pairs and with folded arms, moving slowly round in a circle in step to the rhythm. The solo words of the song vary according to the individual singer, and very shortly after the beginning of each performance, they all break into u tivha khulo, an unusual style of singing in which each person sings only one or two tones, and sometimes in a falsetto style that resembles yodelling, but in such a way that the combination of individual efforts produce a melodic pattern not unlike tshikona, the Venda national dance which is played by twenty-four (or more) men on a set of reed-pipes, each tuned to a single tone of a heptatonic scale.

After this, the procedure and the order of events seems to vary from one area to another. They may spend most of the evening dancing ndayo, or they may do this only after completing certain other rituals which, it seems, should be done at every school.

First mmane, or sometimes the novice's 'school mother ', goes with her outside the tshivhambo, taking a broken clay dish and a small lump of red ochre. The novice passes a little urine into the dish, and mmane takes the red ochre and mixes it with the urine. Then she pulverises another broken piece of the dish and adds it to the ochre and urine. Then they go back into the hut, and the novice sits in the middle, with her legs stretched out in front of her and her hands on her thighs. Her mmane stands behind her and rubs the mixture onto her breasts, especially at the nipples, in order to make them fat and strong. The novice must not utter a sound, or else she will be pinched. After this she performs losha in the usual way, and mmane joins the married ladies.

Then a young married woman with only one child should go and whisper to the novice, asking her first the name of her boyfriend, which she will divulge, and then how a girl should sleep with a man. Even if she knows, the novice must pretend that she does not, or else they will asks her how she came to learn, and whether she has seen her parents making love. Thus she will lie on her side, for example, as one does when sleeping. She will then be told: "You must lie on your back, so that he can come into you. When he has done this, you must sit up and clasp him". A girl who has passed her first stage and is called pfunzi (teacher) then sits on her, putting a leg on either side of the novice's right leg. They say that they are now man and woman, and they tell the novice to lie on her side, hold 'him' close to her, and work with her hip.

After this, they tell the novice to do what her real mother (who is not present) does when she is drunk, and to sing and dance as her mother does in this state. Then they tell her to do what her father does when he is drunk. When she has done this, they instruct her 'school mother ' to teach her ndayo, most of which are given in the next section. First she must learn 'mudobo', 'dodo', and 'dzole': Song Nos. 7A, 7B, 8 and 9.

An ordeal which every novice is supposed to undergo is to -haka lunya (lit. to bind up contraries). To the accompaniment of Song No. 10, she puts her left arm round her back, and her right arm over her right shoulder and behind her neck, and then she links the thumbs or forefingers of each hand. In this position she must move up and down from squatting to standing. Some say that this should be done until dawn, while the seniors sleep, to the accompaniment of the murumba drum, played by the novice's 'school mother ', who may doze off after a time, but who may fine her a fowl or some snuff if she wakes up to find that her 'child' has stopped the exercise. Whenever I saw it, however, it was performed with full musical accompaniment, usually in the early hours of the morning and not for more than five or six minutes at a time.

Shortly before dawn, senior girls and novices come out of the council hut to dance , Song No. 11, in which they move in file and the juniors clap the rhythm of the song with their arms stretched above their heads.

On the last morning, is followed by Song No. 12, which refers to the end of vhusha, the 'burning' of the school. The same song is performed on the last morning of tshikanda.

After this the older women go home, and only the girl's teacher, her 'school mother ' and the other unmarried graduates stay with her.

The first day by the river

Song No. 13 should really be sung on the last morning when the novices are taken down to the river. But I have also heard it during the vhusha week, when seniors have chased novices down to or up from the river.

On the first morning, the novice and her teacher generally go down to the river alone, so that the senior girls can rest for a while. The novice is given some matches and a murumba conical drum. Covered by a blanket, she goes down to the river. Her teacher takes a pot (khali ), in which she will collect water for cooking, and goes after her. When she reaches the river, she should find that the novice has already lit the fire, but that she is sitting far away from it. The teacher tells the novice to get into the water and soak (-kama ). After some time, she tells her to get out and dance ndayo (-). As will be seen in the next section, ndayo (lit. order, instruction, from -laya = advise, impart wisdom to) dances are more in the nature of physical exercises, and quite unlike other styles of Venda dancing. Hence the Venda do not refer to the movements by the standard word for dancing (-tshina) but by the special word -. The teacher shows her the movements and plays the drum whilst the novice practises them. This is an excellent system of instruction, which ensures the continuity of the Venda musical tradition: the teacher herself has had relatively little experience of performing the dances, but in being compelled to teach them to another she reinforces her own learning. Any error that may creep in will be corrected at the communal dancing in the evenings.

When they are tired - and many dances are at first a great strain on the leg muscles - the novice sits down away from the fire, covered by the blanket, and is taught milayo.

Later in the morning, the other senior initiates join them and test the novice on her knowledge of ndayo and milayo.

If youths pass the place, especially if the novice is soaking, they are forbidden to pass on until they have successfully answered some milayo. The girls say, "Seli na seli?" - on this side and on that side (of the river)?, and the youths are supposed to answer, "Ndi mu na musidzana vha tshi lalana " - It is a youth and a girl when they are lying together. Then the girls ask, "Hatsi ho kotamelaho ma ?" - And the grass that leans over into the water? And the youths should reply, "Ndi makuse a phan"- It is the pubic hair in front.

After this they go back to the ruler's place. Although I myself never heard it in this context, I was told that Song No. 14 should be sung on the way back, as well as muulu.

When the food has been cooked, the novice is fed by her 'school mother '. She sits with her legs out in front of her, feet together, and holds out her hands in her lap. She does not wash her hands before eating, as do all Venda on other occasions, and she is forbidden to eat any relish that contains ground-nuts.

An official at the ruler's place (either makhadzi or vhakoma) gives the senior girls a box of snuff. This is said to release the novice from spending more time in the water. The senior girls therefore go home, and the novice spends the rest of the day in the council hut with her teachers, learning milayo and ndayo.

In the evening, the senior girls return to supervise and take part in the dancing. Until the final day, the routine is the same, except that usually the senior girls neither stay the whole night at the ruler's place nor go down to the river in the morning. It seems that the message conveyed by the gift of snuff is not only to relieve the novice on the first day, but also to absolve the senior girls from further duties at the riverside until the final day. This is in keeping with the common Venda practice by which a thrashing (as at the nobles' vhusha), or any other hardship, can be reduced by the payment of a fine. One might say that by giving snuff to the old ladies and the senior girls, the novice's father, or her sponsor, is asking them to be kind to the girl whenever possible.

Other activities during the school 'term'

While vhusha, or in fact any Venda initiation school, is being held, the parents of the novice are not allowed to quarrel or fight. If they disturb the peace in any way, they are fined by the ruler.

One night, after the dancing is over and everyone is asleep, the novice is woken up and told to steal some ground-nuts and maize from her real mother's granaries. These are roasted and eaten by the river on the following day, but the seniors do not give any to the novice. If any nuts are left over, they are thrown into the water in front of the hungry novice.

At vhusha, a novice is told to choose a ritual lover (mu), who must be a little boy of about three or four years and preferably a relative, such as the child of her father's sister. One good reason for choosing a relative is that the mother of this boy is obliged to provide new clothes (she pubic covering and salempore cloth) for the novice, whom she calls 'wife of the child', and also fat and red ochre. After vhusha, the novice goes to the boy's home and a fowl is killed for her.

The final rites of vhusha

After they have danced etc. at dawn on the morning of the final day, which is called tshigogovhalo, they cook a dish of beans and maize (tshidzimba) and/or bovhola, which is made of small pumpkins, with pumpkin leaves and flowers. They take this down to the river, where they spend the day 'soaking' the novice in the water, teaching her milayo and ndayo, and in particular showing her clay models which, like rites and corresponding important things that are done or shown at times of initiation, are called dzingoma (lit. drums).

The models, which they make by the river and destroy after use, vary from one area to another, and many include such novelties as a railway train (tshidimela) and a man chasing a quarrelsome wife (munna a tshi pandamedza mufumakadzi o vutshelwa). But common to many areas seem to be the following:

  (i) A pregnant woman (mufumakadzi a na thumbu).

A zebra with red and white stripes.
For this there are milayo, and the novice's 'school mother ' will explain that the red stripes are a woman's menstrual blood, and the white stripes are a man's semen.
When this model is shown, the Song No. 5A is sometimes sung.
 (iii) A man with a beard (munna wa ndebvu).
There are no milayo for this, but in some areas, especially near or in Tsonga territory, they sing a little jingle, of which I have an inadequate recording.

The old ladies come down to inspect the novice, but they begin with her 'school mother'. The inspection is carried out by a woman of rank from the ruler's home, who is called Maliwashe. She is in charge of the nobles' vhusha and is senior to , who is more directly in charge of the commoners' vhusha and often a commoner herself. She looks at the girls' private parts to see if they have lengthened their labia minora well and have not allowed any man to deflower them. If all is well, the women ululate loudly, but if a girl has disgraced herself, they merely ululate into gourds, to muffle the sound, and pinch her. If the novice has already been betrothed, and they find that she has not been deflowered, her husband's people will be asked to pay 50 cents (in 1957) in her honour.

When they have finished, they tell the novice to get into the water. She is then washed and covered with a mixture of fat and red ochre. Then she is dressed in her goat skin skirt (tshirivha) and given a string of beads (tshitimbi) to put round her neck. Thereafter, a woman whom she greets humbly (-losha) will attach a bagle (vhukunda) to the necklace.

Everyone then disperses, leaving the novice with her 'school mother ', who takes her to her mmane's home. On the following morning, the two girls visit several homesteads in the district. Whenever the novice performs losha, she is 'bought' with a gift of bangles or money, and stands up again. In the homes of her kinfolk she will find that a fowl has been slaughtered in her honour, or mabundu (a non-intoxicating beer made of meal) has been cooked.

After they have called at several homesteads, the 'school mother ' takes the novice back to the home of her mmane, where she spends another week. (Note that the procedure for nobles, described earlier, is different and less public.) At the end of the week, beer is brewed in her honour, and called 'beer for accompanying her home' (halwa ha u fhelekedza hayani). The party is generally called muloshiso, and any graduate of vhusha may join in.

After this, her skin skirt is taken off and the red ochre removed; she dresses in the clothes given by the mother of her ritual boy-lover, and she is taken to her own home, where her family slaughter either a goat or a fowl in her honour.