The role of gender in Ndebele architecture

Gender roles in Ndebele home-making

From the 1940s onwards the settlement at Hartbeesfontein began to be visited increasingly by researchers, including Barrie Biermann, Constance Stuart-Larrabee, Dick Findlay, Alexis Preller and Prof AL Meiring who, together with architectural students from the University of Pretoria, conducted a survey of its architecture. Their subsequent home at KwaMsiza proved to be similarly popular among academics. Thus, barring a brief hiatus during the 1920s and 1930s, some aspects of their built environment, most particularly their wall decorations, have been particularly well documented.

Consequently the village of KwaMsiza is an important example of Ndebele architecture, for it not only does provides a strong and unbroken link to the built environment of the Ndebele during the nineteenth century, but also because it has retained its homogenous social make-up, being composed entirely of Ndzundza Ndebele families originating from the farm Hartbeesfontein.

The creation of a built environment in southern Africa's rural areas is not merely the provision of shelter: it represents an opportunity for the community to collaborate on a project, turning what is outwardly a social occasion into a display of solidarity between the larger group and the individual family unit. This process not only lays stress upon role-playing and the individual's perceived status in society, but it is used to reinforce a sense of self-identity through participation in group activities. Thus all members of the community are considered to have a role to play in the creation of an architecture. This is often predetermined by historical conditions which allocate tasks to various gender and age groups.

In a general sense, many of the heavier tasks such as the erection of walls, the construction of a timber roof frame and the creation of a grass thatch cover are considered by the Ndebele to be the work of men. Women will assist with some of this labour, such as the mixing of clay mortar, the preparation of thatch bundles and the manufacture of sun-dried bricks. Children will often assist their mothers in such work, as well as the manufacture of grass ropes and the gathering of materials like cow dung. The plastering of walls, the creation of homestead floor areas and any subsequent light maintenance of the structure however falls directly upon the women as the controllers of household space. This includes any subsequent application of decorative motifs to the walls. The men, on the other hand, will build and maintain those areas connected with cattle folds and male gatherings, these being considered to be "men's" spaces.

In more recent times, however, the absence of men from rural communities has forced the women into the position of having to fulfill many of the building tasks historically associated with men. This, effectively, has removed the latter from the processes of the built environment, thus reinforcing the role of women as controllers of "place" as well as "resources."

Gender spaces in Ndebele homestead planning

Historically the control of Ndebele domestic space has been subject to a number of checks and balances which regulated not only relations between the genders, but also their respective access to food resources. Although many of the resultant distributions may, over the years, have been awarded metaphorical and cosmological significances, their origins may be seen to lie in a pragmatic recognition that fundamental differences exist between the life of man and that of woman.

As a result the Ndebele concept of space control is subject to a number of seemingly conflicting interpretations. For example, the titular leadership of the homestead, whether this be monogamous or polygamous, may be seen to fall upon the husband and father, and it is generally he who represents the interests of his family in any community disputation. On the other hand, the control of the physical domestic living space falls upon the wife. This concept is of particular importance in cases of polygamous marriages where the husband is expected to rotate his residence between those of individual wives. The definition of domestic space includes the cooking area thereby also giving woman control of food resources. Any potential conflict on this issue, however, is offset by locating surplus grain in the cattle byre or the area of men's gatherings, ostensibly to be kept in reserve for emergencies, but in reality to give men access to food resources in their own right.

The spaces internal to the homestead may also be seen to be subject to the same definition of gender values. The courtyards as well as those spaces given over to children's residences and cooking functions, are considered to be the specific concern of the wife and mother. The internal living space of the parents, on the other hand, is divided equally into an area for the woman and one for the man. This division, being the subject of "left hand" and "right hand" considerations, may be perceived to be the result of larger cosmological concepts affecting the settlement as a whole. On the other hand the creation of such a strictly-defined area for the man inside what is essentially a woman's enclave, may also be seen to be part of the same reciprocity as that governing the symbolic control of community food resources.

The channeling of the men into the migrant labour system has had important repercussions upon Ndebele homestead architecture as well as many of their social patterns. There has been, for example, a reduction of emphasis upon those areas historically considered to be the preserve of men. The Skosana and Bhuda cattle byres at KwaMsiza all but disappeared during the 1960s, and today only the Msiza one survives, albeit in a smaller format. Even so, it now acts as a gathering space for the men of all three families, although it is possible that rationalisation may have taken place for symbolic and political as well as practical reasons. Also to be considered is the fact that today cattle play a negligible role in the life of the community whose economy has changed almost entirely to a cash base.

It is also true that grain surpluses are no longer stored, symbolically or otherwise, in the men's gathering place. Instead these are now lodged in the cooking area of the woman concerned. This may now be done for reasons of practicality, or to reinforce the growing power of women in the group, or perhaps because the community functions that this act of communality once represented, are no longer relevant.

 

The reduction in the size and importance of the men's areas has not been met by a concomitant expansion of women's household space. Instead their emphasis has been a visual one, relying upon the use of complex, polychromatic graphic elements painted upon the perimeter walls of the homestead as well as those of individual dwellings.

Gender elements of Ndebele settlement

A metaphor which has been used by some Ndebele to describe their built habitat likens the spaces of the homestead to the body of a woman. In their terms the front courtyard, generally an area of "clean" activities, is likened to the mapoto or beaded apron worn by married women as part of their wedding finery; the parents' dwelling is the womb, for it is here the mother resides and hence it is the origin of the family's fertility, its children and hence its wealth. The rear quarters which house the cooking areas as well as the children are the breasts whence all nourishment originates. This symbolism is reinforced during the wedding celebrations when the men dance through the front courtyard of the bride's family homestead, thereby ritually defiling it to the accompaniment of ribald jokes from their womenfolk.

The role of decoration in Ndebele society

The beginnings of Ndebele painted wall traditions do not appear to predate the land war of 1882-3. Up to that time their architecture made extensive use of grass and reed - materials which preclude painted decoration. The origins of their wall art appear to lie with the Pedi, a neighbouring group whose architecture and decorative motifs they adopted after 1883, both of which they employ to the present day. These consist of a simple set of chevron or "Union Jack" patterns rendered in white or black upon a plain grey background. Although Ndebele polychromatic wall art today bears scant resemblance to Pedi patterns, its roots ought to be seen to rest in the practice of rendering walls for ritual and social purposes, rather than in their actual style of decoration.

Since the late 1940s Ndebele painted wall tradition has focused increasingly upon a stylisation and rendering of the patterns and images of nearby Victorian small town architecture as well as the graphic elements of an urban consumer and industrial society further afield. The result has been the development of a complex code of images based upon colour and form which have been used to convey messages about the fertility, political rights, territorial boundaries, family lineage and regional identity of their originators. All of these elements must be seen to play a strong role in the large pattern of Ndebele gender politics.

Normally the walls outlining the perimeter of an Ndebele homestead will not be built, and hence decorated, until approximately two years after the birth of a woman's first child. Thus wall decoration is symbolic of women's fertility and serves to indicate her status in the community as a mother, head of homestead and responsible adult.

By giving birth to a child a woman also gains for her husband full participation in the community's council of men as a family head. Her work therefore is symbolic of how her fertility has given her family a voice in the public affairs of the group.

The application of wall decoration is usually also indicative of times of transition in the life of a woman, such as the marriage of a daughter, or the period when her son attends initiation school.

Wall decoration plays a strong symbolic role in the creation of living areas among those southern African groups who define their exterior living spaces. The act of painting or smearing a wall has direct links to a cosmological belief which perceives women to be inherently "hot" and men inherently "cool". Homestead boundaries are seen to be similarly "hot", most particularly where two women share the same division wall; these then need to be "cooled" by a process of wall smearing and decoration which, presumably, might also imply a degree of cooperation between the two parties concerned. Thus wall decoration not only serves to create statements of territorial control but, by implication, suggests that women are more than just passive partners to their menfolk in the control of rural household space and food resources.

A measure of heraldry is also implied in the designs of rural wall art. The act of painting is conducted either by the mother, or by her teenage daughters under her direct guidance. The complex patterns are thus part of the young girl's training and are reinforced when, upon marriage, she is presented by her mother with a partly-finished beaded apron, the mapoto, bearing the essential elements of this design. The daughter is then expected to complete the apron after her marriage. Although in theory the young bride may choose to decorate her walls in whatever pattern she wishes, in reality, her first design seldom strays far from that which she learnt at home as a child and which she carried away with her in a shorthand form as part of her wedding dowry.

A clue as to the more fundamental reasons underlying the development of a wall decorating tradition among the Ndebele may be found in the struggle for land which has taken place in southern Africa over the past two centuries, between indigenous black and immigrant white groups. The ZAR-Ndzundza war of 1883 must therefore be seen in the context of the fact that, since 1811, the South African region has seen 24 major conflicts and over two score smaller localized conflagrations. This means that, on average, one major rebellion, war or uprising has taken place here every third year for the past 179 years.

The reasons recorded for these conflicts are many and varied. The majority however may be seen to have been the result of competition for land between white and black rural groups. The single most important source of friction between these two therefore must lie in the control, or lack of, that each exercises over agricultural land.

It may be argued that the aesthetics of wall decoration have played an important role in reinforcing (or perhaps even creating) a unique regional identity for the Ndebele whose land is currently in the holding of descendants of the very farmers who defeated them over a century ago.

The chronology of Ndebele wall art therefore places it firmly into a time when formal resistance to white political dominance was at a low; when the effects of the rural land acts were beginning to become evident; when rural poverty was beginning to spread; when rural women began to find their men being channeled in increasing numbers into a system of migrant labour; when whites across the virtual spectrum of political opinion saw blacks as being voteless, dispossessed and landless in perpetuity; and at a time when formal black resistance was limited to an ANC which had but recently adopted a more confrontational stance. It was during this time that Ndebele women took up the cudgels of their people's struggle and began to decorate their homestead walls, making statements about their social conditions and creating images of regional and political identity.

It is also significant to note that the Ndebele use of wall decorations is not limited to the outward facades of their perimeter wall and their dwellings but, in most cases, have also been located inside and at the back of the parent's unit, above the umsamo. Historically in Nguni society, the umsamo has been regarded as a male area and the residence of the family's "shades" or ancestral spirits. In current Ndebele society however, it has been converted into a seat and the wall behind it is decorated with the major components of the wife's heraldic patterns. The internal hearth, another ancient symbol of woman, has been moved away from its old location at the centre of the dwelling, and has been relocated closer to the umsamo.

Last updated : 15-May-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011