Turning 21 is a big deal in many cultures. But if you’re a female member of the Zulu tribe in South Africa, and you’re a virgin, it’s an especially big deal.
In simple terms Umemulo is a traditional ceremony that commemorates a Zulu girl’s transition into womanhood. The practice is centuries old and is typically seen as a way to reward a girl's “good behaviour”. If she’s still a virgin by 21, a cow is slaughtered in her honour and she gets showered with gifts and money.
As a woman, you really have no choice but to acknowledge the tradition and comply. If you try to defy tradition, it’s basically like admitting to having slept with somebody. Sex before marriage is regarded as being impure in our culture, although I don’t think sex devalues a woman in any way. If it happens between two consenting adults, I can’t seem to wrap my head around the notion that one party has to walk away less than the other.
But being the eldest daughter of the family, I knew that I had the responsibility to uphold the tradition. As it’s a such an expensive celebration, my parents had even started saving about six months before I turned 21. Then my mother asked me what colours I wanted for the decorations, and slipped in a few probing questions, trying to discern whether I was in fact still a virgin.
“If you’re not a virgin anymore, we’re going to turn this into our anniversary celebration,” she said, smiling and pretending it was a joke.
I laughed but I knew she was serious. I knew that if I admitted to having had sex, her plan would be to inform guests on arrival that they were celebrating the milestone of a marriage, rather than my virginity.
The men in my family didn’t care about the specifics. Unsurprisingly, there’s no custom calling for young Zulu men to remain virgins or have their genitals checked once they reach a certain age. The only thing that mattered to my parents was that I haven’t done the “devil's deed” and disgraced the family name.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, yes, I have never been with a man. Sure, I told my family this but of course my word meant nothing at all.
In months before, one of the girls from church had their own Umemulo ceremony, and my mother encouraged me to go along because, she said, “If you want people to attend your event, you should attend theirs.” So I went along.
I was there as a participating virgin, which meant I also had to be “pure”. Therefore, every girl attending this other girl’s ceremony had to be tested. My family thought that this would be a good time for me to get tested as well, to help clear their doubts.
So there I was, dressed in traditional attire and standing in front of the mirror when a young girl come running in to tell me that it was time to be tested and that my mother requested my presence.
Here’s what happened: all the girls were topless, draped in beautiful beads and skirts. There was a long line leading to a small room, through which I could see my mother and four other women.
My mother motioned for me to enter the room. There was a mat on the floor, an elderly lady sitting on the edge, and she told me to hurry up and take my panties off and lie down. The priest’s wife and two other older women leaned in, watching, as I lay down.
My heart was racing. I knew that my family were about to be either be very proud of me or disown me, all due to a stranger’s perception of my vaginal canal.
She pulled my legs closer to her, took a tissue, and spread me open. They all huddled up closer as she said “there it is, her eye”. By this, she was referring to my hymen. My mother asked how she knew this and it was at that point when one of the unknown ladies pulled out her phone to use as a flashlight and shone it directly between my spread legs saying, “See, can you see it?”
This was when I realised that rock bottom indeed had a basement. I think I left a small part of myself in that room. Although I had agreed to the ceremony itself, that particular experience was not one I had signed up for. They ululated in celebration and I left the room sheepishly with my underwear in my hand.
Not long after, my own big day came around, and yes I got retested. There were about 200 guests. Traditional attire required me to be topless but wear the fatty tissue of a cow over my breasts. Elders claim that if this strip of fat tears during the ceremony, the girl has lied about her virtue. Thankfully mine did not tear.
Guests pinned money on me and some came bearing gifts as a form of congratulations.
I also received a car, as a gift from my parents, on top of everything else. The money pinned on me by guests amounted to 10,000 South African Rand, or US $650. the cow my parents slaughtered cost US $1,000. Adding everything together including décor and catering, my family spent nearly 100,000 Rand (US $6,500).
The ceremony was beautiful, the guests were happy and many wanted to take pictures with the virgin of the day. After everything, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I think I can confidently say that it went incredibly well, for all guests and family.
With that being said, there’s no doubting that my culture does put a lot of pressure on how women conduct themselves. Not only are we supposed to respect men, but the patriarchy has managed to worm its way into governing a women’s sex-life too.
I don’t think these celebrations should be banned, but if the standard of morality is set so high for women, it should be the same for men too. If women are expected to stay virgins until they’re married, shouldn’t they marry male virgins too? Sure, ceremonies such as this promote abstinence, lower rates of teen pregnancy and HIV but… it takes two to tango.
Unfortunately, raising these points with my parents is impossible. It would only result in me being accused of being uncultured and “too educated”.
The other reality is that thousands of girls enjoy and take pride in events such as this. The custom itself is beautiful when freedom of choice is involved. Although, as much as I loved my event, I hate to imagine how it would’ve all played out if they’d decided I wasn’t a virgin.
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