The English expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve” means to be quite open and public about the way you feel about some person or cause. But how about wearing your heart around your neck? Xhosa women commonly wore a small beaded panel necklace thattells the world exactly how they feel about themselves.
The little stylized human figures in these panel necklaces, called “keepers of the heart”, are the bead maker’s own assessment of herself in a coded form and they are usually very frank and the coded figure may inform you that the wearer considers herself to be hard working, a good dancer, or even too old to dance. For example, a beaded figure with the legs well clear of the skirt and at an angle, indicates someone who is proud of their dancing prowess.
The variations in the coded figures can quite subtle. A skirt well clear of the ground with straight legs has nothing to do with dancing – it denotes that the wear is a practical, hard-working person, always bustling about.
This seem pretty straight forward, until you consider that these keeper of the heart symbols are often worn proudly by men. Clearly it is a compliment to tell the world that your wife is a good dancer or a hard worker around the home, but the gender politics are mind blowing. Would anyone, for example, wear a necklace that tells the world his other half is lazy around the house or a lousy dancer? So I would say that these little tell-tale panels are
often more about values than reality. They give a woman the chance to either project their real reputation, or the reputation they would like to have by displaying a coded figure on a keeper necklace.
And what about the relatively rare examples worn by men that show two female figures in the panel? These may indicate that the many has two wives, which is possible under traditional Xhosa law, but would be an expensive process these days. On the other hand, it could also be a statement that the man has both a wife and a mistress, a situation which was quite common and well accepted in tribal custom.
The reason for this situation is that Xhosa mothers traditionally breastfed for 3 years, and during this period, sex with the husband was taboo, possibly as a form of birth control. This left a married man at a sexual loose end for years at a time, and as result it was socially acceptable for a husband to have an official mistress if he could afford one.
This eternal triangle could survive for a lifetime and the wife and the mistress could be friends. There were even special dances for men and their mistresses called IBasi, which wives could attend as spectators only. Many of the most ornate male bead costumes were made by the mistress rather than the wife, possibly because she had more time for handiwork.
According to Joan Broster, the mistresses could be quite easily distinguished from the wives at the Ibasi and other events because they were not qualified to wear the traditional breast apron of a Xhosa married woman and wore brightly coloured tee shirts or singlets instead. They were, however entitled to flaunt an outsize headscarf.
This system may sound sexist to modern ears, but it did have the advantage of ensuring that women who were widowed, abandoned, divorced or unmarried could have the benefits and stability of an open and socially acceptable relationship with a member of the opposite sex. And it was infinitely less unkind and brutal than the situation of the “tribal wife” and the “town wife” which arose under the oppression of the Apartheid labour laws that forced men to the city to work and did not allow them to take their wives and children with them.
One of the most interesting things about the beaded Keepers is their persistence into modern times – there are modern styles with complex loops and fringes under the panel and even non traditional colours, which indicate that these little necklaces may continue to play and important role as a social symbol.
A very brief note on the Xhosa Nation: The Xhosa are proud and often conservative people and value their tribal traditions. Both Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba are well known representatives of the Xhosa people. Like the Zulu, the Xhosa are an amalgamation of several clans and tribes displaced by inter-clan warfare and white settlement in the 19th century. There are several Xhosa sub-tribes, of which the best known and most numerous are the Thembu. There are also tribes whose language, dress and customs are closely allied to the Xhosa, such as the Pondo and the Fingo or Fengu. (The word” fingo” means refugee, as these people fled across the Kei river, the border with the Cape Colony, into the Transkei, which was free Xhosa territory at that time , in the aftermath of a 19th century colonial war).
See tribal beadwork catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/beadProducts.asp
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