Do You Know How To Be uMalume?

When I was in my early 20’s, I was home at my parent’s house during varsity holidays. One morning, I was sleeping in my backroom when my pops knocked on my window and told me to come into the house. When I got to the lounge, I found my niece sitting on the couch with a bag full of clothes besides her. My niece was about 5yrs younger than me. My pops sat down on the couch, lit a cigarette and said to her, “tell him what you just told me.” She then proceeded to tell me that her grandmother, whom she was staying with, had kicked her out the house because she found out that my niece was lesbian and had a girlfriend. Now she had nowhere to go. After she finished telling me the story, my father put out his cigarette in the ashtray, stood and said to me, “you’re her uncle, you figure it out.” Then he simply walked out of the room.

Looking back at that moment, I’ve come to realise that my father was not merely “giving me the reigns”, as it were, but, he genuinely did not know what to do. Open homosexuality is something he and his generation had never learnt to understand. His experience as the uncle of the family had reached its limit in that scenario.

In many African cultures, the role of uMalume (uncle) is the highest-ranking role in a family. Where a man, as a father, would be focus mainly on his immediate household, his role as an uncle is to coordinate the affairs of all the branches of the family and extended family. His priority is to make sure that the family upholds the values, principles, practices as well belief systems that are expected of those who share the same surname, as set out by generations of uncles who came before. The understanding is that this is how the family identity is upheld and the individual member’s sense of belonging is entrenched.

But now times have changed. The nuclear family in black society has been ripped to shreds by our oppressive past. The sharing of knowledge from elder men to a younger generation worked very well in the old days or in the more rural areas where families/clans live with and around each other. That meant that young boys engaged with their elders almost on a daily basis and as a result, cultural information systems were ingrained in them at a very young age.

Nowadays, many young men did not grow up with their fathers. Also, most of us do not live with or around our elders. At best, we see them during family functions or ceremonies. The practice of knowledge transfer between the older and younger generation is therefore currently in a pitiful state, the handover of our cultural beliefs is riddled with missed opportunities.

For a culture to not only survive but also to thrive throughout generations, it needs to be adaptable. More than just our uncles telling us how things should be, we should also be able to engage with them with a view to frame those beliefs into a modern perspective. There are many cultural practices/beliefs that are, at best, redundant and, at worst, destructive simply because the context of our socio-dynamics has changed. The failure to bridge the gap between the old and the new is what is killing our culture.

There are core beliefs that many of us understand are fundamental to our identity as a people. For example, many people still believe in the practice of ilobolo. The uncles of both families generally oversee this. But, the evaluation of how much ilobolo should be is something that has had to be adapted. A few decades ago, the fact that a woman had a tertiary education was seen as a key factor in the justification of a high dowry. These days, many women have degrees and so do the men that they marry; the two virtually cancel each other out. These days families these days seek an education for their daughters for her own sake rather than with the aim of “making more out of her” come negotiations time. Also what if she has a diploma and he has a PhD? For elders who themselves do not even have a basic education, this would be challenging scenario to navigate.

Another case is the practice of traditional slaughter of a cow for ceremonies, also overseen by elder uncles. Historically, families lived in the rural areas and had acres of land for a yard with ample space. In townships, “big houses” have been crammed into small yards, in some cases without even a driveway. During a slaughter, blood needs to be spilt in a specific way in a specific location, for spiritual reasons. Today in townships, the actual skill of slaughter is becoming scarce and it is not always feasible to slaughter in the yard due to limited space. Many families, for the sake of pragmatism, resort to asking the farmer from whom they bought the cow to do the slaughter on the farm. Oftentimes, families would be told that ancestors are not happy that the spilling of blood did not happen in the spiritually appropriate family home. This means that even the ancestors themselves need to guide into the change of times and this too is the responsibility of an uncle, and his spiritual guide.

I strongly believe that the practice of knowledge transfer cannot be left to the customary “learn by watching” method. We cannot keep waiting for ceremonies or functions to engage as young men and elders. Our elders are busy dying and taking their knowledge with them. Personally, I believe that “uncle school” should be a conscious and active effort by families and that it should happen on as regular basis as possible. Men of families must set time apart solely for engaging on matters of “uncle-dom”. This would be how we as generation not only participate the beliefs that define us, but how we also contribute.

Photography: Lebogang Nkoane