VHUSHA, TSHIKANDA, AND DOMBA
In the past there were schools for youths corresponding to the girls' vhusha and tshikanda initiation schools, but by 1956 these had been superseded by mission and state school education and by the imported circumcision school, murundu. Domba was still officially a school for youths and girls, but few youths danced at the schools I attended because they were working on white-owned farms and in cities, or studying at state schools.
The cycle of initiation could last from between one and four years for any girl who attended. Vhusha, the first phase of initiation, was held regularly in the council houses of local rulers whenever a commoner girl in the district began to menstruate and her family asked for her to be initiated. Domba, the third and final phase of initiation, was held every four or five years in the capitals of chiefs and of important rulers, and it was preceded by tshikanda, which was generally held in the same places as vhusha. Tshikanda was a month-long school whose main purpose was to rehearse the songs and dances of vhusha, with girls of ruler and commoner families on an equal footing. Vhusha was an ancient Venda rite, which the ruling families had found when they arrived in Venda in the eighteenth century. Their girls did not have to attend it, but the wives of rulers had to supervise it. Thus it was necessary for potential rulers' wives to learn what they might one day have to teach. They were able to do this at tshikanda, after they had attended their own (nobles') vhusha, at which there was no music or dancing, merely verbal instruction and ritual washing and beating.
When domba was held in a district, performance of all other communal music, except tshikona and malende beer songs, was suspended. If a girl reached puberty at this time, she was allowed to join domba immediately, and attended vhusha when it had been 'burnt' - the term for the end of domba. She might have to wait some years before she could attend tshikanda, and so it was not uncommon to find one or two married women at tshikanda. Married women also attended the final rites of domba, if for some reason, such as living in town, they had missed the initiation before marriage. But these were exceptional situations which most non-Christian girls, and even many Christians, tried to avoid.
Domba was not only an institution in which girls 'learnt the laws' (u guda milayo) of childbirth, of certain rituals, marriage and motherhood: its steady crescendo of daily music and dance, reflecting the increase in the number of recruits (sometimes up to more than two hundred novices) and in their musical expertise, and the concentration of more and more people in one part of the countryside, provided most novices with an unforgettable, sustained experience of high living, which was shared by others in the district who had been to domba in their youth. Even though the quality of this experience was not often expressed in words during the course of domba, and though the idle chatter and schoolgirl jokes before, after and between dances and rites was not exactly uplifting, everyone was acutely aware of what they had felt throughout domba when it was finally concluded after at least twenty-four hours of almost nonstop music and dancing. The contrast between periods with and without domba in a district illustrated perfectly what Durkheim meant by cycles of more and less intensity of social interaction. At the end of domba, when novices and their families dispersed to their homes, even a well-populated ruler's capital felt like a deserted place.
Although numerous different dances, songs, and rites were performed throughout the cycle of initiation, it is important to see it as the Venda themselves saw it: as one extended event, as a huge drawing of breath of the whole countryside, achieved by the coordinated movements of human bodies in space and time.
In the milayo laws of domba, natural features of the countryside were renamed as parts of a human body, which was animated by the dancing, drumming and singing. From the beginning of vhusha to the end of domba, we move from the initial climaxes of individual girls experiencing the first signs of sexual maturity through a series of measured stages, to a final, massive climax in which the community participated in the symbolic rebirth of itself through the corporate rebirth of the novices.
Vhusha, tshikanda and domba constituted a single dance-music-drama, an extended multi-media event comparable in scope and imagination to the Ring cycle, but shared and performed by all members of the community and not only by an artistic élite. What was even more remarkable was that all the parts were interrelated and they expressed the intentions of the whole performance. Even the varied music of the didactic ndayo exercises of vhusha was related to other music of initiation (Blacking 1970b), and the girls' tivha khulo of domba was a transformation of the men's music of the sacred dance, tshikona (Blacking 1973b: 88ff), with which every domba had to be initiated. The contrasting styles of dance movements in vhusha and domba expressed precisely the symbolic content and educational intentions of the initiation schools.
The diagram, below, illustrates the ideal passage of girls from their natal to their marital homes. The purpose of the cycle of initiation was to bring about symbolically a transformation of the physical bodies of young girls into the social body of the adult community. This transformation was achieved by three elements in the initiation cycle: movements of bodies in space and through time, a corpus of songs and dances, and a series of spoken pairs of concepts.
Movements of bodies in space and through time marked a transition from the scattered natal homesteads in which individual families lived (bottom left of the diagram) to the political centre of the community, and then on to new homesteads; from individual dance movements that were physically difficult to do and so emphasised the new complexity of the body (vhusha and tshikanda) to corporate dance movements that emphasised the complexity of social life; from private seclusion of the first six days, with naked, completely shaven, unwashed bodies (bottom left), to the public presentation of a large group of washed, finely dressed bodies, with the long, specially cut hair of a pregnant woman, the clothes of a new bride and the ornaments of domba (top right of the figure).
The movements were cumulative, gathering in momentum and intensity as the cycle progressed. First one novice in a ward was taken for the first stage of her initiation and remained in seclusion for six days; then another novice in the same or another ward was taken and the first girl was recalled for the second stage of her initiation. Meanwhile, in the headquarters of another headman, the same process was taking place. After a year or two, there were several girls in a number of related districts who had passed all three stages of vhusha. The number of sessions that had been held depended on the number of new novices, for the first stage of each novice's initiation was automatically the second and third respectively of two or more other novices, and the occasion for a reunion of all who had passed their three stages but had not yet been to domba. During the six nights of each session, all novices and recently initiated girls gathered in the homestead of their headman (bottom left of the figure) to rehearse the ndayo dances, perform certain rituals, and learn the 'laws' (milayo) of the school.
Girls of noble families were not obliged to attend the commoners' vhusha, but all girls in the district had to attend tshikanda, and all were treated alike. Thus the council house of each headman became the focus of a great concentration of people and intensity of activity for one month, shortly before the beginning of domba at the chief's capital, where the first tshikanda of the series was always held. It could happen that domba began before each and every tshikanda had been 'burnt' in the district.
As soon as domba was initiated at the chief's capital, girls who had passed vhusha and tshikanda began to join the school. Commoners tended to be reticent about joining before several girls from noble families had been recruited, although there were no visible signs of rank. The only distinction between early and late arrivals was that the former had the longest hair, because all new recruits had to shave completely and could not shave their hair again until graduation. Girls who came from outlying districts often stayed with relatives near or in the chief's capital, at least during the weekends when the most intensive dancing took place, if not during the week, when there was dancing every night and early every morning. Activities took place in the chief's public meeting place, except when it rained and the council hut was used, and performances of domba and related dances were often watched, and sometimes joined, by many spectators. As more and more girls joined the school, so the concentration of people in one part of the country increased, and feelings of generalised excitement and satisfaction grew.
Finally, when the last phase of domba was reached, people came from all over the country to witness the graduation of their relatives, often to collect a young bride, or simply to join in the celebration. After a long period in which there had been a gradual increase in movement and concentration of people in different districts (bottom left of the figure), and then a series of almost simultaneous, short intensive months at tshikanda, there was a further period of three months to a year, and very occasionally two years, in one centre with different movements enacted publicly (bottom centre of the figure). This reached a climax of intensity as more and more novices joined the school. Then there was a sharp, dramatic conclusion to the whole initiation: after dancing all night, surrounded by scores of people, the novices went down to the pool, washed, gathered in the bush, dressed in graduation uniform, were carried back into the public place, and danced for the last time before dispersing in the late afternoon (right of the figure).
A corpus of songs and dances, the second element in the initiation cycle, was generally accompanied by drums, and sometimes by special rites (dzingoma) and shows (ma). During the first phase (vhusha, bottom left of the figure), there were special songs to mark events such as the removal of each novice from her home, or the passage of a group of novices from the council house to the river and back. But most of the time was spent rehearsing the physically difficult ndayo dances. The communal dance of the school was performed two or three times every evening, and for this novices and instructresses danced in a circle counter-clockwise, without touching each other's bodies as they did in domba. There were ritual songs for the end of each phase of vhusha, and also at the end of tshikanda, after which the story of Thovhela and Tshishonge (the dramatisation of a myth) was enacted before the dismissal of the girls.
During domba (bottom centre of the figure), there were songs accompanying rites that every novice had to perform. Although some shows were not presented more than once during an initiation, their accompanying songs were performed regularly, together with the play songs that were interspersed, like episodes in a rondo, with the frequent performances of domba, the main dance rite of the school. All dances were communal, in contrast to the pattern of vhusha, but variations on the counter-clockwise, circular movement of domba were achieved by differences of tempo, by breaking up the long 'chain' into interweaving groups, by stepping backwards as well as forwards, and by varying the arm movements. The only people who were allowed to dance individually at the domba were those who had graduated (midabe): they paraded in small groups outside the domba circle, four paces forward, kick, and four paces backward, with a graceful movement described as udabela.
A series of spoken pairs of concepts, the third element of the initiation cycle, was presented formally by the master of initiation, and these related symbolic movements, song texts, and rites to problems of adulthood and married life. They reinterpreted familiar objects (such as houses, paths, sunrise, fire) in a new way by relating them to the objects and concerns of womanhood. In the milayo laws that were taught throughout the initiations, many sections began with a sentence that compared their progress to a journey of adventure ('I walked along a narrow path and I came to a place where ...'). In the figure (centre) ndila is the word for path and also for the passage from the womb to the vagina: everyone used the red path which led to the public khoro (meeting-place) where domba was danced, but it was also the place where the novices performed special action songs about the menstrual flow and the pains of labour. When they danced domba, the khoro became a womb in which a foetus (the bass drum) was nourished by the intercourse (regular dancing) of the girls and semen (the ashes of the fire). After several months, the novices left the khoro by the path into the bush. Their journey (labour) was made painful and hurried on by a stinging potion that was splashed on their backs. They were then ritually washed in a 'pool', from which all babies are said to come. The subsequent rites repeated the ritual surrounding the presentation of a newborn baby (the novice emerging from the seclusion of initiation). The final milayo which were recited in the master's home, were about the leather skirt of married women, and the other decorations that the girls wore as part of their graduation dress.
The initiation cycle was a system of formal education designed to follow the informal education of childhood (Blacking 1964b). But it was also a sensuous bodily experience that was considered essential for the well-being of each individual body and the whole human and natural environment. It was a productive technique of the body (cf. Marcel Mauss) for the purpose of reproduction. But although there was much explanation of sexual matters, it was not a system of education primarily concerned with the actual techniques of reproduction. The most important lesson of domba and of the other initiation schools was the instruction about the institutions and responsibilities of motherhood, fatherhood, and marriage. Thus, if a girl became pregnant during domba, she was not praised for succeeding in what the school might have seemed to be teaching: she was thrown out in disgrace!
The symbolic relationships expressed with the physical environment were concerned not only with the fertility of the earth and of women, but also with the role of the ancestor spirits as guardians of the countryside and the source of life. Every birth was a rebirth, a recycling of a spiritual being. In tshikanda and domba distinctions of rank were obliterated, although girls of noble rank tended to be rather more noisy than commoners: the length of girls' hair and where they stood in the dance were signs of how long they had been in the school. Throughout the initiation, the unity of the community and the equality of its members were emphasised.
In 1956-8, all who had taken part in the cycle of initiation were agreed that the most important element was the domba dance. Concern for the dance outweighed consideration of its extra symbolic significance. Women who had forgotten most of what they might have learnt about the associated symbolism had not forgotten the experience of dancing: they talked of problems of coordinating movements and music, the closeness of others' bodies, the excitement when the dance went well, the transcendence of altered time schedules and the sense of transformation from the physical to the social body that was experienced through contrasting movement styles.
Similarly, tshikona was invariably described and discussed in terms of its expressive power rather than its social and political uses. Although its performance was often an expression of the political power of its sponsor, the experience stimulated individuality as much as a strong sense of community, and people talked more of the refreshment that it brought to their lives rather than the adherence to a political order that it was supposed to consolidate. I suggest that they talked in these ways not because they were indoctrinated and complacent, but because the forms of the dances and music were such that they could not be satisfactorily performed by complacent, unthinking, insensitive human beings.