I am not black, and I felt slightly awkward wearing the imbola clay, unqualified as I am to understand its full significance.
“kulomzi… maqabaqab’ imbola…”
According to my shabby isiXhosa, the lyrics mean “in the house of red clay”, and imbola, the titular clay, is indeed a part of Xhosa culture. I fondly remember the song being chanted at my wedding back in the day, where I was affixed to a beautiful Xhosa-speaking woman, of the Amampondomise nation.
Imbola is worn by Xhosa people, and my early memories from my childhood in the Eastern Cape are replete with images of women adorned with the brownish-red ochre.
I respected this aspect of the culture from afar – being a white person and not at all Xhosa, my proximity and provenance notwithstanding.
In that sense, imbola to me was like the black version of lederhosen. An intrinsic cultural component not necessarily to me messed with by outsiders. That was until I attended the umgidi of my friend Lindani.
Umgidi marks the return from the bush of a cohort of young males, who have undergone the ulwaluko initiation rituals of the culture and become men. It is a joyous family celebration, featuring singing and dancing and sharing of umqombothi.
It was an honour to be invited to witness my friend become a man, and to be welcomed into his home, in the Silvertown area of what is now Makhanda. As part of the celebrations, some other friends – white people like myself – were seated around the courtyard of the residence, and then adorned with imbola.
We found ourselves, literally, in the house of red clay.
The clay now drying into rich, red crusts on my face, I found myself simultaneously honoured and uncomfortable. It was a privilege to share in the initiation celebrations, and to be allowed to participate. It was an honour, too, to have a lady expertly apply the imbola, to somehow make us – however briefly – part of the culture.
But … here’s the thing, is imbola blackface? Is it acceptable for white people to wear it? What are the ethics on this thing? The socio-cultural implications?
Briefly paralysed by these issues of political correctness, I found myself surreptitiously scraping the clay from my face. I am not black, and I felt slightly awkward wearing the clay, unqualified as I am to understand its full significance.
Photographs were being taken, and I was mortified at the prospect of my imbola-adorned visage being shared beyond this particular cultural context.
Unless, of course, I was just being an ass and I needed to get over myself. The people were welcoming me and putting this brown clay on my face was just part of it.
But of course, it was only the white people who were getting imbola on their faces. Most of us were just going with it, five or six whities in brownface make-up, sitting around the courtyard sipping African beer while Lindani welcomed guests on his ukkhukho mat inside.
A lady noticed I had removed my imbola and returned to diligently reapply it. I submitted.
The sun set over the erstwhile Grahamstown, and the party got going properly. There was dancing, smoking, drinking and the kind of sincere cross-cultural bonding you don’t get to see too often. There was Peter Tosh on the playlist.
I sighed, took another deep draught of beer and got my skank on. It was a privilege to have been invited here, and I might never experience such again.
If I was honest with myself, I had no idea what the ethics police would say about my face-paint situation. But there it was. The lady had insisted. If being here was a privilege, perhaps wearing imbola was part of it. Maybe there was, after all, a circumstance where blackface was allowed for white people.
Maybe it was rude not to understand that. I really don’t know.
As darkness fell, I was dancing to Fight Apartheid by Peter Tosh in a township in Africa, wearing blackface. Sheepish, but proud, if you can imagine such a thing.
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