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Traditionally, the birth of a child in the Zulu culture has always been viewed as a momentous occasion as it has always been believed that a family or marriage is not incomplete without a child (ren). To celebrate this momentous occasion, Zulu people perform a welcoming ceremony for a child known as Imbeleko.

Imbeleko is a rite of passage ceremony that is performed to introduce and welcome the new arrival in the family to both the living and living-dead. The ceremony is typically performed after the birth of the child, however there is no age limit as it is also performed for an adult. This rite of passage is relatively similar to rites practiced by non-Africans such as a birthday party, a celebration to name a child or to introduce a child to friends and relatives. This article explores imbeleko rite of passage and examines what it is, how it is traditionally performed and how some families perform the ceremony, why it is performed, and the exceptional cases for the ceremony.

What is imbeleko?

Imbeleko is a traditional ceremony that involves the father introducing the child to the rest of family and ancestors. It is similar to a birthday party the only difference is that imbeleko happens once in a lifetime while a birthday occurs annually. Imbeleko is celebrated in Zulu culture, typically, when the child is born or still young. It involves the slaughtering of an animal such as a goat.  

The term imbeleko literally means a baby carrier. The ceremony gets the name imbeleko from the fact that the skin of the slaughtered animal has traditionally been used as a baby carrier. When a baby is young the mother carries the child on their back using imbeleko.

How is it performed?

Over the years, imbeleko ceremony has evolved in order to conform to people’s ever-changing lives and beliefs. In the past, a goat was slaughtered prior to a woman giving birth and the skin was used as isidiya, a traditional Zulu attire that covers the breast and stomach. After giving birth the isidiya was converted to imbeleko (a baby carrier). Over time this changed, one of the many reasons for change was miscarriage. Some women became apprehensive celebrating before the arrival of the baby since childbirth complications were prevalent at the time.  

Nowadays, the ceremony is typically conducted as follows:

  • Brewing umqombothi (a traditional Zulu beer). Afterwards, one of the elders in the family will make the first offering to the ancestors by placing umancishana, a small amount of beer, at umsamo, an altar or a sacred area in the home where the visiting ancestral spirit resides. 
  • Burning impepho (a sacred indigenous herb) to invite the ancestors to the ceremony. 
  • Praying. The elders pray while the child strokes or touches the goat. This establishes the link between the child, ancestors, and animal.    
  • Slaughtering the animal. Ideally, a goat from the family’s flock is used. However, if the goat is bought it should be given time to get acquainted with the surroundings and to eat the grass in the garden. 
  • Skinning the animal. The skin extracted from the goat’s leg is used to make a wristband (known as isiphandla) for the child. The rest of the skin is used to make imbeleko. 
  • Eviscerating the animal. The entrails serve different purposes. The most important internal organ is the bile (known as inyongo). It is the greenish-brown fluid secreted by the liver. The bile is sprayed on the wristband to further solidify the link between the child, ancestors, and animal. Other entrails are discarded, along with the contents of the stomach (known as umswani) which are typically used by witch doctors for witchcraft purposes. The rest of the entrails are consumed by the family. Some parts, such as the third stomach (known as inanzi), are not eaten by young children as they are said to impair cognitive capabilities.   

A news report indicated that a child’s goatskin wristband known as isiphandla was confiscated by a teacher. The principal suggested that as a compromise, the child should wear a long shirt to cover up the wristband. The Gauteng Department of Education spoke up in support of the child and pointed to the need for school policies to respect learners’ cultures.

Due to the ongoing debate regarding children wearing religious and traditional attire in public schools some parents no longer allow their children to wear isiphandla fearing discrimination. The bile ritual is considered the most important aspect of the ceremony. Some Zulu people say that it is not necessary to wear isiphandla, especially when the bile content is sprayed on the child rather than on the wristband. Consequently, there have been a few variations regarding the spraying of bile content during the ceremony.  

  • Some families apply the bile on the child’s hands and feet. The child does not bathe on the day of the application, they sleep with bile and wash the next day. The logic behind going to bed with the bile on the child is to attract ancestor spirits to the child, ancestors use the bile to identify the child.
  • Some families apply the bile on the child’s head and face. The child does not bathe on the day of the application, they sleep with bile and wash the next day.
  • Some families allow the child to swallow a few drops of the bile then pour the rest on the head and allow it to flow. In this case, the child is allowed to bathe on the day of application. 
  • Some families only apply the bile around the neck and the child only bathes the next day.      

What is the purpose of imbeleko?

Imbeleko is traditionally a ceremony for introducing a newborn baby or child to the rest of the family and ancestors. It also serves other purposes, including: 

  • To protect a child from misfortune.
  • When the ceremony takes place immediately after the birth of the child, it can also be an opportunity for naming the child. 
  • It is a thanksgiving ceremony to thank ancestors for the birth of the child. 
  • During the ceremony the elders have the opportunity to bless and pray for the child. 

Exceptions and special cases 

The father of the child is responsible for organizing the ceremony and bearing its cost (i.e., he buys the goat, impepho, and ingredients for making umqombothi). However, in the following cases the father might not be available to perform imbeleko for the child.

  • When the child is born to a married woman after she committed adultery, such a child is known as ivezandlebe. If the father is not involved in the child’s life, the woman’s husband might adopt the child and perform the ceremony for the child. 
  • When the child is born to an unmarried young woman, such a child is known as umlwanjwana. If the father is not involved in the child’s life, the grandfather or uncle might perform the ceremony for the child.   
  • When a child has no parents, such a child is known as intandane. In this case, the relatives of the child or the foster parents can take it upon themselves to perform the ceremony.  

Imbeleko is meant to bring the family together, so the child grows up knowing that they have a support structure. It is also meant to bless the child and for them to know they are always protected. The ceremony sets the foundation for the future. When the ceremony is performed properly it is said that as an adult, the child will be whole, grounded, self-assured, and courageous because they know they are blessed and protected with a family that supports them.

Learn about some of the concepts covered in this article, including isiphandla (traditional wristband) and impepho (sacred herb)

Safety precaution:

The use of traditional medicine in prescribed dosages will yield good results. Misuse and abuse may lead to complications. To learn about correct dosage, consult a traditional healer or a herbalist. You can also visit or email: to learn more about traditional medicine.  

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