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What is it?

Isiphandla is a traditional wristband worn by Nguni people in Southern Africa. It symbolizes that some type of traditional ritual or ceremony has been performed in the family for the wearer.

How is it made?

The wristband made from animal hide (skin), more specifically, the hide that is extracted from the goat’s leg. The hide is extracted from the goat during a traditional ceremony that involves slaughtering the animal. Prior to the slaughter, the ancestors are informed about the ceremony that is about to takes place.

During the traditional ceremony the goat is slaughtered, and the spilling of the goat’s blood is a sacrifice to the ancestors. The altar where the sacrifice takes place is adorned with traditional beer, called umqombothi in Zulu, and food. After the animal has been sacrificed, the wristband is extracted from the goat’s leg. After the extraction, the bile (a greenish-brown fluid secreted by the liver) from the goat is sprayed on the wristband to create a physical connection with ancestors.

A goat

There are cases where the bile is poured on the person rather than the wristband. In such cases there is no need for the wristband. This modification was made due to the ongoing debate of wearing religious and traditional attires in public schools as well as the fact that some schools forbid learners from wearing traditional attires such as isiphandla in the classroom.

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.

Why is it worn?

Isiphandla is an amulet that is worn to represent a physical connection between the wearer and the ancestors, and it is worn for a myriad of reasons. The wristband is usually made during and worn after a traditional ceremony. The following lists a few examples of ceremonies that can result in a person wearing isiphandla:

  • Imbeleko – a ceremony of introducing the baby to the family members and ancestors.  
  • Ukuthwasa – a ceremony and a series of rituals performed when a person accepts the calling to become a traditional healer. 
  • Umemulo – a coming of age ceremony for a woman who has reached the age of 21 years. The ceremony involves slaughtering of a cow and signifies that a woman is ready for marriage. 
  • Umshado – a wedding ceremony.
  • Ukugeza – a cleansing ceremony.
  • Ukukhuphula – a ceremony to uplift the living-dead to the ancestral community.
  • Ukwamukelwa – a ceremony to introduce a new member of the family to the ancestors such as a wife to the husband’s family.
  • A traditional ceremony to thank and express gratitude to your ancestors.

Stigma and the influence of the western culture

Colonization and the lack of proper representation of black culture and tradition has resulted in much of the youth being very much ashamed of who they are and where they come from. Where you came from does not determine who you will become but it does help you build “the you that you want to” on a firm foundation. Many young people reject African culture and tradition for Western culture. For example, rejecting the wearing of isiphandla which is meant to help one connect with their roots and ancestors to instead wear gold chains as a symbol of opulence.

Forsaking one’s culture for “cool optics” is extremely dangerous as this breed confusion and self-loathing. African Americans are good example of what happens when you strip people of their culture. There is nothing wrong with desiring and adopt a Western lifestyle but that shouldn’t be at the cost of discarding one’s culture and beliefs.

Some people have suggested that due to the debate of religion and wearing of traditional attires at school, children should only wear the wristband on the day of the ceremony. After the ceremony the wristband should be hung at umsamo (an altar or a sacred area in the home where the visiting ancestral spirit resides) with umhlwehlwe (a caul). What do you think of this suggestion? Should children in public schools be allowed to wear traditional attires such as isiphandla?

Learn more about the concepts covered in this article, by accessing Imbeleko.

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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