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The Unpaid Labour of Tradition: Working and Village Makotis

Written by: Nombulelo Shinta

Figure 1: Village and Working Makotis preparing food for Umcimbi in Gwaba Village (Taken by: Nombulelo Shinta)

After the Covid pandemic, many villages in the Eastern Cape have seen an increase in rituals and customary practices that require large amounts of unpaid labour from young married women, known as Makotis. A Makoti is a woman who has recently married, and after some years, especially after having children, she transitions to "Mfazana" (young married woman). These are the two groups of women responsible for cooking and serving food at an uMcimbi (Traditional Ceremony) or Umgcwabo (a funeral). This serves as a way for young married women to support each other in carrying out this labour and also forms a basis for building friendships with other Makotis. Although this tradition is cherished by many elderly people in the village, the new generation of working Makotis are not happy with the double burden of having to commit themselves to both waged and unwaged labor week in and week out. One might say this practice of unpaid labour is grounded in the spirit of ubuntu, where women support each other and stand united; however, many believe this practice has become a form of exploitation of women and has the potential to divide Makotis.

During my fieldwork period in Gwaba Village, after attending a few Micimbi (plural for a traditional ceremony), I realized that although this tradition provides a great opportunity for women to connect, it is also an extremely difficult obligation for women who have full-time jobs. The tradition dictates that even as working women, they need to go and cook and serve at a ceremony held in the village. These encounters have highlighted the disconnection between Makotis who live in town and rarely attend traditional ceremonies, and those who live permanently in the village. The working Makotis are often socially excluded and seen as overly confident and arrogant by the village Makotis.

In the case of the Gwaba village Makotis, this has become a contested issue after the pandemic. Some of the Makotis that I interacted with in the village shared that the most beautiful thing that came with Covid was the break from unpaid labour of the Imicimbi in the village. They expressed that during Covid, they realized how overworked they had been at the funerals and traditional ceremonies. During Covid, Imicimbi were not allowed, and the small gatherings were only attended by family members. The Makotis had enough time to focus on their own lives and homes. The Makotis also shared that this type of tradition spread gossip and created fights between the Makotis, such that after uMcimbi, there would be confrontations of who said what during the time they were cooking.

When a Makoti stays or works in town but still visits their in-laws in the village when there is a uMcimbi, they feel excluded. Working Makotis are sometimes expected to do all the work alone for their ceremony as the village Makotis will not assist with work. Before the pandemic when there were fewer ceremonies, the working and village Makotis would work together to serve every home in the village. However, post-pandemic, this tradition has turned into bullying for the working Makotis. The Makotis who live in town feel excluded by the village Makotis, and they are often attacked for hiring catering services for their own Mcimbi in the village. They are also mocked for being disrespectful by wearing expensive shoes while doing the chores around their home. If the Makoti of the home is not available on the uMcimbi day, no matter how much money she paid to prepare uMcimbi, she is seen as disrespecting and embarrassing her culture.

Figure 2: Village and Working Makotis preparing food at Umcimbi in Gwaba Village (Taken by: Nombulelo Shinta)

This tradition has also been said to be exploitative in nature, such that a woman who is employed full-time is expected to come back from work and cook and serve at uMcimbi. It is even worse when uMcimbi is performed by the Makoti’s in-laws; if the Makoti is working in town, she must take leave from work just to participate in the ceremony. At one Umcimbi that I attended, I sat outside and watched one Makoti doing all the cooking alone. There was another Makoti who was sitting next to me outside the house. She was dressed up to work, but she did not touch a plate. I asked her why she was not helping, and she said it was because she is a teacher and was tired from working all week. She also mentioned that the Makoti of that house did not show her support when she had her own uMcimbi. Every time this Makoti would walk next to us, the other one would mock her jokingly.

I understand why some Makotis exclude themselves from this tradition as it is an easy way in which gossip spreads, not only that but can discriminate according to people’s beliefs. Christian Makoti’s also known as born-again Makoti’s are not supposed to attend Imicimbi as this tradition usually gives praise to other gods. A Christian Makoti is hated and called names in the village, not just in Gwaba village but in many other villages as well. The community believes that these Makotis are running away from work and hiding behind faith.

Being Xhosa myself, I understand the frustration of the new generation of working Makotis and the burden of labour they carry in this period after the pandemic. I came to appreciate how the village Makotis were invested in the value of traditions like Imicimbi and Umgcwabo; however, these tensions at rituals destabilised age-old cultural practices.

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