The Bavenda


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The Bavenda are very polite. They have a rigid code of etiquette, their method of greeting being different from that of other tribes in the Transvaal. Superiors and elders are treated with respect and reverence, the chief and his sister with obsequious adoration, while the ordinary everyday formalities between husband and wife and their children and friends are strictly defined and rigidly adhered to. U losha means to salute or honor, but it has a much more comprehensive meaning; the actual method of losha varies according to the sex and position of the person giving the salute; a man greets an ordinary person in one way and a chief in another, while a woman has an entirely different method of greeting. A man always sits to losha; he slightly bends his head and shoulders and with eyes looking downwards, elbows pressed to the side, and forearms extended in front of him, with finger tips touching, he claps his hands together very gently; this movement is accompanied by some word of greeting, depending on the occasion, generally "Ndau!" (Lion!). He must never losha standing. Today a man always lifts his hat when greeting anybody.

A woman kneels with buttocks on heels, and body bending forward, head bent and eyes on the ground; she places her hands together in the same way as the man, but instead of clapping them lifts the two forefingers up and down; she usually accompanies her gestures with a muttered "Ah!" On approaching anyone on the road she kneels down on one knee, with one hand on the ground and the other hand resting on her bent knee, and with head averted she waits until the wayfarer has passed or motioned her to pass on. If she is carrying a load on her head she simply holds her right hand straight up, with thumb almost touching the ear, and waits. An old woman is addressed by a man as "Ndau! Makhulu!" (Lion! Great one!) and she replies, "Mukwasha!" (Son-in-law!). If two women are passing on the road the younger generally kneels while the older bends her knee and both say "Ah!" A woman must always keep her eyes on the ground when talking to a superior; she would be guilty of the grossest insolence if she dared to look up into the face of the man by whom she is being addressed. She must always kneel when receiving anything from any man, and also kneel when giving.

To losha the chief (called u luvha when an inferior is greeting a superior) a man claps his hands together when at some distance, and approaches giving utterance to a number of laudatory epithets while continuing the clapping. When he reaches the chief he squats down with bent knees and leans the head to the right side, turning his hands over to the right at the same time. Occasionally a man is privileged to approach the chief on terms of equality, without doing the luvha; this is the highest honor that a Muvenda can attain, and it is only awarded to one who has shown most conspicuous bravery or wisdom. A woman kneels down with her forehead on the ground and her hands together under her face, and always shuffles on hands and knees in his presence or in his hut. The chief’s sister is treated with exactly the same respect as the chief himself. Certain other people are treated in the same way, notably a woman possessed of the molombo spirit and a man’s parents-in-law.

A man joining a party of people must losha. If he leaves the party and returns he must again losha. When on the road he must losha each passer-by, greeting a man as "Ndau!" and a woman, older than himself, as "Makhulu!" If two men are engaged in conversation the listener is continually interrupting the speaker, interjecting such words as "Ndau!" "Thovela!" "Ndou!" "Kholomo!" etc., (Lion, Great one! Elephant! Cattle! etc.). This indicates his interest in the speaker’s remarks and has very much the same significance as our "Yes!" "Indeed!" or "Is that so?" If he omits to ejaculate every few seconds the speaker considers that the listener is not giving due attention to his words.

Girls, while attending the vhusha [girls’ school], must losha continually, especially must they respect the girls who were initiated just before themselves, going . . . down on their knees, with forehead on the ground, when making obeisance to them. A bride must always crawl in the yard of her husband’s home, and kneel before she enters the door of the hut, as well as doing losha before everything she touches; she continues to behave in this way until after the birth of her first child. If one woman encounters another engaged in some labor, such as smearing, she must losha the smearing. Before picking up a baby from the ground or taking it from her back she must losha and again after feeding it. Everybody is expected to losha their plate before starting food, and again at the end of the meal; this must also be done by any stranger eating with the family; the only person who need not losha at mealtimes is the owner of the house, but even he, if he is entertaining an important visitor, will, after the visitor has done losha to his plate, himself salute it.

A person wishing to take a cinder from the fire, even though nobody is present in the vicinity of the fire, is expected to losha, out of respect for the person who lit it. A girl must losha her elder brother and all married women. Children are taught to losha when quite small, but the rules of etiquette are not strictly enforced until after they have entered the thondo [boys’ school] or vhusha. A group of women, approaching the chief’s village, always makes a characteristic trilling noise in a high pitch; this is made by rapidly hitting the pursed lip with the forefinger and at the same time hitting the palate with the tongue. On the entrance of the chief to any village or kraal, and again on his exit, the same trilling performance is enacted. If the chief belongs to the royal Makhwinde sib, the word "Singo!" (Elephant’s trunk!) is interspersed between the trilling.

The giving and receiving of snuff is accompanied by strict laws of etiquette and propriety. The people who take snuff are divided into four main groups; the first comprises the boys and girls, the second the young men and women, the third the middle-aged group, and the fourth the old people. The members of each group may ask their contemporaries or their juniors for snuff, but never a member of a senior group. A senior may give to a junior, who always receives the snuff with extreme politeness. No man is permitted to ask another man’s wife for snuff, as it is a favorite medium for the concealment of magical charms; for the same reason it is considered dangerous to accept snuff from a stranger.

There are prescribed sitting positions for different members of the community, and any person sitting in an unorthodox way is guilty of a grave breach of etiquette. The head of the family sits on a stone or a log of wood. Young men and boys sit on the ground with their legs on one side, tucked under them. In the presence of the chief all men sit on the ground, except the most important and influential. Women and girls always sit in a kneeling position, with the buttocks on the heels. Children, however informally they may sit amongst themselves, quickly assume the correct position on the approach of any superior.1

1Stayt, H.A.n/an/an/an/a, , 157–159 (Oxford University Press. By permission).


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Chicago: "The Bavenda," The Bavenda in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed December 8, 2023,

MLA: . "The Bavenda." The Bavenda, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 8 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , 'The Bavenda' in The Bavenda. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 8 December 2023, from