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Zimbabwe Zulus install first woman chief

sinqobili February 13, 1997
Web posted at: 10:05 p.m. EST (0305 GMT)

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MATABLELAND, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- Members of the Ndebele tribe danced in honor of a great event in their culture Thursday, the installation of a new chief.

At a gathering in Zimbabwe's Swazi district, warriors, spirit mediums and traditional healers took part in a ceremony commemorating the sacred traditions of their Zulu ancestors reborn in their chief, or "nduna."

Celebrations of a Zimbabwe Zulu tribe
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3.7 MD / 38 sec. Large version of QuickTime movie

But Thursday's ceremony was unlike any before it. For the first time in the tribe's history, the "nduna" is not a man, but a modest and unassuming woman of 23 who was so moved by the ceremony that she cried briefly before regaining her composure.


What's more, she comes not from one of the 100,000 villages in the district, but from a very different world of busy streets, shopping and fast foods.

Despite being the second daughter of a chief, Sinqobili Mabhena grew up in Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, where she is studying to be a teacher. But with no sons or nephews in the family, her father chose her to succeed him when he died. And it took three years of hard work by his family before his wish was fulfilled.

"I suppose he would be feeling very happy because he had high hopes for Sinqobili," says her mother, Nomalanga Mabhena. "So if Sinqobili takes after him, I think he will be very proud."

"Yes," says the new chief, "a woman can do a much better job and I have yet to prove that."

Some traditionalists object


The duties of the chief are largely ceremonial, consisting of mediating and handing out judgments in tribal disputes. But there are those who are not happy with the appointment, precisely because she is a woman.

"This one is against our culture," says George Moyo, chairman of the Ndebele Cultural Association. "We are not going to allow it!"

Traditionalists say the idea of a female chief is alien to Ndebele culture, and the issue has caused deep divisions among the tribe. Many other chiefs agreed, and stayed away from Thursday's ceremony.

Zimbabwe's government, on the other hand, has backed her. Officials say that traditional culture should change to fall in line with modern ways and with Zimbabwe's efforts to achieve equal rights for women, which are guaranteed in the constitution.


"You know the world is becoming smaller and smaller every day," says John Nkomo, Zimbabwe's Minister of Local Government. "So we get these cross-influences, culture, traditions and ways of doing things. We live in one world, one planet."

...While elders support the new chief

Nevertheless, some Ndebele see this as a case of political interference in a sacred part of their culture.

"Culture is a thing which doesn't go away," says George Moyo. "A political thing, it comes and goes every day; we can change them several times. But the chieftaincy is just like that, it won't change. Why they say it can change now, I don't know."

But other elders have shown their support, pledging to help Sinqobili with the task ahead.


"We, the elders, are going to work with her and help her with the culture," says Job Mabhena, a tribal elder. "We will teach her."

Sinqobili says she intends to continue living two lives, dividing her time between the city and the village.

"You are not a person if you don't have your culture," she says. "You have to show your roots, stick to your roots."

Correspondent Bob Coen contributed to this report.  

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