THONGA / (-,-,-,-,3,3;5,5;G2;C) PLATEAU TONGA, TSONGA (South Africa; MOZAMBIQUE)



IndexAfricaSouth Africa → Thonga


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As with the Bemba, it is considered disgraceful for a girl to be impregnated before the puberty ceremony, and if this occurs she has difficulty in finding a desirable husband, and may have to marry an old man or a foreigner[1]. The Tonga have a female but no male initiation (Colson, 1958:p181-9)[2]; the anatomical indicators are thelarche or menarche (and contemporarily, school schedules), no instruction takes place, and the girl is thereafter considered adult (“Now you are grown we want you to stop using obscenity and abusing people”).


“No specific instruction on sexual matters is given in a normal [sic] fashion by older people to children, at least as far as I could learn. Instead, they are expected to acquire such information by casual observation in a community where little attempt is made to hide from them any of this side of life. Children sleep in their parents’ hut, and small children may share the family bed. Boys commonly move out at about the age of seven or eight, either to the kitchen or to join older boys in the huts they have built for themselves. Girls either remain with their parents until marriage, or they go to sleep in the house of some old woman. […] Children not barred from sexual experimentation. Small boys and girls masturbate without any notice being taken of it by older people, and small boys occasionally engage in mutual masturbation in public. That some stigma may attach to the practice, however, is suggested by the reaction of a child if someone comments on the matter. Two little girls giggled when they saw a four-year-old masturbating and announced, “John pulls himself (ku-li-kwela)”. At this the child set up a howl and rushed off in tears, while the two imps giggled with delight at the uproar they had caused. Heterosexual play also occurs, though I do not know how prevalent it is. Children from four of five on tease one another about their lovers. […] There may have been some disapproval in the past of serious sexual play if this came to light at the time when the child had to face the rite in which the front upper teeth were removed shortly before puberty. If the operator found that the teeth did not come out cleanly with a single blow of the chisel, he would announce that the child had been indulging in sexual intercourse and make it announce the name of its lover, whereupon the recalcitrant teeth were expected to give to the chisel. The operator then presented himself to the child’s guardians with a demand for payment of damages for having had to deal with a troublesome subject. […] Full sexual life […] should not begin for girls until after their puberty ceremony. A child conceived before this time was malweza, and formerly destroyed. […] After puberty, sexual experimentation continues, though now very often with full adults” (p271-5).


Adolescent boys may have thelarchic girls as lovers but adult sex with prepubescents in either configuration is said to cause a disease (cinsiluwe) in both parties; even deafness and prepubertal death would be attributed to seduction. Girls begin to enlarge the labia majora before puberty, and continue till after. [Among the Tsonga tribe of Mozambique and northern Transvaal, the female puberty initiation rite involves “having the girls pair up to stretch each others labias, performing tasks symbolizing women’s horticultural duties, and ritual defloration with a musical kudu horn”[3]. The Tsonga Musevhetho initiation includes the rite ‘u kwevha’ (cf. ®Bemba), which involves elongation of the girls’ labia minora, which is referred to as ‘milevhe’. The role of this initiation school according to Xitlhabana in Milubi (2000:p59-60)[4] is to gratify men’s unsatiable sexual appetite: the longer the size of the elongation, the better wives[5].] Girls eagerly await thelarche, but disclaim using medicines. Ciccatrizations, considered erotogenic and included in foreplay, is prohibited below the age of puberty. The children use beautifying medicines, as do adults, and with their silent approval. According to Kisembo et al. (1977:p126[6]; Aquina, 1975, II:p24), “[...] Tonga youths do not receive any sex instruction at all. Fathers merely tell their sons about the responsibilities of a husband and father around a fire at night and that is all! No direct sex-instructions are given. Washing in cold water once on an early morning without shivering is the only test a young man is given by his father or guardian to ascertain whether he is now grown up and fit to court girls and eventually marry. No sex-instruction is given to the girl either. At her first menstruation she is considered of marriageable age”. Marriage negotiations may begin well before the girl’s puberty.

Infants are welcomed into the family by tying a string around his waist smeared with his father’s semen[7]. Following circumcision (ages 10-16), boys enter the sungi seclusion, where sexual intercourse is forbidden, but obscenities are recommended (Junod, I, 1962:p80; see also [1927:p172-3])[8]. Among the western Tonga, a boy could be initiated into sexual intercourse by a paid “experienced” woman (Colson, p275). The Ngoma (circumcision school), however, does not relate to sexual life (p94). After boy’s polluarche, a man is said to have become an adult. Medicines may be administered to the boy that will prevent him from being overcome by them (the Custom of the Erotic Dream, Tilorela; p95). After the puberty rites, boys and girls, who live in separate huts, play Gangisa, a marriage game including hut-building, and play “in a less platonic fashion” (p97-9), which may be intercrural intercourse (Harries, 1990:p459-60; 1994:p200-1). A girl may solicit for intercourse. “A boy how has no such flirt, no shigango [[9]], is laughed at as a coward; a girl who refuses to accept such advances is accused of being malformed”. In fact, “If a boy has not been successful in his “gangisa”, if he is despised by the girls and has no chance of being accepted”, special rite is needed to help him find a wife. The girl is passed from asexuality to sexuality by the Khomba nubility rite, when she “comes of age” (I, p176-8). “They are also instructed in sexual matters, and told that they must never reveal anything about the blood of the menses to a man”. The girls make an apron (p182).

A scene of boy prostitution seemed to have existed in early 20th century Johannesburg, including (a few) little boys to men in their twenties (Junod, I, p492-5); the natives “speak of it with laughter”.


For an emic perspective on puberty rites of the Vatsonga / Manchangana see Maluleke (2001)[10].


“Young girls at the stage of puberty are restricted by similar taboos to those which affect the childbearing woman. Apart from these restrictions, young girls are exhorted to be very polite and respectful to elderly people. At a later stage when young girls are ready for marriage, they are introduced to womanhood through initiation. When married, a young woman first lives in the settlement of her husband’s parents and must comply with a wide range of rules of behaviour set by her new family. There is also a wide variety of duties which she must fulfill. If the woman is lazy she will not cope with the amount of work in her new family”[11].









Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. Volume I. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Oct. 2004


[1] Colson, E., Marriage among the Plateau Tonga. As cited by Mair (1953:p89), op.cit.

[2] Colson, E. (1958) Marriage and the Family among the Plateau Tonga of Northern Rhodesia. Manchester: MachesterUniversity Press. Cf. Vuyk, G. M. (1991) Children of One Womb. Diss., Leiden: Centre of Non-Western Studies, p139

[3]Johnston, cited by Stuart, R., Hallucinogen Use by Juveniles in Cross-Cultural Perspective.Online article at

[4] Milubi, N. A.(2000) Sexual Images: Essence of Presence, South African J Folklore Studies 20,2.Sovenga: Unin Press

[5] Cited by L. N. Maquebela and M. M. Malatjie (2002) Redressing Patriarchy and Sexism In African Lore: Is Patriarchy and Sexism Still Relevant? Rand Afrikaans University Sociology Seminars, at

[6] Op.cit.

[7] Among the Ba-Ronga, the father ties the string by touching “the bottom of the boy’s body from the front and from behind with his penis” (p516). The placements of this note (in Latin [translated in 1962 ed.] “for medical men and ethnographers”) suggests that Junod interpreted this variation as obscene. The rite (boha nshale for the Ba-Ronga) concludes the postpartum taboo.

[8] Op.cit.

[9] Cf. Junod, H. (1898) Les Ba-Rongo. Neuchatel: Attinger Frères. The term chigango here implies premarital liberty

[10] Maluleke, Th. X. & Troskie, R. (2003) The views of women in the Limpopo Province of South Africa concerning girls' puberty rites: research, Health SA Gesondheid 58:47-60

[11]Mathye, H. R. (2003) The Image of Women in Selected Tsonga Novels. Thesis, University of South Africa, p8 []