Reimagining Community through "Imbeleko"
By: Teak Hodge
December 10, 2019
Directly translated, imbeleko describes the act of giving birth. In Xhosa culture, imbeleko is a traditional ceremony where the umbilical cord and afterbirth of a newborn baby are buried on ancestral grounds as a means of introducing the baby to their clan, their ancestors, and their elders. Burying the umbilical cord is said to at once protect the child from witchcraft or sorcery and bring them into their ancestral lineage. Over time, aspects of the imbeleko ceremony have shifted and changed in response to the adoption of Westernized attitudes and modes of living. Despite these changes, I believe that the ethos guiding imbeleko has persisted among many South Africans. To me, imbeleko reflects how many South Africans understand and conspire to shape community.
Being born into a family and community is almost a taken for granted act; it positions the happenstance of birth as the arbiter of who is within and who is without a particular family. Imbeleko works to reshape this notion by having the newborn baby be introduced to clan family members both living and dead. The act of introduction implies a necessary movement and/or action to shape the bonds that form the family and community. Engaging in these introductions means that the one being introduced understands they are entering a space which supersedes their existence and that they, too, wish to partake in its co-creation. Further, if introductions are to be made, then those with the authority to invite people into the space must accept them. Thus, birth is a necessary step for entrance into the clan, but not sufficient to show that one is really part of the family. Being a part of the family means having made the correct preparations and doing the work to show that one respects all those who have endeavored to make themselves a part of the family before, and having that work acknowledged. Here, community can be understood as more of an active force.
Thinking back before my time in South Africa, I remember I used to frequently ask how we could better sit in community with one another on campus. This question would always come in response to some social tumult happening among students with whom I typically identified. Whether I forged these identifications based on race, sexuality, class, gender, ability, or any combination within or exceeding these identities, I viscerally remember being dismayed when people I perceived as within my amorphous idea of community would act in ways contradictory to my ideal. Being in South Africa has made me critically reflect on the failures of conceptualizing community in this way.
First, there can be no sitting in community. This doesn’t mean that the community space is not one of rest—it can be—but rather being in community means more than just sharing common identities. To be in community means that, in some way, you have shown willingness to work; even in some small measure, you have given something of yourself in order to be able to receive from others. Thus, there is a give and take, a push and pull, a reciprocity that defines community. This reciprocity can be understood as an active agent. From this position of activity, it is perhaps more appropriate to consider an understanding of community more akin to a verb that a noun. To community, then, is like imbeleko, an act of doing that requires effort, care, and attention on all sides.
Of course, there are many more elements to community that this brief reflection does not and cannot cover. What I’ve outlined here is perhaps only a small section of the intricately designed human social tapestry, however, this in no way disputes that working to community has transformed how I engage the world. Of all the lessons that I hope to embody upon my return from South Africa, let engaging community be the one that continues to guide and shape how I move in relationship to others.