Sewing Idaki for Survival: Nongenile Thengwa and Her Sewing Machine


Idaki is a very culturally significant Xhosa culture, clothing, symbol. Since time immemorial, it served and still serves as a Xhosa culture symbol characterising marriage, as a rite of passage, marking a separation phase of a woman from unmarried to marriage life. 


In the process of marriage, idaki is a cultural symbol used to separate, elevate, classify and symbolise a woman as a newlywed, umakoti, who is in the process of learning about womanhood in marriage life. It symbolises an in-between phase of becoming a wife.


Traditionally, a Xhosa woman has to be umakoti before becoming a wife. Being umakoti is the in-between phase of existence, a separation phase, symbolised with the wearing of idaki. To be umakoti is to be in a transition phase of marriage, as a rite of passage, until the cultural learning process, ukuhota, to become a wife is completed. Throughout the process of ukuhota, umakoti has to wear idaki. How long the process of ukuhota is differs with families, but idaki is always worn in the process, marking her separation phase from her unmarried life. In this phase and its processes, the woman is in transition to become a wife. 


Idaki is primarily made in two colours, brown and blue, with different geometrical patterns, African wild life, mainly elephants, and sometimes African political figures’ faces on them. The marrying family buys umakoti the different colours of idaki with different geometry patterns, wild animals and political figures’ faces as her transition process wardrobe. This means a number of units of idaki are bought for the duration of ukuhota for umakoti to have clothes to change.  


Also important to note is idaki is by tradition worn during funerals by the daughters-in-law of the family. It culturally distinguishes them from the family members as the daughters-in-law, who often have to do the labouring tasks of preparing for the funeral of a family’s deceased. The daughters-in-law have to remain clothed in idaki until after the funeral and the subsequent cleansing ceremonies.  


As marriage life is still valued by Xhosa people; funerals are a weekly occurrence, and now, millennials are learning and embracing their cultures, the business of making and selling idaki is always thriving. 


Every year, in June and December, Xhosa people –sometimes on behalf of their sons or their sons themselves, pay lobola of different amounts to marry and bring home a daughter-in-law. These are two times of the year when one sees a boom in Xhosa newly wedded women –oomakoti. Within the Xhosa community, they are often and ridiculously known as bonus time newlyweds –oomakoti be-bonus. They are referred to as bonus time newlyweds because some of them, reportedly, do not stay married after the bonus money is finished. However, notwithstanding their intentions to marry, oomakoti are the primary reason there is the business of selling amadaki –plural for idaki – which is singular. 


Ultimately, because of the tradition of Xhosa marriage, there are many small businesses throughout Cape Town, never mind the country, whose focus is to make and sell amadaki. The entrepreneurs of these small businesses know the seasons and reasons why Xhosa women wear idaki. And in-between the cultural marriage seasons, idaki has been reconstituted into a fashion item by millennial fashion designers. Often, idaki is seen showcased as a styled, iconic clothing item on runway fashion shows. In fashion shows, its primary use as a marriage item is replaced by a creation of pants and other designs for fashion wear instead of marriage. Nonetheless, it is the knowledge of the history and the current fashion use of idaki that helps entrepreneurs understand and appreciate the value of their businesses’ prospects in selling idaki. 


But in this I feature Nongenile Thengwa and her Xhosa cultural clothes sewing business. And her primary selling product is idaki followed by umbhaco. In light of the women’s month, the article is to celebrate her strength and vision: to wake up every day, as a destitute black widowed woman, still find the will, strength and courage to work for her children. In the process, she is simultaneously promoting and preserving the Xhosa culture through its cultural symbols. This month of August is for people like her, who find strength in the people who matters the most in their lives, who give them hope, reason and the will to survive and live on. I say happy women’s day in advance to her. 


Nongenile Thengwa lives in Zola, in Strand. She comes from Matatiele and moved to Cape Town in 2001. She has four children with her late husband. She began sewing amadaki and other clothes in 1998 while she still lived in Matatiele. She moved to Cape Town for economic opportunities and mainly to expand her sewing business. In Matatiele, her business was not as sustainable as it is in Cape Town. There were less clients willing and able to buy her products. It is in Cape Town where she has seen her business grow to provide her with the ability to support her family.


Nongenile Thengwa says “… my business is to support my children. This machine is meant to support my children. For that reason, I do not sell my products on credit, only cash. Clients can only place a deposit and only collect their orders when they have the rest of the money. I do not have money to sell on credit. I want to expand the business, teach other women to sew and hire some of them to work for me and in their own homes. But I need money to do that. For now, this business is for the survival of my children”. 


Lindiswa Jan is a Researcher and Part-Time Master Student at UCT