I first become conscious of what it means to be umakoti when I was in high school. I had finally been asked to be a bridesmaid by a young woman who sang in the church choir. Being a bridesmaid meant more than looking pretty on the wedding day. We were also part of the traditional wedding where the bride is officially introduced to the groom’s family. There isn't an English equivalent for the word makoti; perhaps "new bride" comes close.
The most illuminating part of the wedding for black women is the traditional wedding. Most black couples have two weddings: the white wedding and the traditional wedding. For amaXhosa the introduction takes on many forms but it involves the bride getting a new name (igama lasemzini), she wears a new outfit and uyayalwa: she is given advice by the groom’s family, mostly a list of expectations and sometimes rules about the home that she needs to abide by as the new bride in the home. She is expected to sit demurely, making no eye contact as her doek (ikhetshemiya) covers her eyes. She is judged fiercely if she attempts to look up on the day of the traditional wedding. Soon after ukuyalwa she is sheparded into the kitchen where the process of ukuhota begins. This is a period of a few days where the new bride serves the family: cooks, cleans, makes tea and shows her in-laws and their community that she is worthy of being their new daughter. The mother-in-law (mamazala)watches like a hawk throughout all the proceedings and if the makoti is to have a happy marriage, her mamazala must approve of her in every way.
When my mother left Queenstown and moved to East London it seems she was no longer “tight” with her mamazala (mother-in-law) mostly because they were no longer neighbours. While she was married and in close proximity to her in-laws, it seems it was very important for my mother to have a good relationship with her mother in law. They shared recipes, they went to the same church and they shared tips about sewing (they were both “resourceful”, good Christian women so it seems they had some things in common). My mother’s makoti name was Nokuzola (the calm, peaceful one) and she always used to laugh at the irony in her name because she hardly has a calm temperament. For her it was a symbol of how little her in-laws knew about her. I always think of her experience as an example of someone who led a double life: as uNokuzola, the good makoti and Thami, her authentic self before she got married.
And now it’s my turn. My partner and I have been talking about getting married for a while. In our efforts of eschewing tradition we decided against the traditional route: no weddings (traditional and white), no lobola and no rituals where families are formally introduced (maybe we’ll have a family dinner to appease my sister who finds the whole thing abhorrent). Just the formal legal procedure in an office somewhere (I’m trying to avoid a church service). Friends and family have been confused by this choice and in stepping out of tradition we have found ourselves in a very strange situation: which rules do we abide by? Do we abide by the rules at all? The thing about rituals and traditions is that they give you boundaries and an understanding about how to relate to people−a memo of sorts, a social contract. When you step outside those rituals does it mean that you are exempt from the way things are supposed to be? So in avoiding a traditional wedding, does that mean I am exempt from the rules, expectations and ways of being that guide life after these rituals?
I had hoped I would be. I’m not really crazy about being a makoti. It doesn’t sit well with who I think I am and whom I would like to be. It mostly doesn’t sit well with my feminism (I’ve already been through the tension between marriage and feminism). I don’t like some aspects of being a makoti: when my partner visits my family, there are no expectations on him: he doesn’t need to make tea or cook for anyone. As a woman, I still worry when I visit my partner’s home: is there an unwritten expectation that I should do something? Offer to make tea? (I think of myself as a visitor when I visit his mom’s place). My sister has been married for five years and she often reminds me that being umakoti is about a few moments a year when one has to perform being umakoti (Christmas dinner, attending a family funeral or a family function). There's more to the performance for her though as she gets along with her in-laws and her mamazala has always been supportive of her and her husband.
Recently my partner, his mom and I went to a gathering and his mom introduced me using the word “makoti”. My partner and I are not officially married so I was surprised when she used the word makoti which is usually reserved for a newly-minted wife. I didn’t say anything about her using the title because I understood that in context, that’s the only way she could have introduced me. I like my partner’s mother. The best word I can think of to describe her is cool or as my mother often describes free women, uyalandela. She’s in her 70s, she works as a nurse in a private hospital nearby (on her own terms), she drives her own car, she lives alone and she seems like a very relaxed and sociable person. She travels with a tour group every December (this year they are going to Dubai). She’s a modern woman and doesn’t seem to have the same hang ups about tradition that I am anxious about.
She’s so modern she allows me to stay over at their home when my partner and I visit Durban. Anyone coming from a traditional or somewhat conservative family will know the unwritten rule that girlfriends (for lack of a better word) never sleep over at their boyfriend’s home until they’ve jumped through the official hoops. The first time I stayed over I was very anxious. In my mind I was breaking the cardinal rule of family relations (mostly I kept thinking: what would my mother say?) but I stayed anyway. I didn’t wake up early to make tea. I didn’t offer to clean the house. I didn’t do anything. I was on holiday and I was a visitor (even though I was a visitor under the guise that I was “the girl I’m going to marry” as my partner said to his mom). I never got over the awkwardness. In a second visit to Durban I reverted to the unwritten rule and decided against staying over, like a good girl should.
But then I changed my mind again. My relationship has shifted and I’ve moved in with my partner, there’s talk of a pre-nup and I have a ring on my finger so I’m a little more legit than being the girlfriend. So when my partner’s mom suggested I stay over, I relented, with fewer anxieties this time around. My partner warned me that she doesn’t like it when people sleep in so every morning we would be out of bed by 10am. I ignored the rule on a particular day and his mom walked into our room looking for something only to find me half asleep at 12 noon. I was mortified, vuleka mhlaba ndingene. I felt like I had offended her by breaking a rule her own son doesn’t break when he visits her. But partly, I felt justified: at least she knows I can break the rules. Good makotis don’t sleep in.
I’m not sure how to relate to my partner’s family. My partner doesn’t think that is a problem. I have convinced myself that my family isn’t as structured as his family and he keeps reminding me that his family is far more relaxed than I think. So in stepping out of the boundaries given by tradition we’re allowing ourselves the chance to figure things out. My greatest fear is that we will eventually give into the default setting where I will be a makoti because it’s easier than trying to decide if I’m pushing the boundaries if I decide to sleep in because I’m on holiday.