by Herbert Moyo

Pronunciation – [úḿ̩séɓéⁿd̥zi̤]/ /úm̩seɓêːnzi/

This is a word that the Nguni, especially the Zulu and the Ndebele use to refer to specific rituals. The performance of a ritual is umsebenzi. In direct translation the word of umsebenzi means work. Ukwenza (doing/performing) umsebenzi (work) in this context means performing a ritual. The Nguni perform rituals for both the living and the living dead as contextual needs. The concept of umsebenzi has been overshadowed by the use of English words such as worship and veneration.

Of course, the little about the umsebenzi that is written was authored by church/Christian theologians from a Christian western frame of reference hence the distortion of umsebenzi to worship. The most criticised aspect of umsebenzi is the rituals performed for the living dead. Christians use their won term, worship, to define umsebenzi. Translation is problematic as we do not k now for sure how the words as meaning the same practice. The ideal example is the umsebenzi of ukubuyisa (the bringing home of the spirit of a deceased person).[1] This ritual has been recorded academics as worshipping the ancestors.[2] Some Nguni scholars and other African sympathisers have argued that Africans do not worship ancestors, but they venerate them. The problem is that the word veneration is a synonym of worship. The two words belong together.

This is related to the concept created by missionaries which they named African Traditional Religion (ATR). ATR is viewed as the religion of people who believe and worship ancestors. Their belief system is visible when they perform worship services. It is that which the outsider views as worship services which is umsebenzi. Offering a service to ancestors in as much as the ancestors also offer a service to the living by protecting them from witches. The process is reciprocal. Ancestors are in the spiritual realm and therefore can offer a service to the living living who are in the physical realm and therefore cannot operate in the spiritual realm. Ancestors then protect the living from spiritualities and bless the living living. Similarly, the living dead cannot brew beer or slaughter for themselves in the physical realm. The living living then offer a service to them by doing umsebenzi at the physical sphere.  

The word believe is an import brought by missionaries to the Nguni. In the Nguni way of life, there is no believing. Isintu is a way of life made up of taboos, rituals and observances performed in community.  The word belief is translated to kholwa. It is the same word that is used when people drink water, and they are satisfied they also Kholwa. The word kholwa means being satisfied. The believers are called ama-kholwa (those who believe). People who go to church are ama-kholwa. Religion is called inkolo (the belief). This fits well in Christianity because there is need to believe. However, in isintu there is no conversion and no believing, therefore isintu is not inkolo (religion) as there is nothing to believe in. It is in inkolo where there is worshipping when relating to the deity. In isintu there is no worshiping as there is no deity instead there are people with mutual respect who live in community. The community is composed of the living living, the living dead and the yet to be born. The living do umsebenzi of a physical nature for the living dead while the living dead also do umsebenzi of a spiritual nature for the living living. When the Nguni perform rituals to appease the living dead or during ukubuyisa, is doing umsebenzi.


There is so much of umsebenzi I have observed among the Ndebele. The most common one or the publicised one is ukubuyisa. In preparation for ukubuyisa there I umsebenzi which involves informing the ancestors about ukubuyisa. Usually, a goat is slaughtered to communicate with the ancestors. Another umsebenzi is the informing of the one to be brought home. The burial of a dead person is also called umsebenzi. The performance all forms of rites of passage according to isintu is umsebenzi.  Umsebenzi is the mirror of what amakholwa have called ukukholwa.

[1] See the work of Edwards, Steve. “Some southern African views on interconnectedness with special reference to indigenous knowledge.” Indilinga African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems 14, no. 2 (2015): 272-283.

[2] See Hammond‐Tooke, W. David. “Who worships whom: Agnates and ancestors among Nguni.” African Studies 44, no. 1 (1985): 47-64. See also Wanamaker, Charles A. “Jesus the ancestor: Reading the story of Jesus from an African Christian perspective.” Scriptura: Journal for Biblical, Theological and Contextual Hermeneutics 62 (1997): 281-298.