In southern Africa, the land offers rich soil, temperate climate and regular rains. Not surprisingly, it has attracted diverse groups, many descended from the Bantu-speaking migrants whose influence has shaped the entire continent. The Xhosa and Zulu are two of the largest groups descended from these original Bantu pioneers. Together, they make up about 40 percent of South Africa's population. Over the centuries, the Xhosa and Zulu have absorbed much territory that formerly belonged to the San, Southernrica's native hunter-gatherers, who are today relegated to the Kalahari Desert.
The Xhosa's Bantu-speaking ancestors came to Southern Africa over 1,000 years ago while searching for hunting grounds, and rich farming and grazing lands. They found them in South Africa. With time, the Bantu mixed with native Khoisan cattle herders, and went on to father several clans of people who today are identified as Xhosa. The Xhosa still use a click sound from the Khoisan language. Less than 500 years after settling in South Africa, however, the Xhosa were displaced by Dutch and British settlers. The result was a century of violent clashes, ending finally in 1879. Under apartheid, the Xhosa were assigned to homelands on the eastern coast of South Africa (Transkei and Ciskei), or assimilated into urban centers. Transkei was declared an autonomous country by South Africa in 1959, but never recognized as such internationally. It was reincorporated into the Republic of South Africa in 1994. Today, Xhosa people make up 17 percent of South Africa's population and are represented in every class of society.
Xhosa language, or isiXhosa is a Bantu-based language that has adopted words and speech patterns from South Africa's aboriginal Khoisan people. IsiXhosa is considered one of the world's most phonetically advanced languages since it uses almost every sound that a human can make. In large part, this is because of the clicking sounds used originally by Khoisan cattle herders and adopted by the Xhosa. The click is incorporated into words by forming a sound with the tongue against the side of the mouth. Many non-Xhosa or non-Africans are unable to make the proper noise, and, therefore, convert the click sounds to "ka."
The traditional religion of the Xhosa people centered around their belief in a single god, called uThixo or uQamata. But most everyday spiritual needs focus on paying homage to ancestors and spirits. Traditional healers, or "amaguira," can be consulted for everything from ill health to emotional complaints. At times, the Xhosa ancestors can become angry for extensive periods. Then, the afflicted person must undergo a period of prolonged rituals directed by the amaguira. Today, many Xhosa have adopted Christianity, but still rely on the amaguira for particular complaints.
Today, many urbanized Xhosa identify more with Western traditions and culture, than with their own traditional roots. At one time, Xhosa people were referred to as "reds" because they painted their skin with ochre to give it a reddish hue. Ancient Xhosa customs are now largely relegated to the rural areas of Eastern Cape province, home to a large Xhosa population. Songs that tell tribal histories or folklore, and age-related milestones such as male and female circumcision remain important. One of the most noticeable Xhosa traditions is ornamental beadwork. In times past, when a Xhosa girl took a fancy to a boy, she would make him a special piece of beadwork that he would wear as a sign of mutual affection. Xhosa beadwork is now one of the staples of the South African folk art market.