Ten Things I Love About Tsongas

I have lived among the Tsonga-speaking people for the past fifteen years. All of our neighbors are Tsonga. All of our children’s closest friends are Tsonga. All of our church members are Tsonga. Virtually all of my ministerial experience has been among the Tsongas. All of my seven children have been born amidst them. Here are ten things I love about Tsonga culture.

  1. Laughter. Tsongas will laugh until their back teeth show. In general they are happy to laugh at themselves. They laugh in greetings. They laugh at funerals. They laugh at foreigners trying to speak Tsonga. An interesting phenomenon is that robust laughing sometimes makes their legs lose power, so that they begin leaning on each other or falling to the ground. Conversely, robust laughing sometimes makes their legs gain power, so that they start running to and fro. 
  2. Greetings. The ladies will often curtsy or kneel. The men will almost always greet, considering it rude if you get down to business without first exchanging pleasantries. You often must sit before greeting. You must say “How are you” to everyone individually. There are no bulk greetings. 
  3. Singing. Tsongas, like many African tribes, use a “call and respond” method of singing. One person, often a lady, will start the first line of the song and the rest will follow. Gifted male singers have a handsome deep sound that is difficult to duplicate. Churches and funerals often use over half the service for singing. 
  4. Funerals. In funerals, Tsongas live and move, and have their being. Funerals are a central part of African life. Among other things, it is a great way to reconnect with family and friends. They spare no expense at funerals, regardless of personal income. They’ll purchase niceties such as huge portions of food, tents, limos and marching bands. I love preaching at funerals. It provides an audience I would never have in church. 
  5. Ku heleketa. Tsongas almost never part ways in the home or at the doorstep. They walk you out of the gate and often down the road as you return home. Often I’ve had men walk me back to my house a km away. This makes me wonder–am I now to walk them back home? This could go on forever. I like this custom because it’s as if they’re not quite ready for you to leave. “[Jesus] acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ’Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went to stay with them.” (Lk. 24:28-29).
  6. Language. Tsonga has made this missionary’s life easier by keeping difficult sounds to a minimum. There are almost no clicks in Tsonga and only a few sounds absent in English (“sw”, “v”, “q”, rolled “r”). Sure, Tsonga is limited in some ways, but there is much it can do. For example, unlike English, each Tsonga noun is assigned a concord, making the pronoun “it” less ambiguous. Tsonga also has two Bible versions, one modern and the other archaic. 
  7. Memory. As an oral culture less dependent on the written word, Tsongas have an uncanny ability to remember things. I may say that such and such took place a few years ago. They’ll say: “Such and such happened in September 2012.” They seem to recall with precision objective facts like names, phone numbers and dates. 
  8. Colors. Formal Tsonga dress is full of bright reds, blues, yellows, purples and greens. The women often wear some kind of head covering. Their formal skirt is called a shibelana, which, when unfurled, is about 6 meters long! Uniforms are also common at churches and funerals. Tsongas like to match clothing at dances too. 
  9. Children. Though the family sizes are shrinking, Tsongas still love children. My social standing in the village grows with each child we have. They love to hear each one of the children’s names in Tsonga. Having many children is still a great honor for Tsonga men and women. It’s common for Tsongas to talk to my kids before they talk to me. Xivongo xa kula, they say. Your surname is growing.
  10. Demeanor. Tsongas are not fighters like some other South African tribes. They are humble, friendly and peaceable. They are one of the smaller tribes in South Africa and often maligned. When speaking to another language group in a neutral setting, Tsongas are much more willing to greet and speak the other person’s language.