Sticks and Staffs

© Heini Schneebeli
Various staffs produced by Venda, Zulu and Xhosa-speaking cavers in the course of the 19th century.

Most southern African communities used a number of different terms to describe the sticks, staffs and knobkerries they used for defensive and other purposes. Among Xhosa-speaking groups, for example, knobkerries with large knobs for throwing at game (ibhunguza) were distinguished from smaller sticks with oblong heads, although the latter were also used for throwing (umgweba). Tsonga-speakers from present-day Mozambique also differentiated between heavy clubs (sing. nhonga) and other knobkerries (sing. gungwe). A knobkerrie made from the root of a tree was known among Zulu-speakers as an isagila, while the sticks carried by an ordinary homestead head were distinguished from those carried by chiefs. To this day, men living in some rural areas still own sticks of various kinds, and Sotho, Ndebele and Xhosa initiates continue to receive staffs in acknowledgement of their transition to adult status. Sticks are also used in fighting stick competitions, while dance staffs continue to feature prominently on festive occasions such as weddings, where they are carried along with small dance shields, which can be tapped like a drum for periodic emphasis. As late as the 1930s sticks were carried during buffalo hunts organised by chiefs in the present-day KwaZulu-Natal region. Because buffalo were regarded as symbols of male strength and virility, Zulu-speakers sometimes still evoke the idea of a man as being like a buffalo (inyathi). This idea of manhood is reflected above all in the sticks men wield while dancing at weddings and on other occasions.

By Professor Sandra Klopper

Dance Staffs

The motifs on this short, but elaborately carved dance staff are unusual partly because the decorative detailing is so robust, but also because of the extent to which the staff has been embellished....more

Fighting with Sticks

In the outlying rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal men are not allowed to take their sticks into the court houses of chiefs for fear that they might be used to settle disputes through violence....more

Lethal Knobkerries and Other Sticks

Exceptionally large, heavy knobkerries like the one at the centre of this spread were sometimes used to execute people at the courts of the first Zulu king, Shaka, and his nineteenth-century successors....more

Personalising Staffs

Many, but by no means all knobkerries and other sticks were embellished through the addition of strips of imported brass and copper wire woven into intricate patterns either at the top or bottom...more

Staffs Associated with Kings and Chiefs

In the nineteenth century, rhino horn staffs were regarded as prestige items among communities from present-day Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa. Among the Ndebele...more

Staffs with Dual Functions

Tsonga carvers from southern and central Mozambique sometimes carved staff that doubled up as headrests. Producing items like these required considerable skill...more

Working in Wood

The patrons of skilled carvers valued inventive variations in the treatment of knobs and other details, and were probably prepared to pay more for examples with finely carved decorative motifs....more