TRADITIONAL LEATHER PURSES OF THE XHOSA PEOPLES OF THE EASTERN CAPE OF SOUTH AFRICA
What’s in a name?
The wonderful old leather purses as depicted above are called isipaji (singular) or izipaji (plural). Alternative names for them are "imphuthamphutha," or isipaji-saseMaiMai.
The term isipaji in Xhosa is a generic term which refers to any type of purse, including these.
The word "Phuthaphutha" is a Xhosa verb meaning “to grope.” It is very likely that the name of these purses (the noun) i.e. "imphuthamputha" is derived from this verb … to grope.
Isipaji-saseMaiMai on the other hand means "a purse from MaiMai." MaiMai, being a market in Johannesburg popular with migrant workers around 50 to 60 years ago.
Despite the fact that all of these purses were found in the rural areas of South Africa, they were not made in the rural areas, but were made by hand in the townships adjoining the cities of Cape Town or Johannesburg (mostly) around 1950 / 1960. The men, who worked in the cities and who went back to the rural areas - usually at the end of each year – would go back home bearing gifts for their wives and families. The purses were given to their wives, who wore them suspended from a waist-belt on the hip. They had a dual function, being used for decorative purposes during traditional dances, as well as a practical function i.e. acting as a purse for the women who would typically keep their bank notes in it.
These purses were highly prizes gifts as, along with being a beautiful adornment, they had another valuable trait. The section where the money was stored, was difficult for thieves to get to “to grope” without being noticed. Even if the women, while walking home from a beer-drink, should fall asleep after overindulging, it would be very difficult for anyone to rob her (remove her money from her purse) without waking her up.
The rounded purse third from left were more popular with Mfengu women, while the sharper edged ones were more commonly used by Xhosa and Thembu women.
The box shaped purse on the far right, was typically used by young men or senior teenage boys who would often keep a love charm in the purse. They would also wear it draped, bandolier style, over the chest.
A number of these purses are available for sale. Should you be looking to add a unique item such as this to your collection, please feel free to contact me.
Dated: 25 August 2009
Copyright: Stephen Long