Additional Information: Traditionally, the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood in Zulu culture was sanctioned by several events, including initiation, and body transformation. Circumcision and the perforation of the child’s earlobes were among the evidences of body transformation. The Zulu ear-piercing ceremony (Qhumbuza) was performed on each child before he or she reached the puberty, being the first of number of acts denoting the ritual transition from childhood to adulthood. Piercing the ear lobes served as a mark of change; the absence of pierced ears denoted one was still a child, and such persons were considered unable to hear and understand. As with other major rituals, ear-piercing took place at the time of new moon or full moon; according to Zulu as well as other Bantu beliefs, that period was deemed propitious for making "a new person or adding a new unit to the family”. According to the author Frank Jolles, each ear-lobe was pierced with a piece of iron about half an inch wide, sharpened at one end. Once the lobes were pierced, small polished bones or ivory discs were inserted. After the ear healed the hole could receive larger sized earplugs (isiqhaza; plural iziqhaza) such as those shown. Initially, earplugs were functional in that they helped identify a person’s ear-lobes at a distance. Since the 1950s, the Qhumbuza practice has lost its ritual and symbolic meanings. Earplugs become cosmetic for girls and fashionable for men and women who continue to wear them during special events and important ceremonies. Over the years earplugs have shown various forms and styles. The first earplugs were hardwood disks, then soft woods with painted motifs on white background. In the 1930s plastic was used in place of wood and around the 1950s vinyl asbestos (cut into mosaic pieces in what is called Marley tiles) was the most common design element. A transparent thermoplastic acrylic resin (Perspex) was used in the 1960s-1980s. Since then, earplugs have lost favor. Modern clip-on earplugs are preferred.
The colors used in ear-plug design often indicate the wearer’s region, clans, and social status. Usually, the designs imitate beadwork patterns, presented in three bands, glued onto the wood. The chevron motif is one of the most popular. Other motifs are inspired from nature, basketry, and pottery. Some colors and motifs are specific to a particular region like the Msinga region, popular for its seven colors sequence (Isishunka) and four fixed color sequences (red, black or dark blue, white and green) called umzansi. Johannesburg is known for its innovative use of geometric pattern, political colors, even letters of the alphabet. These motifs could appear on the front as well as the reverse side of the earplugs.
See more information and similar earplugs in Hlengiwe Dube, Zulu Beadwork, pp. 91-96
Hlengiwe D., Zuku Beadwork Talk with Beads, Africa Direct, Inc. 2009
Jolles, F., 1996, “ZULU EARPLUGS,” in ZULU TREASURES AMAGUGU KAZULU, KwaZulu Cultural Museum and the Local History Museums, pp.171-181; Jolles, F., 1997, “ZULU EARPLUGS: A STUDY IN TRANSFORMATION”, African Arts, vol. XXX, 2:46-59. 94