, plural Ama-Butho
) - a group of similar-aged men among the Sotho-Tswana
peoples of southern Africa
. When a boy reached the age of manhood he was circumcised and then sent for a period of ritual seclusion
. During this period he was instructed in the history, traditions and codes of the tribe. When a chief
's son came of age, an initiation school was formed for all boys of the same age so they could undergo these rituals at the same time. The group was called a Butho
. Females usually were organized into age-groups with a ritual initiation as well, but the affiliation was not as close and no mutilation ceremonies were performed.
The affiliation of age-mates within a butho was a life-long connection. Members of a butho fought together in wars under the leadership of the age-mate prince, and if the prince ever left the chiefdom to form a new community they would form the core of his following.
Ama-butho played a central role in the transformation of Nguni society from tribes into paramountcies and kingdoms during the mfecane. At some point in the early nineteenth century, the traditional circumcision and seclusion were abandoned, most likely to bolster community defences during the almost ceaseless warring. Butho were no longer composed of local youths, but were formed with members of conquered communities along with the local boys and were attached to a branch of the royal family instead of to a community. The bond of fighting together as a unit proved to be an effective unifying factor and boosted loyalty towards the prince/commander of the butho. The butho only assembled during wars, and in peacetime the individuals lived in their own communities. This was instrumental in unifying conquered tribes into larger kingdoms.
Credit for these changes to the butho system has been given to Dingiswayo, chief of the Mthethwa, but the ideas may have originated independently in several different areas. In any case the practice became widespread in a short time period, and many larger kingdoms and confederacies were formed using the new ama-butho. The first standing armies in the area were created from ama-butho serving the Swazi king on a more or less permanent basis, a practice that probably started during the reign of Mswati (one of the most expansionist Swazi rulers, and the source of the name Swazi).