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Immersion in Zulu Culture

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South Africa
Johnny Clegg & Juluka

The Zulu warrior stood at the entrance to his kraal, or family village. He is the oldest son of the chief, and has the responsibility of deciding who can and cannot enter his home. With a smile and a traditional Zulu handshake, Shawn and I were admitted into DumaZulu, a traditional Zulu village in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

This region of South Africa is populated by the Zulu people, descendants of the great warriors under the rule of Shaka Zulu. Today, these proud people have found a delicate balance between the old and the new. Whereas most people don't still wear their "skins," or traditional clothing, on a daily basis, they all still own them and use them for rituals. From childhood, they learn the traditional dances and songs, and the Zulu language is spoken except when dealing with people like Shawn and me, who wouldn't understand! Zulu culture is alive and well throughout Zululand, including the tradition of polygamy (having more than one wife).

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Zulus shake hands in three parts - first with a typical western handshake, then grasping thumbs (as the warrior and I are doing here), and then back to a western handshake.
A woman led us through the gate and into the living area, where beehive-shaped grass huts formed a circle around the inner area in which the cattle are traditionally kept. Cattle are very important to the Zulus, and a large herd is a sign of wealth, status, and power. Not only are cattle important for milk and meat, but also for paying the "lobola" or dowry for a wife, and as a sacrifice to the spirits of angry ancestors. Without cattle, a man cannot feed himself and his family, get married, or appease angry spirits!

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This man is in traditional skins and playing a handmade instrument.
Present-day Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini and five Zulu families founded DumaZulu as a home and cultural center. Sixty-four people live here in the traditional manner, and they open their homes to tourists to make a living. Since subsistence farming, warring with neighboring tribes and big game hunting aren't viable sources of livelihood these days, it is a compromise that allows them to enter the modern economy while maintaining their tradition and providing education to people like us, who want to know more about the Zulu culture. Instead of feeling as if these people wear their traditional clothes as costumes for the tourists, I feel more like they wear their non-traditional clothes as costumes for their bosses and other townspeople. The maidens (unmarried women) go topless, wearing only short beaded miniskirts and other beaded necklaces and headbands, yet they seemed perfectly comfortable.

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The unmarried Zulu women are called maidens and do not wear tops.
Married women cover their heads with a hat and cover their bodies completely, as a signal that they are off limits. Although I didn't learn how to read them, the colors and patterns of the beads worn by both married and unmarried women tell a lot, such as if the woman is of marriageable age, if she is engaged, pregnant, or grieving. The men wear "skins" that hang from their waists, and the kind of skin indicates the social status. For example, only the royal family and chiefs can wear leopard skins. The Zulu warriors wear the tufts of cows' tails around their upper arms and knee joints, supposedly to make them look bigger and more frightening. They also carry leather shields, which tell how experienced a warrior is by how much white is on them.

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These Zulu women work magic with colorful beads!
We were taken on a tour of the kraal, where we saw women weaving baskets and making clay pots and traditional sorghum beer, and men making shields. Inside the huts, the women sit on the left, the men on the right, and the spirits of the ancestors have their own space opposite the door. The ancestors are thought to live in the spiritual world of the one God, unkulunkulu (the greatest of the great), but have a second home with their families.

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DamaZulu's female <i>sangoma</i>, or spiritual healer.
Two Zulu healers live at DumaZulu. One is a female sangoma, who is chosen by the spirits and deals more in the spiritual world. Sangomas can be male or female, and are respected as healers, counselors, or priests in the community. Once it becomes apparent that a child is called to be a sangoma, the traditional training period is 25 years! We were lucky that she wasn't busy and we got to meet her for a few minutes. The other healer in the community is an inyanga (literally "the man of the trees"), who is more like an herbalist or pharmacist. The knowledge of the inyanga is passed through the generations from father to son. Western Pharmacists in search of "new" medicines now study much of the inyangas' knowledge.

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Our new friends say
After a tour of the kraal, we were offered some sorghum beer from a large clay pot and then the warriors and the maidens performed traditional dances and songs for us. Dancing, drumming, and singing is a daily activity in traditional Zulu life, and it seems almost like a form of play or competition. For us, the men first demonstrated their stick fighting, which was used as training for the Zulu warriors. Then the men and women took turns strutting their stuff in energetic, almost acrobatic dances. They are really awe-inspiring! The dances also have different symbolism, such as the bull dance, in which the dancer imitates a bull by kicking his or her leg high in the air, and then forcefully stomping the ground. The men wore rattles made of dried cocoons around their ankles, while two women pounded on the drums, and an older man played the eerie sounding "vibration drum." Everyone sang or shouted encouragement to the dancers.

By the time the dancing had ended, the lid on the pot of sorghum beer was turned upside down. This is a way that the host lets you know that there is no more beer. At least, not for YOU! It's a polite way to let their guests know that it is time to leave. I wish we had something like that in my culture! We thanked our hosts, shook their hands Zulu-style, and said good-bye: Sawubona.


Abeja - Abeja Meets the Great King Shaka Zulu
Abeja - Get Off My Turf
Kevin - Harare: a Capital City that feels like a Village
Monica - A Typical Day in the Life of a Trekker
Kevin Somebody Stole my House!
Kavitha - Soweto: Young Lives Lost in Battle

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