crash course on culture

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My culture oracle, Ma'am (she looks oddly ferocious here)

My culture oracle, Ma’am (she looks oddly ferocious here)

Howdy, mouse-clickers.  I realized that, peppered here and there throughout my posts, I’ve only given small glimpses into all that encompasses the Zulu culture.  I decided it’s time I threw you some more concrete insight about the customs and beliefs of my current rural, and very traditional, society.  No more stories about flying feces, though, don’t worry (or, sorry to disappoint).  Based on the different official languages, remember that the Zulu culture only represents 1/11th of South African cultures and there are, as these thangs go, many variants within each 11 as well.  Kind of like how crazy Kentuckians think that a toboggan is a hat whereas us faultless Georgians know a toboggan is a snow sled you ride for a hell-raisin’ good time.  I’ll write these culture points in the way they were stated to me and in the way that they deserve to be presented – as raw, historical beliefs.  Alrighty, git your Zulu hats on (which would typically mean an umqhele made of goat fur)…

  • You must try to greet everyone you see with a “Sawubona” or “Sanibonani.”  It translates to “I see you,” but with a deeper meaning than the literal surface words suggest.  Think Avatar.  If you see someone and don’t greet them, it can be taken as if you are actively choosing not to see them.
  • There’s only one way to shake someone’s hand or to give and receive something.  It’s out of respect and there’s actually no alternative; it’s done 99% of the time.  You always extend your right hand to shake, give, or receive and as you extend you must use your left hand to touch or hold your right forearm.  It’s become so second nature now that I do it even when I put my Peace Corps card into the ATM.  I respect thee, Oh Mighty Money Maker.
  • It’s respectful to downcast your eyes or turn your face away when you speak to elders.
  • You must do anything an elder asks.  I’ve yet to see any arguing over this.
  • You must knock on every door and it’s best to gain permission before entry.  My family members do this even to their own kitchen.
  • Above doors or on top of houses you may find cow horns and cow or goat hides.  This represents homage to the ancestors and is usually added to with the death of a family member.
  • My isiphandla. Wuddup, ancestors?

    My isiphandla. Wuddup, ancestors?

    When a baby is born or there is a celebration of any sort, typically a cow or goat is slaughtered.  It’s common that an isiphandla (traditional Zulu bangle) is made from the hide and worn on a wrist: the left wrist for women because they’re capable of love; the right wrist for men because they’re capable of work.  The isi-phandlas are a connection to the ancestors and more or less represent their approval of the wearer.  I got one back in January and it’s still goin’ strong.

My three seshis, protecting me on the reg

My three seshis, protecting me on the reg

  • When a baby is born they acquire a seshi (protective rope) around their waist, wrist, or neck.  When it breaks or falls off, I’ve heard either 1) the job is done and they’re forever protected or 2) they should get a new one.  I was considered a newborn so I got a green one in August from my Ndebele family, a purple one in October from my Zulu family, and a beaded one the other week from my sister S’thembile.  For the first three months after a baby is born only the family members and other females can see it.  No non-family member males may see it.  This is because men’s spirits are very strong and powerful and may overcome the weakness of the newborn.
  • Adolescent men do their own laundry, and perhaps even single men, but it’s very rare to see a grown man do washing of any sort.  The cleaning, cooking, washing, water-fetching, wood-gathering, and most infant care are the females’ work.
  • Boys, men, and omkhulus (elder men) are responsible for the livestock.  They shoo out the animals to an appropriate grazing area in the morning and collect them at dusk, a sometimes multi-kilometre endeavour up the mountain.
  • Screen shot 2013-05-29 at 9.54.35 PMZulu traditional dancing is SO COOL.  I can’t even begin to describe it so I’m hoping YouTube can lend a hand (although I’ve never searched for it).  It’s a huge facet of life here that cannot be encapsulated in a blog.  The spirit, singing, movement, and beat are jarringly emotional.  There’s a lot more to it than I know, so I can only tell you to search for Zulu traditional dance, ingoma, isicathamiya, and gita.  There are many varieties and meanings of the dances but they all include beautiful clothing and beadwork, passionate chants, traditional steps and kicks.  Before each performance, the leader of the group kneels down in front of one person to pay respect through a series of hand motions.  At an ingoma competition back in October, one girl knelt in front of me.  Talk about your uncommon tear-jerker.
  • Lobola is the payment a groom must relay to the family of his bride-to-be before the wedding can take place.  Lobola is paid in cows and the two families’ patriarchs usually negotiate the appropriate number.  It can take years to pay; traditionally the groom must bestow 12 cows (at about R1,500 each) but the agreed-upon amount can be decreased if the bride is pregnant or has already had children.  Men can be…persistent and I am often asked, “How many cows for you, [insert generic catcall here]?”  Just to see their reaction I usually say, “Fifty!” or ask, “How will you get the cows to the States so my father can approve of them?”  A good friend of mine who looks out for me has started adding that my cows must have three horns each.
  • If a woman “falls pregnant” and marriage is not intended, the man must pay damages to the family.  This usually means two cows.
  • If you’re having trouble sleeping, you can appease the ancestors in an effort to sleep better by casting water around your room with a small straw broom.
  • You must sleep with your bed raised off the floor to avoid evil spirits.  When I arrived I had a mattress on paint cans and did not realize how important those cans truly were.
  • Ubuntu
  • Two types of traditional healers grace the South African Nguni societies.  There are sangomas (diviners) and inyangas (herbalists and, judging by the fact that my village’s economy heavily depends on a certain marketable herb, this may have a couple different meanings).  Many Zulus have slit-like scars on their cheeks, foreheads, bellies, and buttocks – the scars (which I think look badass) result from traditional practices to cure sores, headaches, stomach aches, and diarrhea, respectively.
  • Somewhere in KZN there is an annual reed festival where the king selects his new virgin bride.  The young women parade in, get a reed, and are then judged.  If their reed is bent, they are disqualified; if their reed is straight, they are available to the king and he will make his choice.

    Mama rocking out some mqomboti production, "all" for Baba ;)

    Mama rocking out some mqomboti production, “all” for Baba 😉

  • Mqomboti is the traditional Zulu beer. It is made by women and consumed by men at weddings, parties, or just because there’s oxygen in the air. When the men aren’t home, my mama sneaks away to my aunt’s house and they drink together. Get it, girls.

There will always be more to add to this list but that may be enough culture for one day.  Or for, say, 27 months.  As I’m sure most of yours were, my city-in-the-south upbringing was just the teensiest different from my current culture.  In the end, though, some things span all cultural borders and will forever be bonded upon: laughing after you save grassy, cow-munched clothes, enduring “runny tummy”, huddling together by a wood stove, and farts (I wish I could say this wasn’t my #1 giggle-inducer but, alas, I’ll always be 12 years old).

This Friday and Saturday bring huge cultural competitions to my village and in a few weeks for the entire district so I’ll let you know how my school does – they got 4th in the whole thing last year!  Soon I’ll also update on last week’s successes and certain things I’ve come to learn, or accept with gritted teeth, as truths.  From my wee hut to yours, stay well!

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3 Responses to crash course on culture

  1. Thank you so much for sharing what you have learned. I always look forward to your posts.

  2. Emily Archer says:

    Oh m’gosh, for starters, I want to send this to every NHDY in the aisles of stores and other public places who refuse, refuse I say, to acknowledge your presence in any way, unless of course, you’re IN their way. “I see you”–the world would really improve at a dramatic rate if we really adopted that. No one would be invisible, no one would harm another, because you can’t look someone in the eye and really see them and then hurt them. (I’d like to believe that.) Looking for civility? Try Zulu culture, at least the LB-translated version. I’m there, I’m there! (Wish I were). I’m gonna go watch ingoma on YouTube. You da best, girl. xoxoxo AintEm

  3. maddie hoop says:

    I love that you have a separate bullet point just for ubuntu. It is the best word ever. I can’t wait for you to bring a little more consciousness of ubuntu back to the US!!

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