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Zulu Tribe

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Zulu Language

Food. Culture (Ukudla)

Maize is the staple food of the Zulus, there are approximately forty other dishes that are prepared. Zulus are passionate meat eaters but the cost of meat has almost forced them to be vegetarians. Cattle are only slaughtered on special occasions such as weddings, coming of age ceremonies, goats, sheep or chicken are slaughtered on other occasions.

Their main cultural dishes consist if cooked maize, mielies (maize cobs / corn on the cob), ‘phutu’ (crumbly maize porridge, usually eaten cold with amasi, but also hot with beans, stew, cabbage etc), ‘amasi’ (curdled milk which tastes like cottage cheese or plain yoghurt), boiled ‘madumbes’ (type of tuber which has a dark skin which is peeled and tastes like a cross between a potato and sweet potato, the fleshy part is grey-white), sweet pumpkin.
Zulus eat from wooden bowls and spoons, but nowadays a lot eat from enamel plates and use enamel cups as they hard wearing. Before eating, hands are washed and after eating the mouth is rinsed out.

Making beer in Zululand

Beer. Culture (Utshwala)

Beer is central to the social culture of the Zulu's.
Traditional beer is made from sorghum and is brewed by women. It is brewed in a special hut that is not completely thatched so smoke can escape and the beer gets enough oxygen to ferment. It is a very popular and enjoyed equally by young and old. It is an excellent thirst quencher particularly in the hot Zululand sun, it is also nutritious and is known to soothe stomach ulcers.

Maize and sorghum are cooked to form a thick porridge, then left to stand for one day to steep, on the second day the softened grains are boiled with water to form a milky soup and dried sorghum is sprinkled on top. The large pot is covered to keep it warm and aid the fermentation process (also to keep flies out flies and dust) for the day. Thereafter the brew is filtered through a grass sieve.

Drinking Zulu Beer
Beer drinking
There is a specific way that Zulu beer is served traditionally, the procedure is started by the woman who brewed the beer, she skims the froth off and pours it on the ground next to ‘ukhamba’ (clay pot) as an offering ‘kwabaphansi’ (ancestors and spirits) who always ‘drink’ first. It is then stirred and either a hollowed out gourd is filled and the hostess drinks first in front of all the guests to prove that the beer is safe to drink. This is all done while the hostess is kneeling. The host then drinks to check the quality and if he is satisfied, then his guests are served, in order of status. All present drink directly from the clay pot or use the communal gourd. One must always drink sitting or squatting and men take off their hats. As the ‘ukhamba’ has to circulate and it can be a lengthy wait, everyone takes a long drink. The ‘ukhamba’ circulates until empty, in the case of the use of a gourd, if it is placed mouth up, it indicates that you want a refill, if it is placed mouth down on the saucer, it means you have had enough. If an ‘ukhamba’ is used, it is covered with a grass cap to keep out dust, if guests want a refill they place the cap facing upwards, it indicates that the ‘ukhamba’ should be refilled.

Dancing & Singing

Dancing. Culture

Culturaly the Zulu people love dancing and singing, a lot of time is spent on this activity from early childhood onwards. Dancing is not restricted to any special occasion, it happens whenever the mood takes someone and then everybody joins in. It is customary that unmarried and young men dance, alternating in separate groups, occasionally the married women and men break in and join the festivities. Married women utter a shrill quavering (ukukikiza). When the young women (izintombi) dance, the young men clap and play the drum and vice versa.

Dressed for the occassion

Dress. Culture

Traditional dress for men consists of animal skins and feathers, the kind of skins indicates the status of the person wearing them.

The tufts of a cows tail (amashoba) are worn on the upper arms and below the knee to make the person appear broader than he is.

The apron worn by men to cover their buttocks is called ‘ibheshu’, it is made from calf-skin, so is soft and easily processed. It comes in two different lengths:
Young men wear one that is knee length as it is more practical for fighting, hunting and dancing.
Older men wear one that can reach their ankles as they do not readily partake in those activities.

Royalty at King Shaka Day
A headband is worn by married men.
Leopard skin is worn only by the royal family, ‘izinduna’ (generals) and chiefs. The amount of leopard skin worn is limited to the status of the person, the King may wear as much leopard skin as he wishes, and a chief may only be entitled to wear a headband. The average man may wear a little leopard skin on his wedding day.

Nowadays because of westernization, not too many people own ‘ibheshu’ or traditional attire but rather a westernised version. These pants are called ‘umbhulaselo’ which are pants that have patches sewn decoratively on. It is thought that they originated when pants were wearing out and to ‘give them a new lease of life’ patches were sewn onto them, but it was done in such a way that it seemed like they were designed to look like that and were not simply mended old pants. These are usually worn with a waistcoat decorated in the same manner, or a vest.

Single Woman
Women. Culture
Women in different stages of their lives wear different attire. The older they get and marry, the more they cover their bodies.
An unmarried girl (intombi) wears only a short skirt made of grass or beaded cotton strings, she wears nothing on top regardless of her size, weight, small or large bosom. Zulus do not contribute any sexual meaning to the naked breast, but rather to back of the upper thigh. She then spruces herself up with beadwork. They also keep their hair short.

When a young woman has been chosen or engaged, she lets her hair grow and covers her breasts with a decorative cloth as a sign of respect to her future family, it also indicates to the community that she has been spoken for.

Married Woman
Married women cover their bodies completely, which signals that she is off limits. She wears a heavy knee length cow hide skirt. The hide is treated until it is relatively soft, then the leather is cut into long strips and sewn together.
Over the skirt , a cloth that is decorated with predominantly red, white and black is worn or draped over. Beads are also worn over this.
Married women also cover their breasts with either material or skin though nowadays they tend to wear vests or beaded bras.
When a woman is pregnant she wears an ‘isibamba’ a thick belt made from dried grass, covered with glass or plastic beadwork to support her stomach and additional weight.
Married women also wear hats ‘izicolo’, traditionally they were made of grass, and more often than not intertwined with red or white cotton thread. Size and shape of the hats differ from clan to clan, the largest are found in the hot valleys of the Tugela River. Here they measure up to a metre in diameter as protection from the sun. They were traditionally sewn into the hair – the bride’s hair would be straightened, herbs applied then the hat would be sewn into her hair so it could no longer be taken off and over a period of a few months would rot on her head. Her hair would then be washed and the procedure repeated again. During her husband’s long absences, a woman could not take the hat off and pretend to be unmarried. Nowadays though, hats are generally not sewn onto the head, but are worn only on special occasions.

Traditional Headgear

Social structure within a Zulu family and kraal

The Zulu people always had a well-devised social structure, even before the missionaries arrived. The social structure is based on respect which is where their etiquette was adopted from. There were and still are clear rules defined regarding duties and manners for the entire household, starting from the lowliest of servants to the divine monarch. There were also precise rules regarding the behaviour of women towards men, subordinates to their superiors and younger to elder.

Children learn to show respect to their parents and all elders from an early age (with the help of a good hiding as a ‘tool of coercion’ if necessary). It is the mother’s sole duty to raise the children and teach them respect and their place within the family. Children quickly learn that entering the men’s world is only allowed by invitation or when told to do so. All instructions given are carried out quickly and are received on one’s knees, respectfully and silently (though nowadays, if you bend over, it is acceptable, the respect is the most important thing) In rural areas, no child may address an adult unless spoken to first (even when sent to give a message, you may not just barge in and deliver the message, you wait until you are addressed or acknowledged) Men and women live in their own distinct worlds and generally keep a distance to each other.

The woman’s role

The woman’s role is that of the subordinate one, they are inferior in status and value but that does not mean they are treated badly. She cooks, cleans, has babies and brings them up, cultivates the land and harvests, collects firewood, brews beer, fetches water if there are no children to do so, the list is endless but they are content with their lot. Before serving her husband a meal, the wife enters the hut or room – usually on her knees and brings him water to wash his hands and rinse his mouth then only does she bring his food and then leaves him to enjoy his meal. The rest of the family eat together in their own company.

Modern & Traditional

Growing up of girls

When a daughter is about five years old, she is introduced to the household chores, until about six years later when she becomes a real asset to her mother. Initially she is given a small gourd to fetch water and accompanies her mother to the river, where the mother first fills her container as she watches then she does the same. The mother then braids a head support from grass (inkatha) which helps balancing the container on the head. On the first couple of trips, the child will arrive home wet with little left in her gourd, but after some practise, she learns to balance varying loads without using her hands – even when running.
Daughters also learn to cultivate the land, they accompany their mothers to the fields, where they watch their mothers sow and hoe and are taught the correct way of doing so. They also learn the right times to plant different foods. At the age of about eleven, she is given her first hoe (igeja). By now she knows what firewood to collect, can make a fire for cooking, cook some dishes and look after her younger siblings.

Young Zulu Warrior

The man’s role. Culture

Young boys are given chores from the age of about six, it their duty to look after their father’s herd (ukulusa). Just after sunrise they leave the kraal with the cattle and return late morning. After the cows are milked, they have breakfast and go back to the pastures until after sunset. While herding the cows, they ensure that they do not enter anybodies fields but stay out in the open and they also ensure that they take them to drink water and are not attacked or stolen.

They learn the art of stick fighting which is done according to strict rules, in the beginning; they use strong branches and as they grow older are given a stick and small shield. Young boys also learn how to handle a knobkerrie (isagila) which is a short club with a ball like top end. These are hurled at birds, hares and any small animals and are also hitting weapons. They learn to use the throwing spear by using sharpened sticks. The boys invite other to go rat hunting and the most successful one earns the greatest respect. They only receive their first real spear when they are teenagers from their father, but this spear is small and rough.

At this age, life becomes serious, the boys accompanies his older brothers, carrying their loads to the military camp. In this way they are introduced to the disciplined life of the warriors. While in camp, the young boys listen to captivating stories about their country and former kings and heroes in so doing learning more about the Zulu culture.
Back in their own camps, they sang war songs and imitated the dances they had seen their brother’s perform and yearned to be greater and better warriors than their fathers and brothers. This is how the next generation was brought up to give the nation the reputation of being the greatest race on the African continent.

Older Zulu Warrior
The men defend the family and land and take part in meetings to hear new laws and directives. All guests are received and entertained by the men, the men also put up enclosures and the basic structure of the hut, carves milking pails, spoons, plates, clubs and spears and if the need arises also fetches the traditional doctor.
The man is in complete control of all possessions and his wife owns nothing. The older sons become involved in decision making regarding general family matters, the wife is only occasionally consulted. All business transactions are undertaken by the husband and no agreement is valid without his consent. Anything involving cattle is strictly his domain and young women may not even enter the cattle kraal (isibaya)

This article is about Zulu Culture, the Zulu people, the Zulu Nation and primarily Zulu's in Zululand

Respect (ukuhlonipha)

As stated above, respect plays a very important role in the lives of al Zulus and is taught from a young age. Within the community as a child grows up, they know that all married men and women are also their parents and refer to them as such i.e. when called by an adult, they will respond by saying either ‘ma’ / ‘anti’ or ‘baba’ if the person is married, if it is a young woman – ‘sisi’ and a young man ‘bhuti’. Discipline can be carried out by any adult member of the community and then reported to the child’s parents who will then probably still give the child another hiding for causing them shame.

Sangoma at Khekhekes

Zulu beliefs. Culture


Zulu people are by nature very superstitious. The sangoma has to satisfy a demand for ‘umuthi’ (medicine) to prevent misfortune, lightning, to win the lottery, good luck when job hunting, the list is endless.

In South Africa, all football teams have a sangoma who is taken very seriously and travels with the team to all matches, he asks his ancestors to help them win, when they arrive at the field where they will be playing, he puts a magnet behind the opponent’s goalposts to attract the goals and attaches a padlock to theirs to ‘lock out’ the opponents goals. This is changed around at half time.

Ancestors respect before ceremony

Ancestors. Culture

Like most African tribes, the Zulus pay tribute to the souls of the dead, in Zulu they are called ‘abaphansi’ (roughly translated to mean, those in the ground) or ‘amadlozi’ (ancestors). In western terms, one could compare them to guardian angels. Those ‘left behind’ go to great lengths to keep them happy by making sacrifices and offerings to them; they also ensure that the souls are brought back from the place where the body died to the family home. They are given a special place to ‘live’ in the hut, this place is called ‘emsamo’, and this is where one goes to talk to and communicate with them and any sacrifices and offerings are placed there for them. It is considered a sacred place, women may go there on occasion, but men are the ones that communicate with them as they are the head of the family and know what is needed from the ancestors at any given time.

If many negative incidents happen such as members of the family becoming sick without any explanation (i.e. the person is sick yet there is no medical explanation), many members of the same family die, a lot of misfortune etc then a sangoma is consulted in order to find out whether it is caused by ancestors who feel neglected or are angry or whether it is caused by witchcraft. Once the cause has been determined then either a witch hunt takes place or the ancestors are appeased by making a sacrifice to them.


Sangoma & Ceremonies. Culture.
Sangoma and Ceremonies

Traditional Zulus believed that all disease, misfortune and unexplained deaths were brought on by witchcraft. A sangoma would be consulted and the evil doer (‘umthakathi’) would be ferreted out and would be killed which led to many deaths, some perhaps wrongful.

‘Umthakathi’ could cast a spell on a person simply because they were jealous of their possessions or success, children and many other reasons.

Demons are also very real in the life of Zulus. These demons are called ‘tokoloshe’ and are wizards’ slaves that are sent out to spread disease, bring misfortune, rape women, kill etc. There are various ways of ‘making’ them, one method is to gouge out the eyes of a corpse, cut out the tongue and driving a hot iron through the brain, the wizard blows medicine into the cavity and this ‘resurrects’ the body, but the tokoloshe is child size. It is sent out mostly at night time to carry out its masters orders. Adults rarely see them, but children and animals such as dogs can always see them.

Young Sangoma

Sangoma. Culture (Spiritual healer or medium)

Sangomas are frequently wrongly referred to as witch doctors; this is not the case at all, a sangoma has nothing to do with black magic apart from fighting it, they are much respected within the community as psychologists, priests and spiritual healers. They work with herbs, roots, snake skins, animal parts and many other things. When one consults a sangoma, it is the spiritual / psychological side that is investigated. A sangoma can reveal the past, ‘look’ into the future, find lost objects, and identify thieves if anything has been stolen etc by throwing bones, while talking to his ancestors (‘amadlozi’).

One cannot choose to become a sangoma, you are called by your ancestors and once you have called, you have no choice but to become one, if you choose to ignore them, there may be unexplained deaths in the family, you may become seriously sick with no medical explanation, once you go to begin your training then you will be healed. Training takes a long time and in the olden days could take up to twenty five years, this was to ensure that the initiate knew the correct plants to use for the correct ailment and also how it was to be administered, nowadays though, training covers a period of a few years, but you always confer with your ‘trainer’ and go back for training every so often.

Herbs at Durban Market

Inyanga. Culture (Traditional healer or herbalist)

An inyanga is also frequently referred to as a cultural witch doctor, they are in fact herbalists. They treat their ‘patients’ with herbs usually collected mostly on moonlit nights. As opposed to the sangoma who receive a calling, an inyanga is a practice passed from one generation to the next. It is a complex task that lasts a lifetime almost as there are thousands of different plants to learn about and it is important that the correct part of the plant is used, the amount to be used, how it is to be administered etc. It has been proven scientifically that many trees contain medicinal properties and a surprising wealth of information and knowledge has been accumulated and analysed in laboratories.

A good inyanga can charge exorbitant amounts for his services, and they rely on word of mouth to get patients. Besides curing normal everyday ailments, they also claim to have cures for misfortune, bad love lives, AIDS, winning the lotto etc. People are prepared to pay any costs to get these remedies and will travel long distances if need be.

Storm Brewing over Tugela


There are many spectacular thunderstorms in Zululand and these frighten the rural population. There are many people and animals killed annually by lightning, thus the fear. When a storm is brewing, all shiny objects e.g. mirrors, pots, sinks etc are covered, water and milk are also hidden as these are all believed to ‘attract’ lightning.
Windows are opened slightly to let fresh air in as it is believed that if they are closed, the heat generated inside will ‘attract’ lightning and the hut will be struck.
During thunderstorms, everybody sits on the floor, radios are turned off and all conversations are kept to a minimum, should you need to talk, then you must whisper. Noise and height (as in people sitting in chairs) are also believed to attract lightning.
There is also a widespread belief that lightning can be sent to specific targets by someone in order to bewitch you, your family or stock, sangomas can prevent this using strong medicines and can also tell you who sent the lightning and send it back to that person so they are struck down.
In order to stop lightning, the head of the family would often go to the cattle kraal, burn herbs and beat their battle shield with a shield with a stick while asking begging his ancestors to protect them. Another alternative is to place an old tyre on the roof, this is believed to act as a conductor and ‘absorb’ the lightning. A Zulu on a journey picks a branch from the sausage tree and carries that as protection.
A person struck by lightning is not mourned or buried with a ceremony as it is believed that they were killed according to the ancestors’ wishes.
Any animals struck by lightning are not eaten and trees struck by lightning are not used as firewood for any purpose at all.
A hut that has been struck by lightning is never rebuilt, the family looks for another site to build another hut or they leave the kraal.

Nguni Herd
Nguni Cattle. Culture
The Zulu’s were part of the early Nguni migration. Their Nguni cattle were primarily draft animals and an integral part of their society. These colourful cattle were small, hardy, heat tolerant, disease resistant, had a low mortality rate, had good temperaments, were excellent foragers, lived long productive lives and had been shaped by natural selection in the African environment for thousands of years.The Nguni are part of the cultural thread of the original migration from central Africa.

This article is about Zulu Culture, the Zulu people, the Zulu Nation and primarily Zulu's in Zululand

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