Flying Bananas in Zululand

January 26, 2009
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A gasp arose from the blue safari truck as the over-sized vehicle lumbered over natural speed bumps. The dirt road snaked through crests of a mountainous South Africa landscape, revealing colorful Zulu huts tucked within grassy velds. The Traveling School truck, our migrating beast of a home, was impossible to miss as teenage bodies poured out passenger windows to wave wildly at grinning, barefoot children. Finally our Zimbabwean driver, Japhet, veered the truck onto a muddy flat adjacent to the road. Soon we would receive our first up-close and personal taste of Zulu culture at a coming of age ceremony for a young bride-to-be.


Walter, an elderly Zulu man with crooked teeth, beamed as he led us trudging down an incline of a mud-laden path, straight into the center of the ceremony's audience. Walter was a comically energetic man whose quirkiness was heightened by flawed English, extreme (yet innocent) affection toward us and a tendency to spring excitedly to the call of our questions through the duration of the ceremony. The eighteen of us girls could have been his family; a husband to four women and a father to seventeen children, he found this particularly entertaining and referred to us as his “daughters.”


Walter laughed in a display of teeth and wrinkles when asked if he would marry again.

“I am too tired,” he told us. Somehow I found that difficult to believe as he attended to us for the next two hours or so with overflowing cheer one might expect to encounter in a child. He honored us with front row seats in the grass, overlooking an assortment of colorfully-garbed young girls and women who were engrossed in their traditional Zulu dance of stomps and whistles. The bride-to-be swayed to the clapping in the middle, sporting a long cow hide skirt that signified she was no longer single, and a cap adorned with rand bills. Amongst the Zulu dancers was a curious combination of traditional beads and Western-style clothing, particularly on the younger girls who wore striped knee-high socks, fitted t-shirts and baseball hats. Girls were were clad in a short skirt and shirtless combo were single, while older girls, such as the future bride, wore bras and lengthy skirts to represent their unavailability.


A Zulu coming of age ceremony consists of what feels like hours of constant dancing and singing. There are occasional pauses for guests to approach the bride bearing money to pin on her hat as a contribution to the wedding fund. After Walter tried to convince our teachers to let us sip beer (Coca Cola sufficed as a compromise) he led us zigzagging through the dancers to line up and pay our own donations; we pinned our rands to the collection atop the bride's hat, which would later be used for the costs of the wedding. Eventually our schedule called for us to depart, though not before the hoard of spear-wielding men had arrived to commence a portion of the ceremony, lifting cow hide shields and chanting battle cries.


Numerous traditions and customs integrated within Zulu culture live on today, including ceremonies such as coming of age, and cultural gestures such as raising a white flag outside to symbolize an upcoming marriage. Ancestral guidance plays a vital role in Zulu daily life; the deceased are called upon for spiritual fulfillment, jobs, or lucky lotto tickets. Often, such favors are requested formally through a priest at a ceremony, which I was privileged to witness.


I didn't know what to expect, but when we stopped outside a fairly small mud hut frosted with a grass-thatched roof, I felt a little skeptical. Our guide Muzi, a young Zulu attending university in Durban, instructed us to remove our shoes and set them against the outer wall. In hushed curiosity, I stepped through an opening into the Zulu equivalent of a church. When my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, for a split, panic-stricken second I found myself standing alone before a group of local Zulus. They eyed me from their grass mats on the floor, and suddenly it occurred to me that I knew nothing of Zulu courtesy. Do I wave? Stomp on the floor and clap? Perhaps a simple hello would suffice. To avoid any unnecessary embarrassment, I decided against any form of greeting. When I spotted my classmates on the opposite side of the room, I half-ran into the safety of their familiarity, avoiding eye contact with the locals as any good self-absorbed tourist would do.


Throughout my recent travels in South Africa, I have learned that close human contact is a perfectly acceptable cultural practice -- Walter casually draping his arm around my shoulder came to mind. I tried to remember this as more people arrived to nestle down in the leg space I had been savoring, popping the personal bubble I regard as keeping my within a comfortable proximity to other human beings. When I inhaled a nauseating wave of body odor, I feared for my sanity and attempted to make myself as small as possible under the scrutinizing gaze of two chickens in the corner.


Nearly everyone that entered appeared laden down with gifts of fruits, grains, candies and beverages for “Momma,” the priest officiating the ceremony. When they maneuvered through the room, they did so on their knees. According to Muzi, this was a gesture of respect.

“Is it bad that we didn't do that?” I wanted to know. Muzi simply laughed.

“You are foreign,” he told me, “You didn't know.” Splendid. Not only had I as good as screamed my apparent disregard for their culture, but I had probably just dissed someone's ancestors.


To redeem myself, I carefully observed those around me, hoping to avoid unintentionally showering the hut with disrespect. When Momma arrived -- and older, hefty woman whose dazzling array of beads and leather evoked thoughts of cowboys in my mind -- I clapped along with everyone else to their church beats.


It is traditional for the churchgoers to cleanse their feet in holy water. It is then uniform to send this water home to be used for medicinal purposes. Once upon a time in this Zulu village, an ill young girl was presented to the priest. Momma dabbled this water onto the girl's eyes, ears and mouth, and miraculously, something crawled out of the girl's nose, thus terminating the sickness. When I stuck my shamefully dirty feet into the tub of holy water to be cleansed, I pitied the receivers of this next batch of medicinal foot water; apparently my feet would be giving someone a healthy boost.


Through out the majority of the ceremony, I had little understanding of what was happening around me; people clapped, people sang, people listened to Momma's storytelling. We had been informed that gifts would be distributed at some point, and that time became quite clear when something bounced off my head. Suddenly I noticed that a storm of bananas was headed our way. Next, Momma busted out Coca-Cola and Smirnoff, which was an interesting combination and example of clashing cultures. One mother bottle fed her baby beer.


A Zulu church service, underway, revolves around interactions between Momma, her assistant sangomas (healers) and visitors. After a priest invites everyone's ancestors into the hut, lines materialize and people approach for individual assistance. Every so often, Momma would let out an agonized groan, signifying the pressure laid upon her by the ancestors with whom she communicated. For R5 (equivalent to 50 cents in U.S dollars), one could purchase could purchase yarn string rubbed in blessed maize powder, “to prevent you from evil,” Muzi said. I crawled respectfully on my knees through a mess of dancing, spilled beer and squirming children to acquire one of my own. A sangoma lifted my shirt, strung yarn around my waist and wordlessly gave my belly a squeeze. And that was that; evil could no longer touch me. It never occurred to me to doubt this new superstitions. During the ceremony I repeatedly glanced up at the ceiling, half-expecting to see my ancestors floating in the rafters. I still wear my protective string.


After a quick and silent farewell to grandma in the rafters, I left with a newfound sense of enlightenment. Spiritually speaking, this Zulu healing ceremony was far more fulfilling than the few church services I have attended in my life. The secret to fully experiencing the joys of Zulu culture lies in leaving all self-righteousness at home and embracing the people and customs with an open mind. You may also want to apply an additional coat of deodorant. And watch out for flying bananas.





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