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Zulu Culture: An Overview of Practices and Development, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Abstract

The Zulu remain one of Africa’s most influential and numerous ethnic groups, with their population mainly resident in South Africa, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Their rise from a relatively insignificant tribal grouping to a huge kingdom was largely as a result of the leadership of their 19th century king and military leader Shaka. As a leader, he was responsible for significant social and cultural changes. The influence of European religion and culture also played a part in changing the culture of the Zulus. This paper will examine how Shaka and Christianity combined in their different ways to produce the eclectic, interesting and robust culture which exists among the present members of this numerous African ethnic group.

The Zulu are a tribal group which dwells in southern Africa, with their population mainly concentrated in the South African province of Natal. There are also small numbers of Zulus who dwell in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia. Despite their current status and fame, they were a relatively insignificant group before the 19th century rise of their famous leader Shaka. Under the leadership of this man, often viewed as an African Napoleon, they grew from a basic culture which practiced agriculture and horticulture, into one of the most powerful ethnic groups on the continent, who were a serious rival to the European colonial powers who invaded. Both the British and the South African Boers would come into conflict with the Zulu. This paper will examine this unique and fascinating culture, charting its development and progress, and evaluating just how far it was altered by the rise of Shaka and its contact with Christianity.

Zulu economic activity in the days before the rise of Shaka was based upon the raising of cattle and the growing of vegetables. Cattle were particularly important as a measure of wealth and status, and were used as dowries in the case of marriage. Men played a dominant role in Zulu society, while women carried out the kind of craft and home-making activities typically associated with a pastoral culture like this. Bread-making, basket making, and pottery manufacture were all typical activities carried out by Zulu womenfolk. Bead work and basketry made by the Zulu are still recognized as being especially fine. Women would carry out the planting and harvesting of crops, while men were responsible for raising and protecting cattle. Significantly, women would own the family home, giving them more economic power than might be expected in this kind of society.

As with many traditional African communities, their main religious focus before the rise of Shaka was a belief in ancestral spirits. These ancestral spirits were referred to as ‘AmaDlozi’, and were invoked in the course of divination rituals. The diviners in these rituals were usually women, and played a cultural important part in the daily life of the Zulu. The main focus of much religious practice was fending off the attentions of evil spirits, who were viewed as being responsible for any kind of bad things which occurred, including death. As Christianity began to make headway in southern Africa, in the 19th century, it began to influence Zulu belief. This influence was nowhere near as intense as it was on other cultural groups though, with Christianity only being incorporated in syncretic ways, existing alongside the old beliefs and never really being fully adopted as many European Christians would understand it. Isiah Shambe, considered a Zulu messiah by some people, was responsible for the adoption of this modified form of Christianity by many among the Zulu.

Zulu society at this time and during the rise of Shaka was rigidly hierarchical too, with men occupying a higher position than that of their womenfolk. Women were responsible for raising the children of the family. The structure of society and its hierarchy was evident in the lay-out of Zulu homesteads, or kraals, which the Zulu themselves call ‘umuzi’. The largest hut in the settlement always belonged to the chief’s mother, and could be found directly opposite the gate to the umuzi. The chief’s hut would be the first building to the left of the mother’s hut, while the chief’s first wife would take the hut which stood to the right of the mother’s home. The third wife would then be to her right, while the second wife would take the hut to the left of the chief. The unmarried girls and unmarried boys would occupy huts immediately to the left and right of the gate respectively, right at the bottom of the circle by the gate. This structure helps to show how rigidly the hierarchy was imposed on Zulu family life and domestic settlement.

The two elder sons of the chief would also play an important role in welcoming visitors the umuzi, vetting them before they were granted further access to the settlement. Visitors faced three basic options when they arrived at an umuzi: they could be turned away, made to wait for what was an appropriate amount of time, or they were immediately allowed in. Their reception would depend in large part upon their status and relationship to the chief. When they entered the umuzi, they would be treated to the ‘siyakuleka ikhaya’, where one of the gatekeepers, who were usually sons of the chief, would sing the praises of the chief to the visitors. As gatekeeper, the son of the chief was also readying himself for the day when he would become chief, as he would be familiar with many of the people who came to visit his father’s umuzi.

By the early 19th century, there were a number of events which were set to cause significant change to the cultural life of the Zulu people. The rise of Shaka is worth examining in some detail as it shows how quickly the culture of the Zulus was already changing before any significant contact with European colonial powers had occurred. Shaka is a darkly fascinating figure, who made the Zulus the significant and influential cultural group that they are today. There was a significant dark side to his character too though. “We see ourselves when we watch him become so obsessed by power that he sacrifices human relationships for what the devil (in the person of malevolent diviners and witchdoctors) can offer him, and when he loses the ability to distinguish between killing for a just cause and wanton killing for killing’s sake.” (De Vries, 2005, p. 59) The violence of his rein moved hand in hand with his re-organization of Zulu society into an effective totalitarian machine of conquest, entirely dependent on a brutal form of martial law to maintain order and control. He conquered other peoples, adopting a genocidal approach to conquest that saw him look to extirpate rival groups by deliberately reducing their populations. He said, “Women that bear children must exist in Zululand only.” (De Vries, 2005, p.40).

But it was not just the effect that he had on the rivals to the Zulus in southern African for which Shaka is remembered. He was also responsible for many changes to the way of life of his people. Many of these changes were very significant indeed. His main changes occurred in the military life of the Zulu. One of these changes was the introduction to Zulu warriors of the ‘iklwa’, a short stabbing spear which was ideally suited to hand-to-hand combat. The ‘assegai’ or throwing spear which was favored by other cultural groups was not entirely discarded though. It was used as a missile weapon before warriors closed to fight with their iklwas. Shaka is also generally credited with introducing a new kind of shield technique in close combat, where the shield functioned as an additional weapon. The mobility and discipline of the formidable Zulu army increased under his direction too, with troops expected to march quickly over the most difficult terrain. Units of the army were re-organized according to age, and new formations introduced in battle. Shaka made the Zulus militarily very formidable indeed with these reforms, but the society he created was bloody and relied on insane levels of violence and death to keep people in line. There is a view among many historians that Shaka changed warfare in this part of Africa from a symbolic activity where taunts were exchanged and actual loss of life minimal, to a bloody affair of total subjugation achieved through wholesale slaughter of enemy populations. This shows how significant a part Shaka played in the development of Zulu culture, and how significant, and perhaps traumatic, the changes he wrought were, not just for the Zulu but for the whole region. The fact that he was eventually assassinated by his brothers due to the spiraling violence which engulfed Zulu society shows just how far he had dragged the Zulus from their earlier life ways. His violence can be summed up thus: “Ongoing resistance…and smaller outbreaks of rebellion elsewhere, prompted continued and coercive and ideological responses from the Zulu king.” (Hamilton, 1998, p. 50) This behavior arguably makes him much more like the conquering European powers with whom the Zulu would later fight.

English and Afrikaans settlers would begin to come into more regular contact with the Zulu from the time of Shaka onwards. Indeed, much of the Zulu conquests had left territory open for Europeans to settle. This brought Zulu culture into meaningful contact with Christianity. It was nevertheless very hard for Christianity to make signifcant inroads into Zulu culture, and even today it exists alongside traditional religious beliefs, which tend to focus on the presence of spirits, in the way of animistic tribal religions across the globe. Ancestor worship and the role played by diviners in Zulu religion has already been discussed above. Spiritual healing is conducted when it is deemed that evil spirits have caused health problems to occur. The Zulus also believe in a creator God, whom they call Nkulunkulu. Diviners, who are usually women, intercede with spirits to find their will and battle against evil. The ‘Sangoma’ in the tribe function as trained priests, while the ‘Inyanga’ perform as the naturopathic ‘doctors’ of the tribe, finding remedies for a whole range of maladies, from impotence to depression. Many describe this belief system as a belief in ‘witchcraft’. Certainly, the role of witches was very important in Zulu life, and in earlier times whole families could be executed for being suspected of being witches. There was often very little resistance from those being killed in this way too, as it was believed that witches could take a person over without them being aware of it. There was also a strictly hierarchical structure to the political organization of the Zulus, with all authority emanating from a king. His authority comes from his genealogy. Beneath the king are a series of smaller chiefs, each of whom run their own umuzi.

Family has remained important in Zulu society, with family structures still in place which were contemporary in Shaka’s time. The father occupies a particularly important place in the structure of the family. Wives serve the husband of the family, preparing and serving his food at meal times. After bringing food, the wife will leave for her own quarters. Husbands traditionally eat what they want before leaving the rest for the family. Mothers were entirely responsible for raising children, and fathers and sons had a very distant relationship, with no familiarity between them at all. Women are also expected to carry out tasks such as brewing beer, while adult males spend more time looking after the herd of cattle. Despite the low status of women generally, grandmothers are revered and dwell in the house of the ancestors. The practice of polygamy by prominent men meant that children could never be orphaned. There are strict prohibitions on incest, and those who were guilty of this in days past could be punished by death.

There are also some bizarre rituals which women were compelled to undergo. The virginity of unmarried women was checked each month by her mother or closest living female relative, by means of an examination of her genitals. A non-penetrative form of sexual intercourse was practiced by the Zulus too though, which meant that unmarried women could still attain sexual satisfaction. A woman who was still a virgin would have a white mark painted on their foreheads. This system helped Zulus to ascertain who had been responsible for the deflowering of a daughter so that he could be held economically responsible.

Zulu culture still bears many of the hallmarks of previous eras, from the time of Shaka and before. Their strong pride in their cultural traditions has seen them survive largely intact until the present day. While Christianity has had some influence on the changes to their lifestyle and culture which have occurred since the early 19th century, it could also be argued that the rein of Shaka exerted more changes. European Christianity exists as a supplement to Zulu beliefs rather than a replacement. The hierarchical structure of the society and family continues, with the Zulus showing obedient deference to their king, their chief and the father of their family.

References

Gluckman, Max. The Rise of a Zulu Empire. Scientific American 202 (April, 1960): 157-168.

Hamilton, Carolyn. Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Kets de Vries, Manfred F. R. Lessons on Leadership by Terror: Finding Shaka Zulu in the Attic. Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 2004.

Marks, Shula. “Firearms in Southern Africa: A Survey.” Journal of African History 12 (1971): 517-530.

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