Our Unforgettable Zulu Experience at Shakaland in South Africa
Bob and I arrived at Shakaland in South Africa around noon after driving from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. We were delayed several times with various animal sightings that had us stopping for photographs.
The weather had changed dramatically from first thing that morning. When we stepped from our car, the air was so cold that I could see my breath! I was grateful for an extra coat that Bob had thrown in the back seat.
Shakaland Zulu Cultural Village is located in the province of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa. The Zulu Kingdom occupied the northern province of Kwazulu in the 1830s and early 1840s before it merged with the province of Natal.
Shakaland Zulu Cultural Village is within sight of Lake Phobane in the beautiful Umhlatuze Valley. Previously referred to as the Goedertrouw Dam, Lake Phobane resulted when the Mhlatuze River was dammed. The Mabelebele Mountains can be seen in the distance.
Shakaland was created as a set for the television movie Shaka Zulu, but even at that, the cultural experience provided here is considered to be highly informative and authentic…the best in the country. Shakaland is within the last remaining kraal built for the original set.
Upon entering Shakaland, Bob and I were met with a historical interpreter who began to share the story of the Zulu king and warrior, Shaka, a legend in his own right for solidifying the identity of his people, and for his unique fighting techniques that led to the northern Nguni folk uniting with the Zulu against the Europeans and Boers.
Off to one side was a layout of wooden clubs (isaGilas) stuck in the earth to illustrate the Zulu battle formation. Known as the “chest and horns” battle group, experienced warriors formed the “chest” while young warriors on the flanks (the “horns”) moved forward to encircle the enemy. This effective battle strategy then allowed the central group of battle-wise warriors to move forward and crush their opponents.
Bob and I felt privileged to be entering an authentic kraal so we could experience and understand the daily life of the Zulu. Up to that point in our trip, we had seen many homesteads laid out within kraals, and we were very curious to have a closeup view of one.
A Zulu homestead typically consists of two concentric kraals, one within the other. Around the periphery of the largest kraal, palisades are constructed of thorn trunks. Between the outer kraal and the inner one, beehive huts are built to house the people.
The smaller, inner kraal, is where their precious cattle are kept. It was fascinating to see the clever method for constructing fences using only the available stones and sticks.
Likewise, Zulu women use braided split reeds and grass to thatch the beehive huts. The result is a beautiful roof that keeps the interior cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The Zulu people throughout Shakaland demonstrated some of their skills, such as these maidens carrying clay pots on their heads. They are dressed in the traditional clothing of single girls who are engaged but not yet married. Their short skirts embellished with beads indicates that they are single, and the fact that they have covered their breasts means that they are spoken for.
The clothing I happened to be wearing was consistent with what a married woman should wear since my body was totally covered. I was not proficient at walking even with a straw basket on my head, but it was fun trying.
In front of one beehive hut, a maiden was grinding grain with a rudimentary mortar and pestel. Zulu people today are mostly vegetarian with maize, tubers and pumpkin constituting a large portion of their diet. Cattle are slaughtered only on special occasions, and more commonly, goats, sheep or chicken will be part of a special meal.
The most iconic adornment worn by a married woman is a circular-shaped hat called an izicolo. Depending on the clan, the hat size varies and can be up to a metre across in the hottest areas to protect the wearer from the sun.
An izicolo is woven from grass often intertwined with red or white cotton threads. Traditionally, an izicolo was woven right into a bride’s hair so that it could not be removed when her husband was away.
Reed mats serve different purposes in the beehive huts, but the one I found most interesting is as a place to sleep in combination with a tiny bench that acts as a pillow. I could see how that would facilitate sleeping with an izicolo sewn into a woman’s hair.
Because a Zulu man’s wardrobe consists heavily of skins and feathers, it was no surprise to see animal bones displayed and utilized.
Leopards are revered by the Zulu, so traditionally, only royalty, generals and chiefs were allowed to wear leopard skin. The more leopard skin a man wears, the more important is his status. To make a Zulu man seem more imposing, the tufts of cows’ tails (amaShoba) are worn on the upper arms and below the knees.
A front apron, an IsiNene, and a rear apron, an iBeshu, are worn to cover a man’s genitals and buttocks. The aprons of a young man are knee-length, whereas those worn by older men are ankle length. Pieces of soft calf’s skin are used to make the aprons. A man that is married wears a headband.
The culture tour continued with guests being invited into the tribe’s assembly hall for the next segment of the Nandi experience. Nandi was King Shaka’s mother.
This is the Zulu chief’s throne inside the assembly hall. An elephant’s skull hangs overhead to represent his important role within the tribe.
A portal inside the kraal is made impressive and formidable with another elephant’s skull dominating the arch, shouldered by two pairs of elephant tusks.
Continuing our tour, we were escorted by a young Zulu warrior to a Beer Drinking Ceremony.
First, we were shown how the women make the traditional beer. On the first day, sorghum and maize are reduced to a coarse state then cooked to make a thick porridge. On the second day, the softened grains are cooked with water to form a milky soup. Dry sorghum is added, and the covered pot is allowed to stand for a day to ferment.
When the brew is ready, the beer is filtered through a grass sieve. It is customary for the brewer and the host to drink the beer first, then a gourd full of beer is passed around to all of the host’s guests. We did not sample the beer because of so many drinking from the same container. It is said to be a refreshing and nutritious beverage.
As we were preparing to leave Shakaland, we took note of another Zulu warrior who was carrying a war shield. He would be participating in the evening’s war dance performance. We were unable to stay any later because the gates at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park close promptly at 7 p.m., and we did not want to get locked out for the night.
There is a lot of talent and creativity evident in the beadwork done by the Zulu ladies. In the Zulu culture, intricate geometric patterns are used to convey messages. Brightly coloured beads are used with each colour having a different meaning. I took time to purchase a few handmade necklaces for my friends before we got on the road. It had been a very rewarding and informative few hours spent with the Zulu people.
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