In the pristine land of South Africa lives the remarkable Zulu people who are majorly located in the Kwa-Zulu Natal. The name of this tribe of people is “AmaZulu”, which literally translates to mean “people of heaven”. They are a significant part of the cultural and historical tapestry of South Africa as the largest ethnic group in that region. This ethnic group has an estimated population of up to 10 million residents who speak the native language called IsiZulu.
The Zulu people, believed to decend from a chief from the Congo area, have their roots traced back in time to the Nguni community which migrated southwards along the East Coast from Central Africa in the 16th century. Finally settling in what was to become the Kwa-Zulu Natal, they merged with the local communicates there to form a part of an ethnic group called the Bantus. This was how the Zulu people settled into what is now considered their homeland.
Today, various ethnic groups across Africa and even foreigners from India and Europe have made a home for themselves in this region. The Zulu people have themselves spread to live in many other regions such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. However, the Kwa-Zulu Natal remains primarily the home of the Zulu people.
The nation of the Zulu people was itself formed by a phenomenal military leader called Shaka, the third son of Senzangakhona, who came into power after his father’s death in 1816. The Zulu clan was at the time a small one consisting of no more than 1,500 people. It was under Shaka’s leadership that the clan grew in size and strength. He conquered and amalgamated several nations under his rule. Many of Zulu’s military tactics and weapons such as the lethal ‘Assegai’ were created by him.
After the death of Shaka’s mother, Nandi, he had a mental breakdown and became a threat that caused the death of hundreds of his own people. He was eventually assassinated by the lesser chiefs and his half-brothers – Dingaan and Mhlangana. Till date, the Shaka’s impact is still significant and remembered because the customs and traditions of his time are still at the very core of the Zulu people. Their annual “Heritage Day” celebration commemorates Shaka’s impact and revives the people’s traditions.
The revolutionary contributions of the Zulu tribe to the history, development and cultural dominance of South Africa has resulted in it being considered the very soul of the nation. Zulu villages were handed over to the British during the 17th and 18th centuries. They resisted this colonization over several years because they did not want to be under British rule when they had solid patriarchal village government systems. As a result, war erupted between the British and Zulu. In the 19th century, the Zulu people singularly accomplished incredible military exploits in their war against British supremacy.
The culture of the Zulu people, which they take so much pride in, is as interesting as their history and origin. Their heritage is distinctive, although it is closely linked to that of the Swazi and Xhos tribes. These people believe in a god called “Nkulunkulu” who does not interact directly with mortals or have interest in the daily activities of humans. Their interaction with the otherworldly powers or entities is with the spirits who they can only access through the ancestors.
To interact with the ancestors, they must make use of divination. As a result of their high belief in the supernatural and spiritual, the Zulu people are not inclined to ascribe the origin of any misfortune to natural causes. Instead, they consider it to be caused by evil sorcery or offended spirits who they must appease.
In the family structures of the Zulu people, men take on a dominant role because they are charged with caring for the cattle, and providing the needs of their wives and members of the family. Women, on the other hand, cater to the children and the hearth. Their women have considerable economic influence within the family and own the family house. Zulu women also do the most, if not all, of the planting and harvesting. As a mark of pride in their warfare ability, men have tradition of sitting on a hide or the shield. Young boys who aspire to be brave warriors are introduced to the heritage by being trained to fight with sticks.
Attires and adornments of the Zulu people are unique and creative. Many aspects of their dressing holds symbolic meaning which anyone who hopes to visit or meet them should be aware of. What is worn by a Zulu woman is determined by and used to communicate her marital status. While engaged and married Zulu women cover up their chests and bodies to indicate that they are taken and to communicate respect for their in-laws and partners, single and eligible Zulu women take pride in flaunting their feminine bodies.
Their chests are exposed but they cover their genital area and part of their lower bodies with skirts made out of beaded cotton strings or grass. The men traditionally put on a warrior’s headband called “umqhele”, “amambatha” as covering for their shoulders, “umcedo” which acts like an underwear to cover the genitalia, “ibheshu” around their waists like trousers and finally, foot wear called “imbadada”.
A major aspect of the Zulu culture is bead-making. The Zulu people are renown for their brightly colored baskets and beads. They also have been recognized for the small carvings and figural sculptures they create. Like their attires, their beads are used as a form of symbolism.
Different color codes comprising of seven colors and varying shapes represent different meanings. With colors, the aim is often to symbolize emotions, status and spirituality, while shapes signify one’s marital status. Also, one would find that chanting, drumming and dancing are fundamental parts of celebrations by the Zulu people. Needless to say, the Zulu people have a vast and deep cultural heritage that is unique to their culture and societal norms.
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