Zulu Culture Term Paper

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Zulu Culture

The past 200 years have been eventful ones for the Zulu people of southern Africa. From their modest origins in the early 19th century, the Zulus, under the leadership of Shaka, became the dominate force in southern Africa with more than half a million loyal followers. This rise to power was achieved through several wars of conquest that helped to increase the Zulus' wealth in cattle and land holdings and the early Zulu culture that resulted in this outcome continues to fascinate researchers today. To gain some fresh insights into Zulu culture, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature to determine their primary mode of subsistence and Zulu beliefs and values. A discussion concerning the economic organization is followed by an analysis of gender relations among the Zulus. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Primary Mode of Subsistence

Despite their modest origins, the Zulus managed to dominate and even define the history of southern Africa in the nineteenth century in a number of ways (Sowards, 1999). According to Sowards, "The Zulus belonged to a large ethnic conglomerate, the Bantu, a migratory cattle-keeping people composed of many subgroups and speaking some 200 related languages, the Bantu had gradually moved from the north into the eastern portion of southern Africa" (p. 115). Thereafter, a large subgroup of the Bantu known as the Nguni settled along the coastal strip of land between the Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Oceans, between Cape Colony to the southwest and what would be the Transvaal to the north that comprised rich grazing lands for cattle (Sowards, 1999). One of the Nguni clans was the Zulu, but before the assumption of the chieftainship by Shaka in the early 19th century, this clan numbered less than 2,000 people during the closing years of the eighteenth century (Sowards, 1999). By the end of his reign in 1828, though, Shaka had expanded Zululand to include more than 80,000 square miles of territory with more than half a million people (Sowards, 1999). Although the Zulus also farmed and made decent beer, the lifeblood of this society was their cattle. Kept in large kraals or pens, these herds could number in the tens of thousands and Zulu wealth was measured in this way (Sowards, 1999).

Beliefs and Values

One of the major problems experienced by anthropologists and other researchers interested in the beliefs and values of the sub-Saharan tribal peoples in general and the Zulus in particular is the paucity of written sources (Ritter, 1990). According to Ritter, "These were preliterature people, and like most such people, they preserved their history and their lore, their religion and their magic, in oral traditions scrupulously passed down from generation to generation" (p. 116). This point is also made by Araujo who reports that, "In Zulu culture in South Africa, oral tradition plays a part from the name a child is given at birth to lullabies and word games played by children. Religious and political events also inspire new forms of spoken art. Izibongo (praise poetry) is part of annual Shaka Day celebrations around the country" (p. 32).

Some indication of the Zulus' beliefs and values, though, can be discerned from contemporary accounts of white explorers who actually lived amongst them and witnessed their rituals and day-to-day lives, including E.A. Ritter. It is noteworthy that the oral traditions of the Zulus that were handed down in this fashion were on the scale of the great epic poems of the West and were replete with heroic tales of adventure and complete lists of the names of the Zulus warriors that were involved (Ritter, 1990). These lists swelled with new names during the early nineteenth century as the Zulus, under the leadership of Shaka, and "their propensity for ruthless warfare" achieved in "clearing the land of inhabitants at the very moment it was required by white settlers. In 1891, a map showing territory almost depopulated by the Zulu Wars before 1834 included all the known gold fields along with the farming lands of the Transvaal and Orange Free State" (Etherington, 2004, p. 158). Although Shaka was interested in the white man's technology during these early encounters, the real economic wealth of Zulus remained tied up in their cattle holdings (Sowards, 1999) as discussed further below.

Economic Organization

With the Zulu chief at the helm, the rest of Zulu society was organized in a hierarchal fashion, with subchiefs assigned to about 1,000 followers (Sowards, 1999). Following Shaka's rise to power in the early nineteenth century, the economic organization of the Zulus became focused on conquest as a means of increasing wealth, using Shaka's innovative stabbing spear as the driving force (Sowards, 1999). According to Etherington (2004), "The organization of the Zulu army was based on regiments, the introduction of the short stabbing spear and deadly wars of conquest" (p. 159). Male and female Zulus were organized into regiments by age numbering about a thousand each, and each of these regiments was expected to tend to the agricultural needs of their respective communities and to conduct military training exercises to remain battle-ready (Sowards, 1999). In some cases, age cohorts from male and female regiments would be released from service at the same time so they could then marry, having satisfied their military service obligations to the Zulu chief (Sowards, 1999). These retirees typically received land and cattle for their years of service to the chief and the tribe (Sowards, 1999).

Gender Relations

Gender relations have changed somewhat over the past 200 years for the Zulus. The beliefs and values of the Zulus have always involved respect for the elderly, though, even for women who were otherwise regarded as being traditionally inferior to men (Adler, 1993). According to Adler, "Traditionally among the black peoples of South Africa, advancing age brings increased power and authority to both men and women" (p. 338). In a society where life expectancy might be very short, it is not surprising that the elder Zulu members were held in higher esteem than others. In this regard, Adler adds that, "Aging brings the prospect of new roles that generally suit the individual's capacities. For the man, advancing age means obtaining respect. Young people generally accept his judgments, experience, and authority. For the woman, middle age marks a period of increased influence in both domestic and community affairs" (1993, p. 338).

Gender relations in the Zulu culture are therefore influenced by the physiological changes that take place as people age, and this influence has become even more pronounced as more Zulus have lived longer lives during the 20th century. For instance, according to Adler, "For a woman, the positions of mother-in-law and paternal grandmother, in particular, enable her to wield considerable power and influence" (p. 338). Just as young Zulu warriors must prove themselves as worthy of taking their place among the men of the tribe, Zulu women must likewise earn their loftier positions in Zulu society. In this regard, Adler adds that, "The Zulu grandmother plays an indispensable and stabilizing role in the families of her sons and daughters. Because of her kinship position, knowledge, age, and ceremonial purity, she is involved in the major stages of procreation, in every aspect of the development of the young, and her influence continues undiminished during adolescence" (p. 338).

Gender relations in modern Zulu society are still tied to these traditional views and values. In fact, modern Zulu men continue to carry shields and spears as an important part of Zulu culture that reflects an expression of respect and appreciation for their long-held traditions. For instance, Bond and Gibson (2002) describe spears and shields "cultural weapons" and restrictions on these would "stifle the cultural expression of the Zulus" (p. 203).


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