Joko laughed at my patent nervousness as he lead me into Dalton.
Animal skins lay around willy-nilly as did drums, umbadada (car
tyre sandals) and empty Juba cartons. There was a lot of movement
of people entering and leaving the hostel. A number of drunken men
lazed in the sun and indolently observed as I entered their domain.
One of them staggered to his feet and aggressively expelling his
boozy breath, he demanded to know, "Ufunani 'mlungu!? (What
do you want white man!?). I responded with equal power, "Ufunani
'muntu!?" (What do you want Zulu person!?). The inactive audience
suddenly burst into surprised and delighted fits of laughter. My
interrogator laughed meekly and stumbled towards his friends.
As we entered the dark shops the craftsmen' art became apparent.
Magnificent Zulu shields, beads, headgear and other finely crafted
items of traditional imivunulo (warriors attire) were on display.
Joko greeted everyone, "Sawubona lekhaya! Ngihamba noMthimkhulu!",
and thus was I introduced by my Zulu name, to a chorus of disbelief
from the shop owners.
It was mid-year 1993. Joko and I had met a few days earlier at
the Pick and Shovel restaurant. I told him of my desire to purchase
a traditional Zulu outfit. "No problem." he said. "We
just need to go to Dalton." "Do you mean the hostel, where
there is so much violence." I asked. He said, "Don't worry
you will be safe, I am taking you." And here we were.
There was much laughter at my size as we moved from shop to shop.
Each one selling a different component. Here shields and there amabeshu
(hides shaped to cover behinds). Each craftsperson was skilled in
the manufacture of a certain part of the imivunulo. There were fighting
sticks, walking sticks, spears and knock down sticks. Head, chest,
elbow, leg and waist gear hung from the walls and ceilings.
A few men lay about the place, sleeping off hangovers. Their neighbours
sold on their behalf. Every now and again a sleeper's eye would
open. He would grunt his satisfaction and drift back into dreamland.
Slowly compatible pieces were gathered to form my very own outfit.
A black and white cowskin shield contrasted well with the light
tan impala skin 'beshu, that hung over my behind. The beautiful
sewn and twisted izinjobo covered the sides of my legs up to the
isinene, which covered the front.
There was much laughter when the enthralled shopkeepers showed
me a straw thimble, known as iqoyi. This they giggled, would save
any man from embarrassment....
Nkosi (Chief) Bhekisisa Bhengu, had become a friend in the Valley
of a Thousand Hills, through my peace making and rural development
work with the Natal Canoe Union. He was young and very wise, an
interesting mixture of modern and traditional. He has travelled
to Washington DC - USA and Zimbabwe and is well educated in development
and local government issues. He longed for development in his area
and was very involved in the traditional respect system.
I drove out to see him, with my new imivunulo in my car. He was
as impressed as I was delighted and said, "You must wear this
on Saturday at Nkosi Gwala's wedding." A thrill of fear and
excitement ran through me. It was a year before the first free elections
and KwaZulu Natal was racked with political violence. Putting aside
my natural trepidation, I agreed to meet him at 10 am on the day
of the wedding.
My niece Jean, and I drove down into the valley and arrived at
his Emshazi home, across the road from the tribal court. He seemed
surprised to see me so early and we hung around and chatted. Every
so often he would look at his watch and shake his head and say,
"Hayi Bhungane - I don't know where these people are".
I think he was just trying to settle my western rush to do things,
so I relaxed into the day and whatever it was to bring.
After a while Mrs Bhengu fed us. Then we waited and watched the
goats and chickens wander around his yard. An old man drove his
old van into the yard and opened up the bonnet. We then had a conversation
on all things mechanical. Around about 1.30pm Nkosi Bhengu decided
it was time. "When is the wedding?" I asked. "It
is on now," he said, "in fact it has been going on all
day. Let us get dressed.", he said.
He called his young son in to help. We, two men from two different
worlds, prepared to culturally meet. I am sure my ancestors in Ireland
and Scotland were rolling in their graves, as I learnt how to put
on my skins. I learnt how to hold my shield and how a warrior should
walk and stand. Little bits of string held each component to my
body and I felt very exposed in my underpants.
Nkosi Bhengu looked splendid in his imitation leopard skins and
I stood proud on my car-tyre sandals, as my unclad parts shone brightly
in the African sun. The journey was about to begin. We drove down
the hill to Shabalala's store and he then began to dress. When he
was ready, we moved onto Mathowuli's place. His name comes from
the fact that he always has a towel wrapped around his head, like
Up the hill, on steeply angled red clay roads, to another Bhengu.
There was much shouting across the lands from homestead to homestead.
The Nkosi was going to the wedding and he was with an umlungu in
skins! An incredible excitement seem to hold the valley in its grip.
Baba Bhengu complained of how his imivunulo no longer covered the
fullness of his body. He called his young son and asked him to shine
his legs with vaseline. "Would you like some?", he asked
as he offered me the jar. "Thank you," I laughingly answered,
"but I already shine far too much!"
The procession gathered people and cars and we met up with Induna
Cele who had an impressive python's skin for his 'beshu.
The young maidens were now gathering and bounced down the hills
towards us. They blew dance whistles, beat on drums and ululated
as they jumped into the cars. "Wozani," the Nkosi called
inviting them into his car. "Thank you Nkosi," they said.
"We will go with him." Girls piled into my car and somehow
the Nkosi ended up with me, as well.
The Nkosi and I led his people down the dusty roads, alongside
the beautiful dam, to eMaphephethweni. The young maidens still shouted,
whistled and ululated with delight to all who would listen!
"Slow down, Bhungane." said the Nkosi as I hit 40kms
per hour. "There is no rush". At 2.30 pm we cruised into
the area. The bride and groom were in traditional Christian outfits
as they had just completed the church wedding. Little people in
beautiful suits and dresses wandered around the church. Car alarms
had been re-wired to run continuously to let the people know that
their Nkosi was getting married!
Our own group wound on past the church to the tribal court. At
which point my confidence took a temporary and almost traumatic
beating. As I stepped from the car, the excited people began to
ululate and shout. Many ran toward me. Even little old ladies raised
their umbrellas and advanced upon me in a threatening and laughingly
aggressive way. I later found out that it was an expression of joy
The Nkosi walked cooly amongst the people with a tiny smile upon
his face. I just smiled, greeted everybody and ducked the "attacking"
matriarchs. And stuck like glue to the Nkosi. My petrified niece
was as close to me!
"Who is it" A man asked. "Juluka (a famous white
Zulu singer/ dancer)? "Maybe," said another. "but
if it is him, he has got very fat!" Later an old man asked
me when I was going to sing. I looked at him quizzically, and he
said to anyone who would listen,"He doesn't understand me.
He can't speak Zulu."
We were lead up the hill towards the homestead. Nkosi Bhengu's
traditionally-clad followers gathered and walked at our sides in
a protective and energised squad. We were taken to the VIP hut where
we were treated to Zulu hospitality. Jean was led away to be with
the women, and I to the amabhuto (the Nkosi's regiment.). The AmaNgcolosi
gathered around their Chief and began to beat their sticks against
their shields. A powerful rhythmic noise filled the rolling hills.
Young men would suddenly leap out, dance and spin away, beating
their shields and presenting a fearful face to the gathering crowds.
Ladies, young and old, began to dance and ululate near the group.
Dance whistles blew, drums were beaten and horns were sounded. As
the warriors's passion grew d they continued to "'giya"
with more energy, to the obvious delight of the wedding guests.
We marched down the hill towards the kraal. Singing songs and beating
our shields. I was still a little fearful but was becoming more
a warrior than a man from the city. The Nkosi showed me how to hold
my shield again. I was at one with Africa for perhaps the first
time in my life.
The wedding processes went by in a blur. A delighted Nkosi Gwala
danced for his bride. She was now dressed in her traditional gear
and he in his imivunulo. Gifts were traded back and forth and families
were united through the bride and groom.
The young groom " 'giya-ed" for his people. He danced
and showed his masculinity for the appreciative guests to see. He
marched with his amabhuto and I ended up in the cattle kraal with
them. The names of his ancestors were called by his praise singer
and respect for his line was shown.
Later we ate and shared Zulu beer. It is milky in colour and far
less alcoholic than western beers. We sat in a huge crowded hut,
as the amabhuto sang and danced. The place vibrated and reverberated
with energy. Huge cracks opened in the concrete floor from their
stamping feet. Globes of sweat ran down their glistening and muscular
bodies. The songs were unlike anything that I had ever heard. It
was an amazing place to be, in an amazing country, amongst an incredible
The sun had set long before we left. Our car lights pierced the
darkness of an electricity free Umgeni valley. We reached home after
9 that night. A roadside newspaper seller was shocked to see this
"white" Zulu reach out to buy the early edition of the
With me forever will be other special moments. The image of the
amabhutos running, as one, from the surrounding homesteads. The
view into the valley of a thousand hills. The smells of the skins.
The man who said I should not wear anything beneath my Zulu "kilt".
The maidens running down the hill and Bhengu and his vaseline. The
Induna in his python suit. The energy, fear and the acceptance.
And most of all my assimilation into a tribe of Zulu warriors.
Into the Bhengus, the AmaNgcolosi of Ndwedwe. My life was forever
changed. (I later was part of the clan that met Princess Anne of
Brian Moore © 24 11 2002. Durban - South Africa.