Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Some Zulu Customs And Traditions 1911

  • Wednesday, June 15, 2011
  • Samuel Albert
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  • Author: L H Samuelson
    Source: Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 10, No. 38 (Jan., 1911), pp. 191-199

    BY the courtesy of the author, we are enabled to publish in the Journal some extracts from a forthcoming work on "Zulu Customs and Folklore," by Miss L. M. Samuelson, of Durban, Natal. Miss Samuelson is the daughter of a Norwegian missionary who was stationed for many years in Zululand,and the sister of Mr. S. O. Samuelson, till recently Under-Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal. Having lived among the Zulus from childhood, she is exceptionally familiar with their language and customs, and the book she is about to publish promises to be of unusual interest.

    UKUKALEL 'AMABELE.(Praying for the Corn.)

    I think that a description of an old Zulu custom which is now slowly dying out may be found interesting. It is generally observed at the season when the mealies and mabele (kafir corn) are coming into flower.

    The Zulus believe that there is a certain Princess in Heaven, who bears the name of Nomkubulwana (Heavenly Princess), and who occasionally visits their cornfields, and causes them to bear abundantly. For this princess they very often set apart a small piece of cultivated land as a present, setting little pots of beer in it for her to drink when she goes on her rounds. They often sprinkle the mealies and mabele with some of the beer, for luck to the harvest.

    There is one day appointed specially for girls, when they go out fasting on to the hills, and spend the whole day weeping, fasting, and praying, as they think that the more they fast and weep, the more likely they are to be pitied by the princess. On that day they have to wear men's clothing (umutsha) made of skins, and all men and boys are to keep out of their way, neither speaking to them nor looking at them.

    They start very early, as by sunrise they must be by the riverside, ready to begin praying and weeping.1

    Digging deep holes in the sand, they make two or three little girls sit in them, and fill them in again, till nothing but their heads is left showing above ground. There they must remain, weeping and praying for some time. Girls about six years old are generally chosen for this purpose, as they cry the most (rather from fright than anything else), and so are most likely to catch the ear of the heavenly princess.

    When the older girls think the poor little things have done their fair share, they help them out and let them run home.

    The big girls then go to the mountains and weep; after that to their gardens, round which they walk screaming to the heavenly princess to have pity on them and give them a good harvest.

    After this they sprinkle the gardens with beer, and set little pots of it here and there for the princess. About sunset the ceremonies are over, and they all go back to the river to bathe, after which they return to their homes and break their fast.

    Any girls refusing to join with the others on Nomkubulwana's day, would lose caste, unless prevented by illness. Ofcourse Christian girls are not expected to join, this being an entirely heathen rite.

    The Rainbow, Lightning and Eclipses.

    The Zulus believe in a glorious being whom they call the Queen of Heaven, of great and wondrous beauty, and the rainbow is supposed to be an emanation of her glory. This "Queen of Heaven " (Inkosikazi) is a different person from the Heavenly Princess, to whom the young girls pray regularly once a year, as described above.2

    Some believe that there is a gorgeously coloured animal at the point where the rainbow appears to come in contact with the earth, and that it would cause the death of any who caught sight of it.3

    The natives, as a rule, are very superstitious about the lightning; if it has struck anything they say "the heavens
    did it," they dare not speak of it by name. A person killed by lightning is buried without ceremony, and there is no mourning for him; a tree which has been struck may not be used for fuel; the flesh of any animal so killed is not to be eaten; huts which have been injured by lightning are abandoned, and very often the whole kraal is removed. Persons living in such a kraal may not visit their friends, nor may their friends visit them, until they have been purified and pronounced clean by the doctor. They are not allowed to dispose of their cattle until they also have been attended to by the doctor, even the milk is considered unclean, and people abstain from drinking it.

    An eclipse or an earthquake foretells a great calamity, and natives are terrified whenever an eclipse takes place. The defeat of the Usutu by Uzibebu a few days after an earthquake, which was felt all through Zululand in 1887, naturally confirmed them in the belief that it is an evil omen.

    Rain Doctors.

    In common with other backward races the Zulus have faith in the power of the rain-doctors to make, or to draw, rain, and also to prevent it from falling. The Zulu kings generally kept rain doctors, but as when these men did not make enough rain to please their royal masters, they were in danger of being fined or even put to death, they were obliged to invent a good many excuses for their failures. The most common was, that they felt sure somebody was practising witchcraft, that is to say, putting pegs dipped in medicine into the ground, or tying knots in the grass on the mountain-tops and sprinkling them with medicines; either of which proceedings would stop the rain. Then the king would send messengers round the country commanding his subjects to find out where pegs had been driven in, or knots tied in the grass, and the owner of the kraal in whose neighbourhood this was found to have been done was liable to be killed or fined, at the king's discretion.

    In a dry season people were constantly in fear of this happening, for they knew that any who wished to injure them would drive in pegs near their kraals and then report them to the king for having done it.

    Cetshwayo once had a rain-doctor of whom he thought a great deal; but one year when there was a terrible drought he lost faith in him, and then someone accused him to the king of having wilfully prevented the rain from falling. Ofcourse this made his majesty furiously angry, and he ordered the unfortunate man to be killed and thrown into the river,together with his hut and everything he possessed. No sooner was this order carried out than the rain fell in torrents. Such is the story told by the natives, but I cannot vouch for the truth of it.4

    The Zulus used to consider the Basuto rain-doctors the best of any, and the king sometimes engaged some of them to come to Zululand when rain was wanted. One year a large number of them arrived, laden with roots and other medicines,from Basutoland. Some carried calabashes filled with liquids, which were rolled about on the ground at the cattle kraal, to bring thunder, and bundles containing charms to bring lightning and rain were stuck upright in the ground. These performances went on for some weeks, until at last the rain came, and the Zulus were satisfied that it was caused by the hard work of the Basuto doctors. These men were kept well supplied with beef and beer all the time they were in the country, and handsome presents were given them, when they left it to return to their own land.

    Ukuqwanjiswa Kwempi. (The doctoring of an army.)

    This was a most important ceremony among the Zulus while they were still under their own rulers. The natives of Zululand, as all who know anything of their history will admit, were the bravest and most warlike of the coloured races, and were always ready to fight for their king and country. They never shirked their duty as soldiers, they were all trained to arms from boyhood, and felt it a disgrace not to go out against the foe whenever called upon to do so.

    The ceremony of Ukuqwamba was invariably performed when there was to be war, and was supposed to make the men both brave and invulnerable.

    A proclamation went forth to all the men, in the word "Maihlome" (Let them arm), and in a very short time the whole manhood of the nation mobilised and proceeded, fully equipped for war, to the chief kraal of the sovereign, encamping within a short distance. No women were permitted to come near; all supplies of food or other necessaries being brought by men or boys specially deputed for this service. The army, having assembled at its rendezvous, was then formed into a crescent, and the national war-doctor marched up in all his war-paint, when a very wild black bull was brought in, seized by some warriors selected for the occasion, and held down by them, while the doctor killed it by a blow with his axe on the nape of the neck. Meanwhile a large fire was lighted, and kept up while the beast was being flayed. Then its flesh was cut into long narrow strips, which were roughly roasted in the fire under the superintendence of the doctor, rubbed with a powder made of various roots and herbs and portions of the skins of lions and other fierce animals, and tossed up into the air among the soldiers, who had to catch them in their mouths, bite off a piece, and pass the rest on, till everyone had had a mouthful. Any piece which might chance to fall on the ground was left there.

    The doctor's attendants now brought him vessels full of a liquid composed of various medicines pounded and mixed with water, and the doctor sprinkled the warriors with it, shouting the while "Umabope kabope, Umabope kabope"(let the Mabope tie up, that is, concentrate the strength of the army).5 All were now ready, and without farther delay set out to fight. The "tshela " (tela) or sprinkling was repeated in case of a reverse, but not the killing of a bull.6

    The whole body was now drawn up in a crescent, representing the two horns of a bull about to thrust at the enemy, while the central part represented the face of the bull, which would drive them away.

    The war-doctor brings with him all the things required for carrying out the rites I have described, namely, an axe with a sharp point, a knife, the different medicines, and the sprinkler. This should be made of the tail of the gnu, or if this cannot be obtained, the tail of a black bull is used. All these things the doctor keeps in his own possession, carefully wrapped up in a mat.

    The whole of these ceremonies were gone through just before the Zulu War of 1879, and in addition to this the fighting men partook of a medicinal charm which was to repel the enemy (Intelezi yempi).

    We must not forget the women-folk who were left behind. Married women always wear a skirt made of ox-hide, the hair having been scraped off. In ordinary life, the upper edge of this is rolled outward, round the hips, but during war, they turn the roll inside. The young girls throw ashes over their bodies, a sign of mourning, as wearing sack-cloth and ashes was among the Hebrews. The old women take their brooms and run along the roads sweeping with them, thus indicating that they would make a clean sweep of their enemies in all directions. This they call Ukutshaluza.

    Women also drink similar medicines to those taken by the men, but the preparation of them is somewhat different. A big fire is lighted outside the kraal, and a pot containing a number of roots possessing magical properties is put on, and left to simmer slowly till next morning, when the fresh milk of a cow is added, to whiten it. This is supposed to bring good luck. When it is ready, all the women and children sit round the pot, dip their fingers in it, and lick off the mixture. This is the Ukuncinda, or ceremony of sucking. After this, a cow is slaughtered for them to eat. Then they begin to sweep, smear the floors of their huts with cow-dung,and make all tidy. This is evidently to prepare for the return of the soldiers. Beer is made, and snuff ground, and all the snuff-boxes filled up, so that nothing shall be wanting.

    The Zulus "fight and die"; there is no turning back, no retreating-for that only means death in the end, an inglorious death instead of a glorious one. Any who turned back would be killed by order of the king or chief. This was the law of the country in war-time.

    When attacking, the whole body of men made one big rush forward, shouting their clan name or war-cry, "Usutu!" or "Mandhlakazi!"7 &c., as the case might be.

    On camping out for the night a watchword was always agreed upon, unknown, of course, to the enemy, and to every passer-by they cried "Who goes there? " their own people, on giving the word, being allowed to go safely on their way. This, of course, is the same procedure as would be followed among other nationalities.


    Before giving a description of an Inkatha I must explain that it is not at all the same thing as the ordinary grass pad for supporting burthens on the head which goes by that name.8 The inkatha now described is a larger thing, made of certain fibres which are very strong and binding. The doctor specially deputed to make it knows exactly what fibres to use. He makes it in secret, sprinkles it with various concoctions, and finally winds the skin of a python round it, as this reptile is considered the most powerful of animals, coiling itself round its prey and squeezing it to death, as it does.When the Inkatha is finished all the full-grown men as well as the principal women of the tribe are summoned, and are sprinkled and given powders of various dried herbs to swallow. The men then go down to a river and drink certain mixtures, bathe in the river, and return to the kraal where the Inkatha is made. They are then sprinkled a second time, and return to their homes.

    After this the Inkatha is handed over by the doctor to the chief's principal wife, and entrusted to her and to two or three others, to be withdrawn from the common gaze. It is taken great care of and passed on from generation to generation as part of the chief's regalia. The Inkatha is looked upon as the good spirit of the tribe, binding all together in one, and attracting back any deserter.

    The king or chief uses it on all great occasions--more especially on those of a civil nature. For instance, when a new chief is taking up the reins of government, the Inkatha is brought out of its hiding-place, a circle is formed by the tribe, and it is placed on the ground in the centre. The new chief then, holding his father's weapons, stands on the Inkata while he is being proclaimed by his people. After this it is carefully put away again.

    In case of the king being taken ill the doctor seats him on the Inkatha while he is "treating" him (elapa). It is also used in a variety of other royal ceremonies, and is looked upon as more sacred than the English Crown. It is, in fact, the guardian spirit or totem of a Zulu tribe. Yet, strange to say, the Courts are so ignorant of native laws and customs that nothing was known to the Judges of the Native High Court as to the existence of the Inkata, in a very important case9 recently tried there, when it was what might be termed the very essence of the case, and gross injustice resulted from this ignorance.



    1. Cf. an account-of this custom (umtshopi) in Colenso's Zulu Dictionary, p. 614. A similar observance, intended to avert disease, is described by Mrs. Hugh Lancaster Carbutt, in the (South African) Folk-Lore Journal for January, 1880 (Vol. II. p. 12), as follows: "Among the charms to prevent sickness from visiting a kraal, is the umkuba or custom of the girls herding the cattle for a day. [Umkuba means "custom," it is not the name of this particular rite.] No special season of the year is set apart for this custom. It is merely enacted when diseases are known to be prevalent. On such an occasion, all the girls and unmarried women of a kraal rise early in the morning, dress themselves entirely in their brothers' skins [i.e. skin kilts-umutsha], and taking their knobkerries and sticks, open the cattle-pen or kraal, and drive the cattle away from the vicinity of the homestead, none of these soi-disantherds returning home, or going near a kraal, until sunset, when they bring the cattle back. No one of the opposite sex dare go near the girls on this day, or speak to them."-We have reproduced the passage in full, as the periodical which contains it is now very scarce. It should be noted that at ordinary times it would be contrary to custom-indeed, highly improper, if not sacrilegious-for any woman or girl to approach the cattle-kraal, to say nothing of herding the cattle. The idea is, no doubt, to compel the assistance of the Unseen by some flagrant outrage on decency, actual or threatened.--ED.
    2. The rainbow is called utingo lwenkosikazi, " the Queen's bow." See Callaway, Nursery Tales and Traditions of the Zulus, p. 193. Utingo, however, is not "a bow " in our sense (at any rate not in current Zulu speech) but a bent stick or wattle, used in making the framework of a hut. It is difficult to ascertain anything about this inkosikazi; but we believe the Zulu women sometimes hold dances in her honour on the hills.Mr. Dudley Kidd (The Essential Kafir, p. 112) seems to have confused her with Nomkubulwana, who, as Miss Samuelson expressly tells us, is not the same person. It is not clear whether she is identical with the mysterious being called " Inkosazana," of whom the late Bishop Callaway says : " The following superstition ... appears to be the relic of some very old worship" (Religious System of the Amasulu, p. 253).She was supposed to appear, or rather to be heard speaking (for she was never seen) in lonely places, and predicted the future, or gave directions which had to be obeyed by the people. "It is she who introduces many fashions among black men. She orders the children to be weaned earlier than usual. . . . Sometimes she orders much beer to be made and poured out on the mountain. And all the tribes make beer, each chief and his tribe; the beer is poured on the mountain; and they thus free themselves from blame. . . . I never heard that they pray to her for anything, for she does not dwell with men, but in the forest, and is unexpectedly met with by a man who has gone out about his own affairs, and he brings back her message."-ED.
    3. The Congo people believe the rainbow to be a snake (chama) as do the Yorubas(Oshumare). See Mr. Dennett's,At the Back of the Black Man's Mind (p. 142), and Nigerian Studies (p. 21),--ED,
    4. This story scarcely seems to be consistent with Cetshwayo's character, He was certainly a sceptic as regards witchcraft,--ED,
    5. Umabope is explained in Colenso's Dictionary( p. 333)as "a climbing plant with red roots, bits of which are much worn about the neck." A note adds :--" The root is chewed by Zulus when going to battle, the induna giving the word 'Lumani(bite) umabope!' which they do for a few minutes and then spit it out again, saying' Nang' umabope' (here is the umabope). The notion is that the foe will be bound in consequence to commit some foolish act." (The verb bopa means," tie.")
    6. The nearest translation that can be given in English of the word Ukuqwambawould be "Talisman," and "Ukuqwanjiswa kwempi" may be rendered " The consecration of an army."
    7. Usutu is the name of the royal clan to which Cetshwayo belonged-Mandhlakazi being the house of Zibebu.-ED.
    8. The word seems to be almost universal in the Bantu languages :-Nyanja, nkata; Luganda, enkata; Swahili, kata ; Suto, khare. What is most curious is that, so far away as the Gold Coast we find an indication of ceremonial usages connected with this article. See this JOURNAL for July, 1908, p. 407. The Fanti word for it is ekar, which may be a merely accidental resemblance, or may point to a fundamental identity of roots in the West African and the Bantu languages.Possibly the root idea of -kata is " something coiled or rolled up," and this may be the only connection between the head-pad and the charm. The Baronga (Delagoa Bay) have a similar tribal talisman called mhamba which is a set of balls, each containing the nail-parings and hair of a deceased chief, kneaded up with the dung of the cattle slaughtered at his funeral, and, no doubt, some kind of pitch to give it consistency. These balls are then enclosed in plaited leather thongs. The custom of thus preserving relics of dead chiefs is found elsewhere : the Cambridge Ethnological Museum possesses a set of the "regalia" of Unyoro, which would come under the same category.--ED.
    9.  Rex v. Tshingumusi, Mbopeyana and Mbombo. 1909.

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