The Beliefs & Traditions of the Zulu People of Africa

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The Zulu are a traditional hunter-gathering ethnic group in South Africa. Zulus are the largest black group inside South Africa. Cattle have always been the primary form of subsistence for this group. Though many Zulus live in urban areas, there is a steadfast movement to embrace traditional culture. A battle between the forces of change and conservatism has resulted in violence at times. Despite consisting of over 100 different tribes, Zulus have some common beliefs and traditions. The Zulu ritual of marriage, creation myth, ancestor worship and clothing style are all hallmarks of this group's identity.

1 Marriage

Traditional Zulu marriages have expectations for both the groom and bride. The groom offers a gift, known as lobola, to the bride’s family. Most men give cattle. The wealthier the man, the more cattle he offers. Once the bride’s family accepts the lobola, the marriage is official under Zulu law. Women must then leave their homes to reside with the husband as his wife. Thus, in Zulu marriages, women become a member of the husband’s family, increasing that lineage. The lobola is a payment to the bride’s family for the rights to her reproductive capabilities.

2 Creation Myth

Zulus believe in a myth that explains the creation of the world. In Zulu mythology, Unkulunkulu created everything in our world. Originally, he was a reed, or plant, that took on a human form. From him, the Zulu believe they learned their survival skills. Unkulunkulu instructed the Zulu in the art of hunting and growing crops.

3 Ancestor Worship

Reverence for ancestors plays a central role in Zulu spiritual life. Ancestors can influence events on earth, according to Zulu tradition. People honor their ancestors to receive protection and ward off evil spirits. When asked, the ancestors serve as intermediaries between the living and the spirit world. Zulus speak to the ancestors rather than to God directly. The ancestors ask God to help the people during difficult times. As a social function, ancestor worship links family members spiritually, creating cultural continuity across generations.

4 Clothing

Zulus wear distinctive traditional attire, representative of their hunter-gatherer culture. Men sport a loincloth produced from goatskin. Along with this cloth, men carry the regimental shield of their warrior clan. Women wear skirts and adorn their bodies with beads. The skirts, called isidwaba, are usually leather-based. Zulu women also wear head coverings. The inkehli is a flattop cap woven into the hair. Women don different inkehli to symbolize certain life stages.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.