April 2, 2006

Zulu First Fruits Festival

Seated on the truck bed in back of a 1964 Range Rover on damp sofa cushions, we bounced over dirt roads deep into the hilly rural areas of Zululand, headed from Eshowe for a village named Kekeke to observe the Zulu Snake dance and First Fruits festival.

I’d found out about this event from our 2004 Frommer’s guide to South Africa. There was only a single sentence, that 3000 Zulus gathered for the annual Snake festival on February 23. We quickly realized it was happening in 4 days, and that we were already in Zululand and could see it! We signed up for a trip with Graham, the ex-mayor of Eshowe, who is well linked with the Zulu community and often arranges for visits to Zulu weddings, christenings and celebrations.

Round mud huts stood in clusters dotting the slopes of the lush, grassy countryside. Cattle and goats grazed and milled about on the sides of the road. There were no road signs – in addition to the driver, we also had a Zulu guide with us to navigate and translate. Each Zulu village consists only of one family, and contains between 5 to 15 huts. In the case of Kekeke, we learned that it was named after the man himself, who had 16 wives and about 100 children. In Africa, I no longer introduce myself saying I’m from a large family.

We were welcomed by the 11th wife. I know this because she said “I am wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife”, ticking off with her fingers everytime she said the word. The Zulu women are very large – our hostess was at least 300 pounds, while the men, boys and girls are thin. It is very much an aesthetic. We were welcomed into her house, which was very luxurious – besides having multiple rooms made of stone, she had electricity as well, and we were treated to an incredible spread of fruits, Coke, whiskey, wine, muffins, cookies and cheetohs. We had been told that she was Kekeke’s favorite wife – she had the largest house.

I spent some time there thinking about how marital relations would work with 15 other wives. I would imagine that Zulu soap operas or reality TV shows could be very, very juicy. How would you feel as wife #8, as you watched a newer, younger wife become a favorite? Are there ignored “middle” wives like middle children? What do you do if you can’t stand wife #4, 7 and 12? Do the wives form alliances? Do they all get a say on who their husband marries? And how does the man remember all those anniversaries? His wives names, never mind his 100 children?

I actually had a lot of time to think about all this, as we arrived at 10:30 am, stood outside her house for 15 minutes, were invited in, ate and drank, and sat, and sat, and sat until at 3pm. We heard that nothing happens in a Zulu village until you are fed, but I guess nothing happens until everything is completely digested as well.

We wandered out of the house into the village, and saw lots of little kids, and the kitchen where 4 women were butchering a cow for the evening feast. The skin of the cow was draped outside over a wooden fence. We wandered back into the house, and made small talk with the others in the group just to get out hot noon sun. We were reminded once again of the concept of “Africa Time”.

The festival consisted of mostly women in traditional dress, dancing and singing in Zulu in rhythm to a drummer. There were a few men, including a traditional sangoma or medicine man. The whole point of the festival traditionally was to sanction the eating of fresh fruits – something considered dangerous until the festival was performed and the blessing of the sangoma obtained.

It was odd to watch this very traditional dance and celebration – we were the only 8 tourists in a gathering of 500 Zulus, and yet I was constantly aware that it was the year 2006. Cars were parked at the village perimeters, and one of the Zulu warriors was videotaping the ceremony while dancing in it with his Sony camcorder. The bystanders, dressed in jeans and T shirts, happily chatted with each other and on their cell phones. Newer innovations like using coke can tops laced together to make anklets that jingle were prevalent (instead of dried seed pods), and the uniform white top was broken by a Nike swoosh in the corner.

I felt priveleged to be there, and was curious as to why Zulus would want strangers there at their celebrations. I thought how strange it would be at my wedding to have 10 Zulus hovering in the back, watching. We found out from our guide that it is considered very prestigious to have whites/foreigners come to your ceremony, symbolizing your status and importance. We were walmly welcomed into the community, but it is one of the times on this trip that I felt the most homesick and like an outsider, watching a timeless dance performed to traditional rhythms and chants I neither understood or could make sense of.

My favorite part was wathching the slight missteps in dance, or the small glances the dancers or the sangoma would give each other to coordinate their ceremony. It felt very authentic, like this was a festival performed by people for whom this was a once a year thing, sort of like a Christmas pagent. It was fascinating to see a celebration that people do for themselves, instead of the widespread “cultural shows” in touristy spots.

Check out more photos for a more complete view of the festival.