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Posts from the ‘Ubuntu’ Category

The real meaning of Ubuntu

Hit it on the spot — this exactly what the Zulu proverb Ubuntu means to me here in South Africa and back in the States.


Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngamantu. I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours. – Zulu Proverb

The spritual foundation of South African society, Ubuntu involves a belief in a universal bond of sharing and respect that connects all of humanity. Ubuntu is a concept formally recognised by the 1996 South African Governmental White Paper on Welfare as, “The principal of caring for each other’s well-being…and a spirit of mutual support…Each individual’s humanity is ideally expressed through his or her relationship with others and theirs in turn through recognition of the individuals humanity. Ubuntu means that people are people through other people. It also acknowledges both the rights and responsibilities of every citizen in promoting individual and societal well-being.

Ubuntu also conveys the idea the a person cannot be complete if others do not enjoy full humanity. The spirit of Ubuntu resonates so strongly that if one group…

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Ubuntu: Zulu weddings and lobola

Whenever a guy proposes to me here I respond with, “30 cows”. Then they laugh and tell me that’s far too much, because the average price for a bride here is 12 cows. (How many cows do you think you’re worth?)

Traditionally in South Africa, after a man proposes to a woman, he must negotiate “lobola” with the bride’s family. Lobola is a practice where the bride and groom’s fathers, or other men in their families, meet to discuss how much the man will have to pay to marry the woman.

The average arranged payment is 12 cows and each cow costs around 1,500R (~$200USD). The price is lowered by one cow per each child the bride has given birth to before marriage. Nowadays the negotiation process is a little more modern, and the groom can pay in cash or split it between cash and cows. The negotiations must be done by men from both families, or else it is a disgrace to the ancestors. Once the negotiations are settled, the plans for the actual wedding plans start forming.

Zulu weddings last three days. On the first day of ceremonies, the groom’s family travels to the bride’s family’s household to partake in a traditional ceremony. All men and women are dressed in Zulu traditional dress. Women wear an isidwaba (wrap around beaded and pleaded skirt), beads, and an isicholo – a straw hat that is beaded. Men wear amabheshu – a cow skin cover-up and carry a Zulu shield, also made out of cow skin.

The groom -- Baba Mhkwanazi -- in amabheshu

The groom — Baba Mhkwanazi — in amabheshu

The two separate families gather together and watch each one march and sing around the household property. This is the beginning of a friendly “competition” between the families. The families then will march to wherever the groom or bride is and sing for them to come out of the house and join them. Once both families have gathered either the groom or bride, they sing and march out to a larger grass field.

The bride’s family, with the bride in the middle of the group, then sings and dances traditional songs – songs about marriage and love, many of which do not have direct translations to English.

After about 30 minutes of dancing and singing, the bride’s family stops and the groom’s family begins. Once both sides have completed, they will do the gita – a traditional Zulu dance when one kicks his or her leg to the beat of a drum or song as high as they can in the air and maintain balance. The families spend anywhere from a couple of weeks to a week to prepare and practice the choreographed dancing and singing before the big day.

About an hour or so later, they gather and march together back to the family compound to eat a traditional meal. The area is set up as it is at any American wedding reception – tables gathered around a long table for the groom, bride, bridesmaids and groomsmen amongst a backdrop of decorative cheetah fabric. The day ends in lots of socializing and drinking umqombothi (Zulu beer).

Traditional decorations

Traditional decorations

The next day is the Westernized wedding ceremony in a church. The ceremony is pretty much the same as an American wedding, sans the extra loud African music, yelling and cheering and dancing. The wedding has a colored theme – for example, purple and silver. All the guests are expected to wear that color combination (although many don’t) and the bridesmaids and groomsmen are dressed in those colors. The dresses are handmade and ruffled as if came from a time machine straight from the 1980s. The bride wears a white dress and the groom wears a tux.


Bride and groom stand united

After the Western wedding ceremony, the guests and families head back to the groom’s house – where the bride will be staying from then on. As soon as both families arrive on the property they sing and march outside the property. They compete with the same songs and dances that sang the day before, but they are dressed in the wedding garb from the church. This time the dancing and singing lasts a little longer because a few other rituals take place.

The men of the community ask the ancestors for peace that the couple unites by first kneeling in silence and then traditional dancing. This ritual lasts about 10-15 minutes and once the union of families is approved they jump around and celebrate with both sides of the families. After, the mama’s of the community – who wear the same dress (which, may I add, my mama sewed and wore), stand in a line in front of both families. The women sweep the air with an “umshanelo wotshani” – a broom made out of grass to cleanse the bride’s new home for her. This signifies that they are welcoming the new mama into the community. To show their respect and welcome, they later serve food and clean up after the reception.

Mamas serving

Mamas serving ukudla (f00d)

Once the dancing and singing is over, the families unite and march into the property together for food and drinks. The groom’s family takes the bride and her family on a small tour of the property to show her where she will be staying (this is just traditional, because many brides have already started living at the groom’s before the marriage). The bride and groom receive presents – mostly household items – and cut a cake. There is usually a DJ and a dancing tent for the night so guests can dance and drink the night away.

On the last day of ceremonies, the bride gives the groom’s family gifts, which are mostly blankets for their houses and ironically usually bought with lobola money. The families gather around, open each individual blanket, and invite a family member from the groom’s side to lay under it for 30 seconds or so. This is another welcoming gesture that groom’s family into the mother’s care and new household.

Blanket ritual

Blanket ritual

Anybody in the village is invited to all the ceremonies because of the Ubuntu mentality here, so the families have to estimate how much food they’ll need to prepare. Two cows are usually slaughtered, which is a good amount of food. However, preparation of food and decorations are another story, and it literally does take a village to help cook and prepare for any wedding. I find it absolutely awesome that although there is a little Western influence on Zulu weddings (they literally call part of it a “white wedding”), they still haven’t lost their heritage and go about weddings “the right way” to please the ancestors. And you bet they are proud of it!

To get a glimpse all the rituals discussed in this post, watch the video below:

Ubuntu: ngihawukele thonga lami

From an early age, children in my village learn to sing and dance — music is at the heart of Zulu culture. I seriously haven’t seen or heard one kid who doesn’t have rhythm or a pretty voice.

The children pick up traditional songs and dance from their families and the community and then practice them in their arts and culture class at school.

This traditional dance, ngihawukele thonga lami, is about the ancestors (thonga lami; our ancestors). This song and dance is specific to an isangoma,  which is the Zulu equivalent of a fortune teller.

Each isangoma in Zulu culture has a different song and dance, specific to his or her practice. When the isangomas gather together, they individually sing their songs. This song is an isangoma song from my community that the children know by association.

Isangomas place sea shells into a bag, shake it, throw the shells out, then use a stick to move the shells and talk about the positions. Then they repeat to confirm. The position of the shells tells a person about their life/future.

Watch grade 3s perform the dance and song with instruments they made themselves out of old cans and bottle caps! I couldn’t stop smiling when they performed it for me:

Ubuntu: siyabonga 2012

I celebrated Thanksgiving Western-style with Americans and Brits last week, but also got a taste of what “Thanksgiving” means in my village.  When I heard my mom talk about the “Thanksgiving” event that was going to happen at church, I had to pick-and-pry to find out what it really meant. “But that’s an American holiday that’s about American history,” I told her. Alas, I attended church to participate in the celebration — one step closer to understanding religion and culture in my village.

At the end of every year, all the community members in my village gather at the church for a “Thanksgiving” mass — to thank God for the past year. Zulu: siyabonga. English: we thank you.

Each family then contributes a sum of money that is counted all together and announced at the end of the church service. The donated money will be used for next year’s church budget and activities. The church raised ~R70,000! Thanksgiving mass is hosted at church either at the end of November or December. This year the celebration was coincidentally the weekend after American Thanksgiving; perfect timing!

Just like every church service, there was a lot of dancing, singing — especially the song that features “siyabonga” (listen to the video to see if you can hear it). I’m planning on writing a longer post on the importance of religion in my community, but I’m taking my sweet, sweet time — there’s much to discuss.

Enjoy your first glimpse at this beautifully rhythmic Zulu culture! Happy South African Thanksgiving!

Ubuntu: Thanksgiving 2012 cultural exchange

One of the Peace Corps goals that Volunteers are supposed to complete is to share American culture abroad. This Thanksgiving, I and the rest of the Battlefields PCVs were given the perfect opportunity to share our holiday with British friends.

Nicky Rattray, David Rattray’s widow of the David Rattray Foundation, invited us to the British tourist lodge in our area — Fugitive’s Drift — to cook a Thanksgiving meal for her family, the lodge staff members and Ben Henderson, the current main man of DRF. This was the first time the foundation hosted PCVs for Thanksgiving, so it was pretty much everyone’s first Thanksgiving.

Great! One problem: none of us can cook. We scowered recipes on our BlackBerries before coming to the lodge and asked family members to e-mail us easy recipes, especially those that would be easy to cook for 10+ people. We didn’t tell anybody at the lodge that we didn’t really have any cooking skills until it became apparent. The lodge staff couldn’t help but give us a hard time and watch us run around like chickens with our heads cut off yelling, “Where’s the sugar? Where’s the flour?!”

I couldn’t stop laughing the whole day because it was such a disaster in the kitchen. Thankfully, we had recipes, unlimited ingredients and Monica, the 35-year-old in my group, who knew what to do because “she’s been around longer”, even though she claims she can’t cook. It got to a point where I would sarcastically say, “Hey Mon, since you’ve been on this earth longer, wanna come and see how the potatoes are doing?”

I have a hard time following recipes and my impatient-self just throws all the ingredients into a bowl to mix up (I mean, c’mon, all the ingredients are supposed to be mixed together anyways). As I was assigned to make the desserts, I had to re-do the batter twice because I mixed in the dry and wet ingredients at the same time. Oops! I was really proud of my brownies, but my sauce was another story. I tried to thicken my chocolate sauce by adding flour, which clearly isn’t what you are supposed to do because there were flour chunks in my final sauce. Another re-do — but this time a lodge staff member made the sauce. The rest of the night people would just say, “Hey Liz, can you add some flour to this?”

In the end, we got compliments on our meal, even though the Brits admitted they were scared for dinner. As a joke, we told everyone at the dinner table that they have to kiss their neighbor on the lips then say what they’re thankful for because “it’s what Americans do.” They figured out we were kidding, but still — that’s part of American culture: sarcasm, jokes and dysfunctional holidays.

One thing I miss so much about America is sarcasm — South Africans aren’t very sarcastic and don’t understand it much. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for all the people I have met through my service work because I just click with them. I’m especially thankful for my Peace Corps geographic group because we get along, there’s always constant laughter when we’re together and we’re all pretty sarcastic. I’m comfortable in a group when I don’t have to tailor my personality and don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not. Thanks for already being a solid — and hilarious — support system ya’ll! We’re all thankful for the work the DRF does in our service schools because by working together we are creating sustainable change.

Ironically, this was probably one of my best Thanksgivings yet although it was abroad — last year is a close tie. I doubt I’ll ever cook a Thanksgiving meal for my host family as it really would be a disaster alone, but next year I will definitely celebrate Thanksgiving with my students!

Tomorrow I’m going to a “Thanksgiving” at my church where the church members thank God for the past year. It’ll be interesting to see what that’s all about — an Ubuntu post about that to come in due time.

Happy Holidays America! Back in the village, which is only 20 or so km from the lodge — this first world-third world thing in South African is so drastic.


Ubuntu: the sticky subject of race

With Barack Obama as president in America, academics have discussed if we live in a “post-racial society” — are people still classified by the color of their skin? Can people, regardless of who they are, rise to the top?

As an avid dreamer who stands behind the philosophy that “you can do what you set your mind to”, I would argue that anyone can be who they want to be in America. However, that doesn’t come without a lot of hard work, obstacles and determination.

Why? Segregation and discrimination still exist in America. Everywhere I have lived — from a small coastal town to a large city — people of different races generally live in different neighborhoods or areas of the cities. Not all, of course, but most. From talking to African-American friends of mine, they say they are aware that they are black everyday and still feel that they are treated differently.

Interestingly enough, South Africa and America have similar racial histories, just during different time eras. For those of you who don’t know South African history, “Apartheid” was racial segregation enforced by the Afrikaner National Party rule from 1948-1994. During Apartheid, white supremacy was played out by placing people into racial categories — natives, whites, Asians and Coloureds (people of Indian decent or mixed race). The non-white groups had few rights, no voting power, were dislocated from urban areas and forced into townships outside of cities, received inadequate education, and so the list goes on.

Apartheid was abolished in 1990; however, the first democratic election in South Africa and Nelson Mandela assuming presidency in 1994 really kicked out the old tricks. I still can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that I was alive during Apartheid. Even if I was a baby, I was still here on this earth. Clearly, this dark time of South African history really wasn’t long ago because I still consider myself a youngin’.

Thus, South Africa is still pretty segregated. There is no doubt that I am the only white person that many in my village come in contact with in on a daily or weekly basis. Those of a different race don’t come to rural villages. Similarly, I found that people who have lived in Los Angeles their whole lives have never been to Watts or anywhere in that vicinity.

In my village, people know I am American, so nobody speaks Afrikaans to me. I can’t even begin to count how many times people tried to speak Afrikaans to me during my pre-service training stay in the Mpumalanga province. Every time someone spoke Afrikaans to me it made my skin crawl. I wanted to firmly say, “NO. I am American. I speak English.” I did not want to be associated with the history of South Africa just because of the color of my skin.

Just last Sunday, an Afrikaans man asked me if I was “coloured” because I have darker features and people never really know what I am. I was taken aback because why does it matter if I am or am not coloured? To me, a person is a person. I see straight beyond race back in America and never even think about it because I grew up around so many different kinds of people. I’ve never questioned the color of my skin or my “racial category” back in the states — I only brag that I get tan during summer or joke with my friends about my Native American heritage. The short conversation about my racial identity was an eye-opener for me because now I’m really experiencing a very racially aware country.

Likewise, about a month ago, a drunk Gogo screamed at my PCV friends and I at my host family’s house because she thought we were Afrikaners and that we were forcing the isiNdebele people to speak our language (which was a policy during Apartheid, all “natives” learned Afrikaans as a second language and not English). My Gogo explained otherwise to the lady, but I’ll always remember what was said. These two moments combined made me think about how racial resentment still exists among South Africans — and a little more openly than it does in the states (at least from my observations).

Besides that instance, I’ve never been treated poorly here because of the color of my skin and I doubt I will be. Everyone is so loving, caring and friendly because of the Ubuntu mentality among Africans in South Africa. However, this is the first time in my life I’ve really ever been completely aware of what perceptions people have of me when I may greet them on the street or in any casual encounter; people will always have preconceived notions about others based on race because it’s such a huge part of history.

Last year at Markham Middle School, I made a point to know where all of my student’s families immigrated from — Mexico or a specific country in Central America — because Central Americans get so offended when they are called Mexican and vice versa. I don’t know why and if there are any bad connotations with either of the geographic groups, but I do know one thing: Classifying people based on skin color can be an act of racism seen by those being classified. My 6th grade students were smart enough to point that out, too.

First impressions based on skin color are a vicious cycle the human race will never be able to pull itself out of. When people have classified me as an “Afrikaner” or “coloured” here, I finally felt like how my students did when people would classify them only as Mexican or whatever. This realization for me is a step toward understanding the racial communities I’ve been working in the past two years and will continue to work in.

And I know I’m not the victim here — nor is anyone because stereotyping can be an issue for all regardless of what race. I admit I would get angry and associate being called an Afrikaner off-the-bat with Apartheid history. Not all Afrikaners believe in segregation or supported Apartheid, so I’m guilty of racial stereotyping too.

I wish so much baggage didn’t tag along with people based on the color of their skin, spoken language, or geography, but it’s a part of human nature that all of us can fall under even when we don’t want to.

Some may never be at peace with understanding that we as humans actually share more similarities than differences — especially in countries like America and South Africa that have past segregation history. Too bad history will never be forgotten.

Signs of segregation during the Apartheid era in South Africa at the Apartheid museum

Month two: around the village

When I walk outside my door, I no longer see palm trees, busy streets and freeways, smog, murals and graffiti. I no longer hear the tamale lady selling tamales early in the morning, the annoying ice cream trucks that cruise through South Los Angeles every day or Spanish being spoken on the streets.

Now when I walk outside my door, I hear people speaking isiZulu. I hear roosters crowing at every hour during the day and night (even at 3 a.m…) and cows mooing. I see vast grassland with clusters of houses scattered around. I see bright blue and clear skies.

Needless to say, I went from living in a hustling and bustling city to a remote rural African village. Two completely different worlds.

In my village, everyone knows everyone. Most people are related in blood or marriage. Teachers live close to learners (my host brother is a student at my school). Teachers attend all the same community events that learners attend. This is one apparent difference I keep noticing between America and here.
In America, there are very strict boundaries between teachers and students. Teachers can’t even give students rides home or to school because of liability. Teachers can’t get too personal with students due to sexual harassment accusations.

Here, boundaries are thin. I even walk to school with students, whereas in America a student probably wouldn’t wait for you at your gate before school. Most learners and teachers at school know where I live and can show up at my door whenever. In America, work can be so separated from your personal life, but in South Africa it’s all intertwined.

My village is very small and only has a tuck shop (small, small convenience store you can buy bread, eggs, but no produce) at, a church (that is practically everyone’s second home), a primary school, a secondary school, a liquor shop and a clinic.

The village has running water — there are hand pumps in various locations. Other households, like mine, have water taps in the yard, so you use a bucket to fetch water and bring it into the house.

Unfortunately, the village runs dry every so often — sometimes even for a month at a time. The water actually ran out for two days last week and I haven’t had time to buy extra buckets for water storage, so I am very thankful it came back on. I’ve never had to worry about water in my life and the possibility of water shortage is something that doesn’t cross many American minds. At least I’m prepared in some ways — my newly shaved head has become even more practical for my new lifestyle!

All of these amenities are definitely enough to survive, but I’m beginning to understand why South Africans place so much importance on relationships. With not much else entertainment, it’s everyone’s job to keep everyone else entertained and happy.

We have so much in America to keep us entertained — movies, malls, technology, bars, restaurants, sports arenas, you name it. We, Americans, can usually something different to do every so often.

Those in my village can’t and don’t. They do the same thing every day. Many are unemployed and live off government grants. For instance, my host mother sells airtime (the South African equivalent of pay-as-you-go cell phone minutes and SMS), sells electricity, sews torn clothes, sells baked goods, etc. Thus, on a daily basis people visit with each other, cook, clean, do chores, attend church and every funeral, wedding or birthday, or take a taxi to town to buy groceries.

And ya know what? From what I’ve observed, it seems like everyone’s pretty darn happy. These Zulu and Sotho people are proof that you can live with the bare essentials to survive and still lead a happy and fulfilling life. Now who woulda thought that back in Los Angeles?

It’s amazing how drastically life has changed for me in the past two months. This village is my new home now and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My hardest Peace Corps challenge in the village so far is facing the harsh reality that I can’t buy ground coffee at my closest grocery store. Hey, everyone needs something to look forward to and I look forward to drinking a good cup of coffee every morning — it’s a healthy addiction!

Want to send me a care package? (Hint: with lots and lots of coffee), here’s my new address.

And finally, here are pictures of my village, the main tar road and the vast grasslands:

Yours in Service,