Heritage Day was founded in 1995 as a way for all South Africans to celebrate their diverse heritage.  Previously, September 24th was known as Shaka Day, commemorating the Zulu king who united the Zulu clans.  This day was not initially included in the Public Holidays Bill presented in Parliament, so as a compromise it became “Heritage Day,” a day for each and every South African.  Granted, it has devolved somewhat into “Braai Day” (barbecue), but the idea is to celebrate the variety that makes up the rainbow nation.

For the first several months at my host school, students and teachers told me about the local Heritage Day celebration.  Virgins dress up in their traditional Zulu costumes, everybody hikes up to the south peak, and after lots of singing, dancing, and praying, it rains.


The women of our host school sport their Zulu duds.

I never got to see this ceremony.  The holiday falls too close to the September exams which fall too close to the big, fat national exams the 12th graders have to take in October – November.  And early in September 2015, my host school hosted a giant farewell party for the principal who had resigned (back in February) including food, a celebrity gospel singer, and a colossal circus tent in the middle of the grounds.  So the community celebration on the south peak fell by the wayside.

However, in honor of this Heritage Day, I would like to share the aspect of Zulu culture that is most symbolic to me:  the Zulu dance.

I am a dancer, but I cannot partake in this high-kicking acrobatic feat.  I choose to drum (the rapid triplets are also an acrobatic feat).  With my current access to the magic of wifi which eluded me in rural KwaZulu-Natal, please allow me to share with you my favorite samples of Zulu dancing.

Church Ladies

One day, a preacher and a bunch of church ladies showed up at the school.  Perhaps it was in response to some recent discipline issues, but they came to bless the school.  They marched around the perimeter of the grounds, singing, praying, and collecting kids in their wake.  At the end, the church ladies showed us their mettle:

The Principal’s Farewell

At the event of the century, there were kid troupes, teen troupes, and professional troupes.  To the delight of all, the guest of honor Mr. Principal himself donned full Zulu regalia and kicked the kicks of a much younger man:

Tiny Girls

By far, my favorite Zulu dancing is done by my favorite people:  the young ladies of Grades R and 1.  This was a chilly day when we had to sun ourselves like lizards. After some structured games and marching to my riq, they burst into song and dance:


The happy couple walking down the aisle.

The happy couple walking down the aisle.

Msane is a quiet man.  He is also very sweet.  He calls on the younger kids to speak during assembly, he can be encouraging while still acknowledging the challenges facing educators in rural South Africa, and he always gives me a big hug when I return from Peace Corps meetings and workshops.  One day, he came to work with a radiant smile.  He had gotten engaged.

He invited the entire school staff to the wedding, even though some of us had not known him long.  Early on a Sunday morning, we put on our finery, piled into the hired vehicle, and rode the three hours to Mtubatuba, my favorite name in all of South Africa.

Mtubatuba-bound with this motley crew, representing the workmates.

Mtubatuba-bound with this motley crew, representing the workmates.

The white wedding had many of the elements of an American wedding:  wedding colors, bridesmaids and groomsmen, vows, exchanging rings, cutting the cake, and a big, white dress.  The speeching and preaching went on longer than I’m used to, continuing into the meal.  The bride was shy and the groom was in love.

Family of the groom, kicking it up.

Family of the groom, kicking it up.

After the wedding, we went to the groom’s home for the umabo, or traditional Zulu wedding.  Family members dressed up in their traditional costumes to sing and dance. A gift was presented to the king and he danced his appreciation.  The bride’s father danced to show his satisfaction with the bride price.  The bride’s family presented gifts of blankets and pillows to the groom’s family, and not just as a “come and get it” queue, passing out blankets and checking off a list.  Two by two, the family members came, lay down on a mat, and were covered with their new blanket.

Family of the bride:  preparing the blankets.

Family of the bride: preparing the blankets.

There was a little old gogo wearing ankle shakers made of tin cans.  She moved too quickly for me to study them or to even get a photo, but I think I have a new project for Grade R.

There was so much back and forth and singing and dancing during the umabo that I’m sure I had no idea what was happening.  I just knew that I was ridiculously happy to be able witness a Zulu traditional ceremony and to wish health and happiness to sweet Msane.

People ask me why Dlukula wears dreadlocks.  Because he looks flippin' fantastic, obviously!

People ask me why Dlukula wears dreadlocks. Because he looks flippin’ fantastic, obviously!

I am an introvert. I like people, but socializing requires a large investment of emotional energy on my part. However, every now and then I meet a person whose interactions energize me. “Dlukula” with his contagious laugh brightens my day like an exothermic reaction.

In April, Dlukula donned his sandals, grabbed his walking stick with the knobby handle for beating stuff, and took Colonel Tom and I on a long-awaited hike to the top of the north peak. I had spent three months tromping around the base of that mountain, but I never would have found the switch-backs up without his help. At 63, he is agile and strong. He was also kind enough to know when Tom and I needed a break.

Trying my best to keep up.  Snakes, beware of that

Trying my best to keep up. Snakes, beware of that “hiking stick!”

Our guide is a force to be reckoned with; “Dlukula” is the honorific version of his surname (can you imagine what the royal “Hynes” would sound like?). He has livestock. A LOT of livestock, many of which were waiting for us on the top of the mountain. He speaks four languages that I can remember. I love hearing him speak with Tom in Setswana, and with a 4th grade education in Johannesburg, his English is much better than that of most of the 12th graders running around campus. Most importantly, he’s helpful. If a teacher is stuck at night without a ride, he’s there in his white pick-up truck.

Dlukula and the Colonel sharing stories at the top of the north peak.

Dlukula and the Colonel sharing stories at the top of the north peak.

From the top of the peak, he pointed out schools and mountains far away. He also pointed out the ruins of the Afrikaaner farm that had been abandoned at the end of apartheid. As a teenager, he worked on that farm. They worked long hours for no pay, and all they were fed was some pap (think hard grits) with milk and a little sugar. Those memories seem unbelievable now. He exclaims and shakes his dreads in disbelief that he had led such a life.

Living on a school compound where teachers frequently go home on the weekends, we don’t have many close friends. We asked Dlukula to be our friend. He replied, “No, I don’t like having friends. They talk too much.” Sounds like the perfect friend for a couple of introverts.


Best “not friends.” (Note to self–when taking a group selfie, don’t stand in a rut.)


The Mountain.  Back in the summer when life was lush and green.

“There is magic in that mountain.”  I have heard that statement over and over again.  I get the full story from no one, but little tidbits of information here and there.

There are many small peaks in our area, but only one associated with this magic.  I hike near this peak several times a week and people ask me, “Aren’t you afraid?”  Of what, exactly?  Snakes?  Yes, we have cobras up here, but I grew up scouting for rattlesnakes, so I am cautious rather than fearful of snakes.  “Maybe there are other animals.”  Like what?  Cows, sheep, and goats run rampant up there, so I doubt there is any sort of predator.  Perhaps they mean the giant, multi-headed snake associated with the mountain.  The students here don’t quite believe in it, but they also don’t want to discount it.  They want to see with their own eyes.

One of the 12th graders told me that her mother saw the snake when she was a little girl.  A dark cloud shrouded the peak, and she saw a big, black snake go up into the clouds and then come racing back to the mountain as if it were trying to hide deep within it.  Shortly thereafter, stones fell from the sky.  The Nebraskan in me immediately thinks “tornado and hailstorm.”  The little girl in me thinks “giant snake smart enough to get out of the way.”

Enveloped in mist.  Get thee home.

Enveloped in mist. Get thee home.

When there is mist on the mountain, we know change is coming.  Weather changes, of course, but also life changes.  People also believe that the mountain brings weather, that thunderstorms originate from its very peak.

There are caves in the mountain.  I’ve been told that they run from the north peak all the way to the south peak.  Anyone who goes in too deep never comes out.  There is heat coming from those caves.  Our neighbor known affectionately as “Dlukula” said he’d take me to the caves some day.  I promise I won’t go in too far.

Seriously, how do cows get up here?

Seriously, how do cows get up here?

Dlukula took Tom and I up to the top.  I tried to find the way myself, but the last push is very steep.  You can see EVERYTHING up there:  faraway schools and other peaks famous from the Zulu wars.  You can also see some of Dlukula’s cattle.  I don’t know what path they took, but I admire their agility.  The students tell me that when something seems amiss, like a goat with four kids or a cow on top of the mountain, it is the giant snake transformed into a disguise.

As in the valley below, there is not much wildlife on the mountain.  The mammals are all livestock, but lizards abound and we even found a cobra.  It appeared to be a pacifist, so we left it alone.  The wildflowers that manage to escape the munching mouths of the ungulates are wildly spectacular.

Dlukula eats these like honeysuckle.

Dlukula eats these like honeysuckle.  I’m not convinced.

This photo doesn't even begin to show how pink this flower really is.

This photo doesn’t even begin to show how pink this flower really is.

There’s some kind of antenna or weather station at the peak.  Dlukula doesn’t know what it is.  He said a helicopter just landed one day and somebody installed it.  Tom and I are planning a return trip to check it out . . . with permission from the great snake, of course.

Colonel Tom with the north peak looming in the background.

Colonel Tom with the north peak looming in the background.