A spherical traditional bowl called ‘ukhamba’ decorated with intricate geometric pattern is passed around the ancestral rondavel as men patiently wait their turn to sip ‘umqombothi’, traditional Zulu beer made from maize meal. Men both old and young kneel to the ground in sign of respect as they take generous sips. My gogo had started brewing umqombothi four days prior. Its consistency is thick and milky like that of holiday eggnog, and tastes like Korean rice wine. The effects of this beloved alcoholic beverage is potent and it is becoming quite apparent in the elders’ balances. Did I mention, it’s only around noon? An entire industrial drum of umqombothi is suppose to last the weekend and the next for my host brother’s ‘lobola’ negotiations ceremony, but at the rate which the ukhamba is going around, I have my doubts.
Lobola is the practice of offering cows or equivalent sum of money from the groom to the bride’s family. The going rate in Zulu communities here is 11 cows for a bride. This number may go up or down a cow depending on certain factors. For example, if you want to marry the daughter of a chief, you may have to cough up a dozen more cows than the status quo. If the woman has a child out of wedlock, you may knock off a cow or two. Most young men do not have 11 cows at disposal so the payment of lobola is stretched out across many years. And as times change, so do traditions so it is acceptable to pay the cash equivalent instead of actual livestock. This would be ideal especially for people living in the cities. Some cows can cost up to R10,000 ($1,000) each. Therefore, many men will work well in to their 30’s and even 40’s to pay off the lobola before they are able to have the official wedding ceremony. Most couples will have children well before the lobola is paid off and the wedding concluded with an official ceremony. Expensive and time consuming, the practice of lobola appears to express the man’s determination and promise to provide for the woman and their family.
Brandon, a fellow PCV in my area, came over to my site to observe the ceremony with me. We were sitting on a makeshift wooden bench on the newly dung polished floor of the ancestral rondavel, lost in the thick of all the men from the village who came to celebrate the occasion.The men sat on chairs and benches on one side of the rondavel and the women sat on grass mats on the other. While basking in fire smoke eminating from the center of the hut and the fog billowing in from outside, we watched and listened to all the chaos surrounding us. My host father lit a bundle of some traditional herbs bringing silence to the hut. He spoke a few words of prayer to the ancestors and a few more to my host brother the groom what seemed like his blessings. After some singing, the procession moved out the door; it was time to carry all the food gifts from the groom to the bride’s house. The goats were properly cloaked in thick blackets. 25kg bags of rice, beans, maize meal, sacks of onions, potatoes, butternut, crates of beer and bottled soft drink were all too precariously balanced on women’s heads as we proceeded. Brandon and I were emptihanded at first but my host sister gave her plastic bags for us to carry so that we felt like we were contributing. Other people from the community hollered “We duuuuuuummmaaaaaa!” and cheered in blessings.
The weather was not on our side. White mist, fog and drizzle made the procession less than ideal and slippery at times but we all arrived in one piece to the bride’s home. I am still amazed at how not a single onion was dropped. The bride’s family welcomed us with loud cheers. We were ushered into a smaller rondavel, about fifty of us and three goats, packed in like snow. Being one of first ones to enter the hut, Brandon and I were slowly backed up to the other end of the hut. I saw Brandon almost squatting so that he was not literally sitting on an old man. Body on body and cornered, we had no choice but to join in the passionate singing and sway to the rhythm of the group. While I did not know the meaning of the songs, the lyrics were repetitive enough that I really got into it, clicks and all. I felt like a Zulu?
Afterwards, it was time to eat so we were ushered into the party tent where we dined on rice and curry and of course all the fixings that come on the side like butternut, cole slaw, and beetroot. Soon after the food and dessert, came the Zulu tribal war dance where men formed a circle and anyone who wanted to would come inside the circle and stomp. This requires you to bring up your leg up past your shoulders and forcefully slam it down to the floor, all the while keeping up with the fast beat set by the circle of men. Harder than it sounds, it is spectacular to watch. I eventually scrounged enough courage to go into the circle and attempted like three stomps before retreating back to my seat out of embarassment. I definitely gave everyone a good laugh. Good thing Brandon didn’t take a video of the whole thing!… No, he did.
The day after the announcement of the passing of the great Nelson Mandela, there we were, a white guy and an Asian guy, clapping, Zulu stomping in the mosh pit, eating boiled goat parts with Zulus in rural KZN. At one point, I leaned over to Brandon and asked him Do you think these people have ever imagined in their whole lives to see a white guy and an Asian guy in the corner of a lobola party? Most people in my community would have never imagined such a sight. Would Mandela ever imagined such a sight himself?
The actual negotiations part of the function occurred the following weekend, on the same day that Nelson Mandela was buried in his hometown of Qunu. Only men are involved in the negotiations so the male figures of both of the families– fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and uncles– surrounded the cattle krawl to view the cows in question. I counted 7 cows so the rest of the cows must be promised at a later time. I wish I knew what they were talking about. The discussions around the krawl was very gentle, humble and respectful.
The family slaughtered another goat for the occasion. The goat was quickly skinned and butchered. One of the boys that slaughtered the goat came back with a platter with two organs on it: the liver and the gall bladder. The father of the bride was offered a piece of raw liver which he took ceremoniously. Then my host father took the goat’s gall bladder full in its contents and spilled some on the father in-law’s feet as well as his lips. And lastly, he pinned the emptied bile sac ballooned on the lapel of the father in-law’s jacket. All the while, the ukhamba full of umqombothi is making its rounds like no one’s business.
The rest of the goat was boiled and offered to the bride’s family. The tradition is that the bride’s family must divide up the goat meat and offer a portion back to the groom’s family. How nice! I entered in a little predicament during this part, though. After the goat was divided, when it was time to feast, the in-laws wanted me to join them and eat the goat from their side. I was conflicted. I didn’t want to seem like I abandoned my family, after all, I am an Ndlovu. So I tried to play dumb (something I have perfected overtime living here) and waited until my family started to feast on our portion of the goat. I hope I didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. I hope my playing dumb worked. On a side note, fresh goat meat is gooood. Just a dash of salt is all you need.
While all of South Africa were in a state of shock, struggling to come to terms with the expected but still devastating news of Nelson Mandela, I had the special opportunity to actually experience what Mandela would have wanted to see from his country: people of different colour and background sharing and learning the vastly different cultures and traditions that define this place as the Rainbow Nation. If I’m being honest, before coming to South Africa, the extent of my knowledge on the life and impact of Nelson Mandela was limited to a cursory connection to the subject of apartheid which I glossed over in my college studies and the apparent heroic impression he’s had on Oprah Winfrey. But after working and living here for almost 18 months, I am beginning to understand the near socially impossible feat one man was able to bring forth to an entire nation so ravaged by an institution of hate.
While zoning out in the midst of all the chaos during the ceremony, I could not help but to think about Nelson Mandela and for what he has done for me, personally. My being here is a direct influence of the MOU signed by Mandela and former President Bill Clinton in 1995 which established Peace Corps in South Africa, shortly after the abolishment of the apartheid government. Mandela’s core tenets of his political life, his ideals of reconciliation and forgiveness, inculcated in the plebian life, influenced the way I am treated and accepted in my community. This country could have been a much different place, a much intolerant place, close to that of Zimbabwe to the north. Thankfully that is not the case. And I thank Nelson Mandela. May he Rest In Peace.
The gallons upon gallons (litres upon litres, for followers of the metric system) of umqombothi was consumed without waste. With the last drop, so ended one of the major ceremonies that make up a Zulu wedding. There are many more ceremonies to come to fulfill the traditions for my host brother and his fiance. Luckily for everyone, this means more umqombothi!