Home. Transitions Abroad founded 1977.  
Travel Work Living Teach Intern Volunteer Study Language High School
  ► Narrative Travel Writing Contest  ► 2015 2nd Place Winner
Narrative Travel Writing Contest Winner Narrative Travel Writing 2nd Place Contest Winner

A Sacred Zulu Ritual in South Africa

Discovering the Sense of Community at a Tomb Unveiling

Article and photos by Amanda Penn

Zulu huts on hills in South Africa.

Does the word “introvert” exist in the Zulu language? There are telling absences in the traditional South African vocabulary.

Alain de Botton’s suggestion that unhappiness stems from “having only one perspective to play with” is probably valid. As a traveler, I don’t want to be forever passing through. To gain more perspectives, I can accept that I’m naturally introverted but can’t be complacent about it. We all need to nudge ourselves toward engagement.

Recently, I visited friends who work in a township called Umlazi, near Durban, South Africa. Durban is the third largest city in the country, a tropical metropolis on the eastern coast. Visitors basking in the warm Indian waters and traders taking advantage of the largest ports in southern Africa have made it one of the most multicultural cities on the continent.

But Umlazi is its own world. Unlike many townships, it has several shopping malls within its borders. The area is relatively self-contained. Incidentally, it seems the forced isolation of Apartheid has helped preserve a culture that might otherwise have assimilated into the surrounding city. Driving into Umlazi is like moving into the past, where traditions are practiced much as they were hundreds of years ago. On a hot, dusty Saturday morning, I’m in the back of a bakkie (truck), wearing a conservative skirt and blouse, on my way to witness one tradition — the tomb unveiling.

I survey the surroundings, looking for clues to what awaits in the tin sheds, the mangy stray dogs, the clucking chickens, and the barefoot children dribbling a can toward a makeshift soccer goal.

I’m not the type of traveler who goes off the beaten tourist path. Often, I choose the experience that will make me most invisible and allow me to observe without the discomfort of participation. I prefer to wander the outskirts of culture, safe among unabashed tourist attractions and English-language menus. Museums are my haven. And yet, I find myself in this remote location.

When my friends asked if I’d like to attend a tomb unveiling in KwaZulu-Natal, I hesitated, but only momentarily. My usual insecurities plagued me, but I love South Africa, and I knew this could give me insight deeper than what I could gain from a museum exhibit.

Any social situation is a dance; its rhythms come naturally to many. Not me. At a tomb unveiling in KwaZulu-Natal, the dance is one I’ve never seen before, and I’m not sure my body can even move that way.

I need a few extra moments to watch and learn some basic steps — just a few moments of invisibility.

But it’s really hard to be invisible when you’re one of the honored American guests. It’s hard to be invisible when you’re in Umlazi, and you look like I do: blond, blue-eyed, and pale. People I don’t even know want to take pictures with me. They want my phone number. The family gave me and my American friends seats near the buffet, while many other family members and friends of the deceased — a woman I’ve never met, whose name I don’t know, with whom I have no connection — remain standing.

From what I’ve gathered based on conversations with locals, a tomb unveiling can happen as late as a year after the deceased's death. It can take that long for the family to raise funds to make the tombstone, and the day is a celebration of the person’s life, a closure.

Traditionally, Zulus believe their ancestors are the mediators between the living and God, so this is also a time to show their ancestors that they’re remembered and respected. The family slaughters a cow and lays the hide over the body. Around the gravesite, family and friends dance, sing, and pray.

Cows in the pature before slaughter in South Africa.

Part of my shyness stems from a fear of offending others in an unfamiliar culture. A ritual of such magnitude does not seem the most appropriate environment for becoming a curious tourist. But I needn’t have worried. What I experience is a celebration of life rather than mourning death, and everyone's excited to answer my questions — even though unasked — and ask me their own.

Everyone wants to know how I feel about the tomb unveiling. Am I enjoying myself? Considering the somber atmosphere of an American funeral, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel at a tomb unveiling. However, I ventured to say "Yes," which was the proper answer.

What I am witnessing isn’t a funeral, exactly. The time of mourning is over, and now, the communiting celebrates life. The family welcomes the ancestral spirit back home, a spirit highly involved in the happenings of the living. Spirits often appear in dreams, and their influence is experienced as the birth of a child, or the passing by of a snake. In many ways, they are more relevant in day-to-day life than the Zulu Supreme Being, who does not seem to absorb himself in mortal affairs. He remains distant, and the ceremonies and offerings are not meant for him. The daily emphasis remains on the ancestors, the family, and the group. The Supreme Being’s intermediaries, the ancestral spirits, keep an eye on the living. The daily power is in the collective.

The collective holds court among the living as well. Rarely are rituals private. In rural areas, families often function as one unit, working, playing, and living together.

While the focus may be on an individual at a tomb unveiling, it’s a ultimately a communal affair. The family calls upon all the ancestors, and the descendants often take a moment before the event to speak to the deceased and talk of their own personal troubles — this ceremony seems to be as much about community catharsis, healing, and revitalization as it is about the one who has passed into the afterlife.

The gathering is full of joy, more of a party and celebration rather than a funeral.

Despite this atmosphere, I disappear to take a walk halfway through the festivities. I try to rejuvenate, but feel guilty about my shyness when so many locals are doing their best to make me feel at home, urging the famously strong Zulu beer on me. All at an event that should have absolutely nothing to do with me. I wonder if I was selfish to intrude on such a private event.

Even extroverted travelers face this dilemma: Where do we draw the line between participation and intrusion? When are we shying away due to cultural sensitivity, and when is it due to our insecurity or the feeling of being an inherent outsider?

It’s instinct to rebel against what’s foreign to us. I think most Americans cope by creating their own little Americas abroad. We want to see and do new things, but once we get the chance, we enclose ourselves within a self-prescribed barrier, a sort of reversion to a more conforting womb. Engaging with a new community feels overwhelming on many levels.

I’m am right now in Africa! But it’s difficult for me to truly be present here, in my bubble of comfort, normalcy, and all connected to modern Westernization. I create a home from my own perspectives to protect me from surroundings startlingly different from mine. I cannot help sensing that it is very hard or even frightening for many Americans to have an un-American experience abroad.

And then I’m jolted into this Africa by a rhino sighting, or the peacock in my backyard, or a group of Zulu women stroking my blond hair and introducing me as a particular friend.

This is not America. I don’t want it to be.

While extroverts can, by nature, more easily insert themselves into a different culture and manage to transition between the old and the new, introversion can render one alienated and almost catatonic.

Self-involved, I sit watching the festivities and wonder how many introverts there are in South Africa. Introversion is partly genetic, but I can't stop wondering whether such an environment might smother this personality trait if you live in such a tight community.

Perhaps the flourishing of introversion corresponds to privilege. If you share a one-room home with several generations of relatives, as some of my new Zulu friends do, solitude, the bedrock and energy source of introversion, certainly isn’t a right. In Western terms, if your future includes the assumption of college, parents may encourage an inclination towards books and private study. Imagine you don’t know anyone who has gone to college or even know where the nearest college is. In that case, your parents probably won’t tolerate your predilection towards wandering the hills and pondering Whitman while your peers learn the family business.

I hate to acknowledge it standing here because I’ve worked hard to accept myself as is: Introversion is inherently indulgent and self-centered.

If I’m not talking in South Africa, people want to know what’s wrong. If I’m in a café reading or working on a laptop, they want to know why I’m alone. Why would I want to wander the land and gaze at the ocean alone? It’s hard to be yourself when being yourself might offend the community.

Woman gazing out at the ocean alone.

But it’s also a reminder to engage. Isn’t that the point of being someplace new? I could work on my laptop at home. Getting to know the locals in some areas is hard, but that’s no excuse here. South Africans make it easy. They want to chat on the street; they want to know about what it’s like to be you and live where you live; they want to tell you about their families. They want to invite you to their homes for dinner or to their communities for tomb unveilings. It would be ridiculous not to jump at the opportunity, introvert or not.

The tomb unveiling, a remembrance ceremony, invites the ancestral spirit to come home and rejoin the family. This community alienates no one, especially not the deceased. The focus is social and familial, in death as in life. In the West, we’re taught that expressing our individuality is paramount to our growth. You may be an individual here but are first part of the collective. A group of women invited me to a girls’ weekend they’re taking in a few weeks. I will no longer be in Umlazi to participate, but I appreciate their desire to know me. They’re enfolding me, making me part of the group, if only momentarily. It’s incredible to feel accepted and included. I see a group of deeply connected people, and I realize for the first time that I want to be a part.

Amanda Penn is a yoga teacher currently living in California. She enjoys exploring her passions of travel, language, and education.

Related Topics
Articles and Resources on South Africa

About Us  
Contact Us  
© 1997-2024 Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc.
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy Terms and Conditions California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) Opt-Out IconYour Privacy Choices Notice at Collection