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Zulu Culture and Family

I spent my second week in South Africa getting acquainted with the city of Durban and preparing for my first homestay in Cato Manor. At the beginning of the week, my SIT cohort began our isiZulu language instruction so that we would be able to communicate with our host families and the locals. The Zulu are the largest ethnic group in South Africa at a population of 10 to 12 million people. They mainly reside in the KwaZulu-Natal province which is where Cato Manor is located. 

One of the reasons why I chose SIT Social and Political Transformation in South Africa was because of the homestay component. When I applied to the program, my goal was to immerse myself in the culture of one of South Africa’s ethnic groups, and I believed homestays would help me accomplish that more so than a university campus. On the first day of isiZulu, we learned about the history of the Zulu people and how to say common greetings. 

Shaka Zulu was one of the most famous emperors of the Zulu kingdom. He established the Zulu nation and expanded his empire by conquering and controlling other tribes. While Shaka is portrayed as a formidable warrior by Zulu people, he is also remembered as a ruthless leader who was responsible for the displacement and forcible unification of several ethnic groups in southern Africa. There are many pop culture references to Shaka Zulu in music and film (i.e. Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation and Shaka Zulu: The Last Great Warrior).

The most common greeting I learned in isiZulu is sawubona which means I see you. Recognition is very important in Zulu culture especially in the rural parts of Durban where families are farther apart. Sawubona is used to convey a sense of genuinity when engaging in conversation because people did not cross paths that often when they traversed. This greeting can also be used at any time of day or place. Sawubona was the first word I used to greet my host family in Cato Manor. 

I have a wonderful host mother and a fun host sister who is my age. We enjoy watching crime shows, reality tv and South African soap operas together between meals and discussing current events in the media. I was excited to find out how much we had in common based on the shows we watched, our cross cultural exchanges through meals, and isiZulu language conversations. While my host family is proficient in English, I make the effort to communicate with them in isiZulu when I can because I know how much it means to them to have their language reciprocated. My friend back in the United States once told me that people want to be seen and heard, and I have been mindful of that lesson as I explore Durban and interact with the locals.


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