Discovering the Zulu culture in South Africa

We are staying at Ecabazini, a cultural Zulu homestead in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. Last year we’d been travelling from Cape Town to Johannesburg and this time I wanted to delve deeper into the Zulu culture, even if that means cleaning the floor with cow dung…

It doesn’t smell that bad“, I hear myself saying while spreading cow dung across the rondavel floor. Trevor looks at me in disgust: “I know you like to immerse yourself on your travels, honey, but that might be pushing it a bit“.

The Zulu are the biggest ethnic group in South Africa with an estimated 10–12 million people living mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Apart from the Zulu wars, spears and other clichés, very little is known about them in the western world. Who are the descendants of King Shaka? What are their traditions and how do they fit in in modern day life? I am convinced that staying with the Zulu will give me a much better insight than reading about them in some museum.

1. Who are the Zulu?

The Zulu were originally a major clan, founded in the beginning of the 18th century in what is today Northern Kwazulu-Natal. They are ruled by a King, the most famous one being King Shaka. He reigned in the 19th century and was responsible for the expansion of the Zulu empire and uniting the different Zulu tribes into one single kingdom. 
When the British descended to South Africa, they were after the land of the Zulu, resulting in the famous Anglo-Zulu war, ultimately resulting in British victory.

During Apartheid, the Zulu were considered as second-class citizens and forced to small pockets of lands in a specifically designated area, called KwaZulu.  When Apartheid was finally abolished in 1994, the Zulu became key players in defining South Africa’s national identity, politics, traditions, and culture. Former South African president Jacob Zuma is Zulu.

Nowadays the majority of the Zulu still live in KwaZulu-Natal, though you will find Zulu all over South Africa, as well as in the neighbouring countries like Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Ecabazini cultural Zulu village

2. Zulu culture and traditions

We decided to stay 2 nights at Ecabazini to learn as much as possible. Upon arrival we were greeted by David, an Englishman and one of the founders of the homestead. He has lived with the Zulu for many years and speaks perfect IsiZulu, the language of the Zulu. Together with Mamage, Noo, Phiksiwe, Masiza, Spho and Lungelo they are going to be our hosts, cooks and teachers for the duration of our stay. We have learned a lot about the following Zulu traditions:

The kraal

One of the first things we learn is the traditional layout of a Zulu homestead. The Zulu call their home “umuzi” (kraal is the western term for it) An umuzi is a cluster of beehive-shaped huts arranged around a cattle kraal. The ground consists of dry earth. The umuzi is usually built on a declining slope, meaning rain and dirt will be washed away, keeping the kraal as dry and clean as possible. In the centre of the umuzi is the cattle kraal. Cattle is very important in Zulu culture, owing it means status, wealth, power and even the ability to buy wives.

You will still see kraal scattered around the KwaZulu province, even if nowadays urban Zulu live predominantly in townships and cities.

Zulu cattle kraal

Beehive huts

Typical for the traditional Zulu hut is the beehive-style construction. The frame is made of poles placed in a circle, bent inwards and lashed together. When the frame is complete, it is thatched with grass. The floor of the hut is made from termite nest clay.  The termites waterproof their nests so in using this the Zulu’s “waterproof” the floor. It works perfectly for keeping the floor dry in heavy rain. To clean the floor, the Zulu use cow dung, as Phiksiwe was very keen to show me!

The entrance to the hut is very low. This used to be for defensive reasons. It forces anyone entering the hut to bend down and therefore gives a defensive advantage to those inside. Nowadays it comes in handy to keep the heat out.

The placement of the huts inside the homestead is of great importance. The hut on the highest point, furthest away from the entrance, is occupied by the chief’s mother and is “home” to the family’s ancestors. The chief has his own smaller hut to the left of it. The first wife would be on the right.   When the chief’s mother dies, the first wife moves into the main hut and thus be on the right of the man.  She is then referred to as the “right hand woman of the man”.


Most Zulu regard themselves as Christians, but retain traditional beliefs, like the worship of ancestors. Ancestors play a very important role in Zulu culture. The Zulu communicate with their ancestors in important times like marriage, birth, puberty and death. They are believed to act as intermediaries between the living and the spirit world.
The Zulu ask their ancestors for blessings, guiding and good luck through offerings and sacrifices. They are given a special place to ‘live’ in the hut, called uMsamo, which is considered a sacred place. You’ll usually find an offering of meat and Zulu beer put there for the ancestors – very much like we put flowers on the graves of our ancestors.   They also burn a traditional herb when communicating with the ancestors call impephu; again similar to modern day churches who burn incense.


The modern-day Zulu dress in modern, western clothes on ordinary days, so don’t expect to find scantily dressed men and women roaming all over KwaZulu Natal. The traditional clothing is only worn during cultural gatherings, Shaka’s day and other special occasions. There are a lot of various ways of dressing, depending on whether you are married, engaged, a leader, … Women also uncover/cover their breasts and wear short or long hair depending on their relationship status. If you’d like to find out more: Eshowe will give you plenty of reading material.


Stick fighting

On our first evening, the Zulu gave us a demonstration of stick fighting, which is nowadays mostly displayed at ceremonies. The opponents each hold a long stick to attack with and a shield and short stick in the other hand to protect themselves. It’s a lot harder than it looks!

3. Staying with the Zulu

By staying at Ecabazini we were given a real insight in their traditional culture. Apart from learning all of the above, we were offered various demonstrations of day-to-day life, such as handling traditional cattle, medicinal plants, Zulu dancing and traditional food.

Ecabazini has been made to look as close as a traditional Zulu homestead as possible. There is no gas nor electricity, cooking is done on open fires and paraffin lamps provide light during the darkest hours.
Daily life is simple: while the men take care of the cattle and the fire, the women prepare the most delicious food! I am amazed at how inventive the team is: corn is roasted on a metal grill above the open fire, together with deliciously salted meat and bread. It makes for a very flavoursome starter!

Meanwhile Mamage is cooking a feast in her traditional kitchen hut. I ask if I can give a hand, but all they let me do is stir the porridge. I barely have enough strength to turn the wooden stick in the huge pot and the smoke is unbearable. I have to leave the hut before I cough my lungs out!

Ecabazini zulu village

After a delicious dinner, we sit around the fire listening to David acquainting us so passionately with everything Zulu. The night sets in and there is nothing apart from the thousand stars flickering above our heads…

4. Things to do near Ecabazini

During the day, the team gets on with their daily chores. It’s the perfect time for us to explore some of the area. Ecabazini used to be located near a lake, on the shore of the Albert Falls Dam, but the water has dried up completely over the last few years.

If you want water, your best bet is to head for the Howick falls, about an hour’s drive from Ecabazini. The waterfall is +/- 95m high and gushes down into the Umgeni river. It is very popular with school groups and attracts mainly local people. The bottom of the pool is used by local women to do their laundry. The waterfall itself is pretty impressive, but the area around it felt a bit seedy.

The area to the northwest of Pietermaritzburg is known as the Midlands Meander. It’s a hilly country, nicknamed the “Valley of 1000 hills” and full of art galleries, craft and tea shops. It wasn’t really my kind of thing, but I am glad we came this way; it allowed us to stumble upon the “Nelson Mandela Capture Site“. It is on this very same stretch of road that Nelson Mandela was captured on the 5th of August 1962. The new visitor centre is still under construction (February 2019) , but there is a temporary exhibition that hosts all of Mandela’s life and legacy. Take the trail outside the centre called ” A long walk to freedom” to learn about the key moments in Mandela’s life and end up at one of the most amazing sculptures I’ve ever seen. Walking up towards the sculpture, all you can see are 10 poles, but as you get close and stand at the right angle, the famous picture of Mandela comes into frame. Really impressive!

Nelson Mandela Capture Site sculpture

Staying at Ecabazini was one of the highlights of my trip to the KwaZulu Natal area. It was an insightful, fascinating cultural experience. We were the only “guests” in the homestead, which made it all very personal. If you are interested in learning more about the traditional Zulu culture and staying in a Zulu cultural village, this is the place to come to!

4 Replies to “Discovering the Zulu culture in South Africa”

  1. Tash M

    This looks such a perspective changing experience and I think the Nelson Mandela Capture Site would be a cool place to visit! Cheers for the Article!

    • Els Post author

      A very good insight into the Zulu culture indeed and anybody visiting South Africa should learn about Mandela’s legacy! Thanks for reading!


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