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The first plate of meat circulated some time before 10 a.m. Susannah, a Makaphutu volunteer from Scotland, and I were busy helping prepare a salad when the plate reached us.
“Have some—it’s nice!” said the hostess.
We looked at the borderline raw beef in front of us, reached for the more cooked pieces and thanked her. The party had officially started.
Our fellow Makaphutu staff member, Zandile, had invited us for a weekend in her home community to celebrate an “unveiling,” or ceremony to commemorate her mother two years after her death.
When we asked what kind of a celebration it would be, Zandile assured us it would be great.
“They’re slaughtering a cow and 50 chickens!”
Nothing screams celebration quite like that.
And even better, it turns out the initial numbers were grossly underestimated. There were two cows and more than 150 chickens, all to feed somewhere between 500 and 1,000 guests.
Needless to say, we were about to become well-versed in what it means to party like a Zulu.
Food in general is key.
To start, we ate whatever meat came our way. No matter where we went, there was always meat—meat on plates, meat waiting to be cooked, meat being given as a gift, etc.
In addition, an army of extended family and friends worked to prepare an elaborate meal of rice, beef stew, beet root, baked beans, something else with beans and salad for all attendees.
Susannah and I tried our hand at various chores but never seemed to master the techniques required to prepare the dishes just right. In the end, the other women relegated us to carrot grating (although, we did botch that one a little too).
During this food hullabaloo, the guests began arriving…fashionably late.
Speeches, Songs and Sermons
About two hours or so after the intended start time, members of the family’s church choir broke into casual harmonies of familiar hymns, sending the gathering crowd into song and clapping.
Susannah and I snuck into a row toward the back, but the master of ceremonies quickly spotted us, assessed our blatant lack of Zulu, relocated us to the front of the tent and brought us a translator.
We enjoyed hours of speeches, songs and sermons right under the noses of the presenters (who sometimes used a megaphone).
Just when it looked like things were reaching a close, we were instructed it was time to move to the gravesite.
We gathered at the back of the property around Zandile’s mother’s tombstone, prayed and then shuffled back into the tent for more of the ceremony.
At this point, the family members sat up front and the guests began parading toward them with gifts—oranges, cash, sacks of rice, aprons, shirts and dozens of blankets. Blankets seemed to be the gift of choice.
Susannah and I looked on with some confusion as the blankets continued to pile up. But being as all the gifts were geared for utility, and it is winter here, the family seemed pleased with the generous offering.
Each guest wrapped his or her gift around a family member until they were piled with blankets, at which point someone would hastily rescue them and make room for the piling of more gifts.
Periodically, someone would run in with a slab of raw meat (why not?) and place it in front of the group. Eventually they collected it, cooked it and then put it back on display before passing it around on plates.
The gift giving eventually moved outside of the tent, where women were already serving plates of food to the many onlookers. We broke away from the chaos and managed to secure a couple of plates for ourselves (several hours had already passed since a meat plate made it to us).
We sat down on the concrete floor of a hut, meals in hand, wondering why there wasn’t any chicken on our plates. If we weren’t eating the touted 150 chickens, who was?
Our question was quickly answered when a few men sitting across from us were offered whole roasted chickens next to their meal. A woman explained the men were some of the in-laws, and all in-laws get chicken.
Rest at Last
We weren’t sure how many other such traditions transpired that we didn’t catch, but after a day of translating, meat-eating and clapping, we were ready for bed.
By the time we curled up in our room for the night with Zandile (and an abundance of new blankets), we were spent. Then she asked if we’d need a bucket to use for the bathroom during the night.
“No…I think we’ll walk out to the outhouse,” I assured her.
“In the night?” Zandile exclaimed, eyebrows raised. “What will you do about baboons?”
Fighting off baboons at the outhouse just seemed like an experience we were better off without, so we declined another glass of water and went to sleep.
Farewell to All
Although most of the guests had cleared by sundown, plenty of out-of-towners stayed the night. So when everyone woke up the next morning, food preparation once again became priority.
As we collected our things for a semi-early departure, Zandile entered the room carrying a bowl of freshly killed chickens.
“We’re just going to make a curry, and then we can go,” she said, motioning to the bowl.
Susannah and I once again answered the call, and we were once again fed beef at far too early an hour as we prepared salad. But since the crowd had thinned, the hosts started breaking out the good stuff, like cow stomach and intestines.
When the hour of departure arrived, we gathered together for one last round of singing and praying and clapping.
“Would you like to say anything?” Zandile said in English as the crowd fell silent.
We smiled at the group, took a deep breath and thanked them for welcoming us into their community, their home and their family. We may have felt a lot of things throughout the weekend, but never—not for one second—did we feel unwelcomed.
Then we hit the road.
Well, we packed our trunk full of blankets and meat and then hit the road.
About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.