Jun 10

Holy Smokes

by in Africa, South Africa

The drums pulsed a steady beat as the warriors filed past.

In keeping with Zulu tradition, female visitors were seated on the left and men on the right (all the better to defend the kraal and its occupants, should the sudden need arise).

Our eyes attempted to adjust to the dim light inside but it was hard to see through the smoke.  We were here to watch a traditional Zulu dance performance and, in preparation, a ceremonial fire had been lit.  We were mesmerized as the dancers took turns approaching the tiny smoking cauldron:  one by one, they lowered their faces and inhaled deeply. 

I stole a surreptitious glance across the room to Russ. It smelled really funny in there.  And why exactly was everyone making a point of breathing in that thick smoke? 

Then the drum beat quickened and they started to move; slowly and rhythmically at first and then faster and faster.  The Zulu women began to sing.  One man lifted his voice in a powerful warbling chant that seemed to weave in and out between the dancers, encouraging their movements.  They were all dressed in the time-honored garb of the warrior, which is to say not much beside fur.  Their muscles strained and were clearly visible as they kicked and jumped with extraordinary athletic prowess. 

At first, I was a bit uncomfortable because there were so few visitors in the audience that day:  just the four of us, another group of four, and a final group of three making for a grand total of eleven observers.  There were easily twenty performers and I wondered how they must feel to have to put on a show for so few.  At the beginning, several of the women looked especially bored and maybe even a little put out.  Soon, however, I noticed that they began to sway in earnest and their smiles broadened.  Very quickly the dance became something much more than a presentation for tourists:  it was a celebration of rhythm and body and bravery and it belonged to them alone.  Even the stoic “chief” was caught up in it.  The dancers fought to outdo one another as their movements became more dramatic and frenzied.  The women seemed to be egging them on with their chanting and cries and the men responded with an intensity I had never seen.  The whole room seemed to vibrate, it was as if the walls were shaking as they attempted to absorb the energy the dancers were throwing off. 

It wasn’t hard to imagine these men as fearsome warriors— wave after human wave charging toward the British regiments.  It is said that the Zulu forces led by King Shaka are the only indigenous army in the world’s history never to be defeated by the English colonial forces. 

If their dancing skill is any indication of their fighting prowess, it isn’t hard to see why.


One Response to “Holy Smokes”

  1. From GRAMMA NIN:


    Posted on 15. Jun, 2011 at 6:45 am #