Finding Community at a Tomb Unveiling
A Sacred Zulu Ritual in South Africa
Article and photos by Amanda Penn
Does the word “introvert” exist in the Zulu language? There
are telling absences in the traditional South African vocabulary.
I think Alain de Botton’s suggestion that unhappiness stems
from “having only one perspective to play with” is probably
true. As a traveler, I don’t want to be forever passing
through. In order to gain more perspectives, I can accept
that I’m naturally introverted, but I 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
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 driving 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 in particular—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
I’m not the kind 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 a
culture, safe among unabashed tourist attractions and English-language
menus. Museums are my haven. And yet, I find myself in this
When my friends asked if I’d like to come to a tomb unveiling
in KwaZulu-Natal, I hesitated, but only for a moment. 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, and 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 just need a few extra moments to watch, and get some of
the basic steps down. Just a few extra 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 know want to take pictures with
me. They want my phone number. The family give 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
From what I’ve gathered based on conversation with locals,
a tomb unveiling can happen as late as a year after the
deceased has died. It can take that long for the family
to raise the funds to make the tombstone, and the day is
a celebration of the person’s life, a kind of 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.
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 in which to become
an inquisitive tourist. But I needn’t have worried. What
I experience is a celebration of life rather than a mourning
of 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, but I venture a "Yes," and
that seems to be the right answer.
What I am witnessing isn’t a funeral, exactly. The time
of mourning is over, and now, we celebrate. The family welcomes
back to the home the ancestral spirit, a spirit highly involved
in the happenings of the living. Spirits often appear in
dreams, their influence witnessed in a bout of the flu,
the birth of a child, or the passing by of a snake. They
are, in many ways, 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 really 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 the rural areas, families often
function as one unit, working together, playing together,
and living together.
At a tomb unveiling, the focus may be on an individual,
but it’s a communal affair. The family calls upon all the
ancestors, and the descendants often take a moment prior
to the event to speak to the deceased and talk of their
own personal troubles—this ceremony seems to be as much
about the community as it is about the one who has passed
The gathering is full of joy, a party rather than a funeral.
Despite this atmosphere, I disappear to take a walk halfway
through the festivities. I try to recharge, 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, really, should have nothing
to do with me. I wonder if it was selfish of me 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
due to our insecurity?
It’s instinct to rebel against what’s foreign to us, and
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 tour within a self-prescribed barrier.
Engaging with a new community seems overwhelming.
I’m in Africa! But it’s difficult for me to truly
be present here, in my bubble of comfort and normalcy and
Westernization. I create a home out of my own perspectives
against surroundings startlingly different from my own.
For any American, I think, it’s hard to have an un-American
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
This is not America. I don’t want it to be.
While extroverts can, by their nature, more easily insert
themselves into a different culture, and ping-pong between
the old and the new, introversion can keep one stuck.
I sit watching the festivities, and I wonder how many introverts
there are in South Africa. I imagine introversion is partly
genetic, but I also bet if you live in a place like this,
the environment might smother it.
Maybe 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. If your future includes the assumption of
college, your parents may encourage your inclination towards
books and private study. If you don’t know anyone who has
gone to college, don’t even know where the nearest college is,
your parents probably won’t tolerate your predilection towards
wandering the hills and pondering Whitman while your peers
learn the family business.
Standing here, I hate to acknowledge it, because I’ve worked
hard to accept myself as is: Introversion is inherently
indulgent and self-centered.
In South Africa, if I’m not talking, 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. It’s hard to be yourself
when being yourself might offend.
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.
In some areas, it’s hard to get to know the locals, 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 ceremony of remembrance, 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 the expression of our individuality
is paramount to our growth. Here, you may be an individual,
but you are first part of the collective. A group of women
invite 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 amazing 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.