Transitions Abroad Home. Transitions Abroad Home.  
Travel Work Living Teach Intern Volunteer Study Language High School
  Travel Abroad  Narrative Travel Writing Contest  2015 2nd Place Winner
2015 Narrative Travel Writing Contest 2nd Place Winner

Finding Community at a Tomb Unveiling

A Sacred Zulu Ritual in South Africa

Article and photos by Amanda Penn

Zulu huts on hills in South Africa

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 continent.

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 soccer goal.

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 remote location.

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 connection—remain standing.

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.

Cows in the pature before slaughter

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 into afterlife.

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 experience abroad.

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 friend.

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.

Related Topics
Articles and Resources on South Africa

About Us Privacy
Contact Us Cookie Policy
  Terms and Conditions
© 1997-2023 Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc.