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A Zulu wedding in Durban – The valley of a thousand hills.

Getting our Zulu wedding in Durban on!

The very next day we jumped into Myrtle (our Bobo camper) and completed our drive to Durban where we were lucky to be meeting up with an incredible young photographer. Derryn Semple. She had contacted us after seeing our article in Marie Clare. She had ummed and aahed about getting in touch for a while and we are so glad that she bit the bullet and ‘just did it’.

We arrived and met her at her friends coffee shop, the Bean Green (which by the way if you are passing is THE best coffee shop in Durban) and gelled straight away. She seemed laid back, confident and had a lovable breeze of genuine happiness about her.

We had a quick natter (to non-yorkshire speakers this translates to ‘a chat’) and then set off to the market to collect our outfits for the wedding Derryn had been planning with the help of Durbans fantastic ‘Street Scene‘.

Street Scene are a modern, switched on tour company with a difference. They are actively involved in their community, have their fingers on the pulse and can help you discover whatever it is you wish to find. From history to cuisine to people, they have honed their exploration and appreciation skills to perfection and they want to share them with you!

We loved spending the day with them and would even recommend them to people who have lived in Durban their whole lives! They have so much knowledge and could definitely show you something you have never seen before in your home town!

Anyway, before we get carried away…when we got to the market we were bubbling with excitement, 1. we love markets, 2. we love markets and 3. We were collecting genuine article Zulu outfits! The first thing that hits you in the Durban markets is the smell…it is incredible. The spices are intoxicating and you can almost smell the colours around you. Durban has the largest Indian population outside of India and the markets reflect this heavily. Side by side the Zulus, Indians and White South Africans sell their wares.

Such an eclectic mix of things and people! Spices, animal skins, bead-work, art, Tupperware, flip flops (or slops), wood carved into all kinds of scary looking creatures, fabrics, crockery, food…you name it you could find it!

Thankfully Derryn had already been and selected our outfits and arranged for us to loan them from the shop keepers otherwise I could have been there all day littering myself with beads, choosing what colours to wear and finding Alex all kinds of hilarious things to strap to himself! We went into the shops and tried on what she had previously selected with help from the local Zulu stores and happily agreed with her choice.

The lady that helped dress Alex was so lovely, she was so excited to see him in his leopard loin cloth and to show him how to dance…’Dance with attitude’ she said laughing ‘you dance like you are wearing a suit’. Again her laugh was contagious and we all giggled as Alex shook his thang as well as he could!

We packed up our bags and shields and beads and everything else we needed and went to collect Mark, Derryn’s other half. They took us on a small tour of the city and then we went out with them for a Bunny Chow!

A bunny Chow is my ideal food! Curry INSIDE a bread loaf! The end is cut off the loaf and the soft bread scooped out and served on the side with the hollowed out loaf filled with spicy hot, steaming curry. No knives or forks are used and you eat the whole thing with your fingers! It is food from the Gods!

Read more about where the Bunny Chow originated from and make one for yourself RIGHT NOW!

We had a great evening and were very excited for the wedding the next day!

Morning came (with the sounds of monkeys playing around our roof tent) and we drove over to meet Derryn and a couple of her friends. Micaela a portrait photographer and a vintage enthusiast is the girl behind The Humans of Durban. I was thrilled to meet her and proceeded to explain how Janets 102 faces project was very similar and that they should be in touch! Sophie, the cutest girl I ever did meet was coming along for the kicks, she even sang a beautiful song for us on our way home from the wedding! Incredible voice!

Anyway, I digress…We all drove over to Street Scene to meet Sthembiso and Richard who took us straight to get snacks at an AMAZING samoosa store which was jam packed and then on to the market (where they chatted with almost everyone, such a great feeling of real community) to buy the vegetables we would need for our wedding feast. We snacked and listened all the way to the Valley of 1000 Hills about the South African history of apartheid, about village and township life and more on how Durban has the largest Indian population outside of India.

Sthembiso explained more to us about the ‘Labola’, the ‘payment’ of cows for a bride. He told us that the law used to state that 4 cows was appropriate payment but the law has just increased the cost of the labola to 11 cows!!!! This law change has come about to try to reduce the number of men taking more than one wife.

In times past the men of the tribes would take more than one wife to help manage his land and home. Labour was not available, money was not used and trading farmed goods was the norm. Each home would need up to 8 boys to run the farm and 8 girls to run the home, hence needing more than one wife to give the family enough children.

Once we arrived in the Valley of 1000 hills in Isithumba we were happily greeted by the ambassador of our visit. He had been given the sole responsibility of making us welcome. He danced for us and congratulated us on our multiple marriages.
Next we were introduced to our guide whose task it was to teach us more about the cultures and traditions of the Zulus and to show us around this part of the village. He took us to the river and talked with us about the wedding rituals in Isithumba and in the world of the Zulu tribe.

We were intrigued to learn as much as possible and listened hard as he explained that the river was the meeting point in the village. The women would be working there washing the clothes, preparing food and the men would go there to try to ask the girls for their hand in marriage.

The men were not to approach the women or to talk to them but they had to show the girl in question that he was interested. By dancing and making a show of himself the man must try to make his coveted bride laugh! The women were known to test a man (no, really) and his temper by pouring buckets of water over their heads to see how they would respond and to make a decision if he was the man for her!

Once this stage of the courtship was complete the man can ask a family member of the girl(who must be older, a sister or cousin) if she will accept his proposal. If she accepts she must do this by making a bracelet from reeds found by the river and present it to him.wedding in Durban, South Africa

Once the proposal is accepted a flag (white is she is a virgin, red if she is not) would be flown from the roof of the girls family home to tell other suitors that she is betrothed and then the family begin to plan a wedding!

We all sat and made bracelets from the reeds and of course, I gave mine to Alex to accept his proposal…he even did a celebratory dance!

Next, it was wedding time! We went up to the village and were taken by the hands into seperate houses, I by the women and girls of the village, Alex by the boys and men, to be dressed! It must have been 1000 degrees and the minute I stepped into the house the sweat poured from me! The women were all so excited, pulling my rows and rows of beads out of my bags and admiring them one by one. I recognised that one of the ladies was wearing a pair of shoes identical to the ones I had been given to wear and noticed the bead work on their clothes was similar.

They all fussed around attaching beads to me everywhere. Around my neck, my wrists, my ankles and even my knees! It was so hot even my elbows were sweating! Did you know they could sweat? I had no idea!

The men were a little more shy when dressing Alex, they helped him fasten his animals skins in place and helped him put his armbands the right way around and danced him immediately over to my house. Once the dancing and singing started all signs of shyness completely disappeared.

I could hear the men singing outside and the already electric atmosphere in the house increased a notch. The women huddled around me and began to sing, the hairs pricked up on the back of my neck and as a leopard print umbrella, a straw mat and a 6 inch knife were shoved into my hands I felt a swell of both pride…and sheer panic! it was time!

We danced out of the house to much cheering and even louder singing from the men. We, the women, had to bend our knees and keep our eyes on the floor to show respect for them and we formed a line opposite a dirt track where they all huddled quite tightly under the shade of a tree singing their hearts out and occasionally breaking into a dance.

As the singing continued all around me I dared to sneak a glance at Alex, he was grinning ear to ear and awkwardly stepping from one foot to another to the beat of the song. I laughed and retrained my stare to the ground and on the other ladies feet as we danced in step while clapping, singing and ululating! Energy buzzed around us, I could feel the happiness washing over me in the drunken heat it was such an incredible experience and the surge of adrenalin that shot through me when the singing finally died down to allow the chief of police speak nearly made me keel over!A zulu wedding in durban

The man holding the ceremony is entitled the ‘chief of Police’. This does not mean he is a police man but that he is the right hand man of the Chief of the village. He polices all things and helps the Chief run his village. It was a great honour to have him hold the ceremony for us.
He stood before us in his strange uniform and his glassy eyes and spoke to us in Zulu.

He held a staff with which he hit the ground when he spoke and he was speaking to me! He was asking me if I would take this man to be my husband! My ‘mother’ for the day told me to remain silent and stifled a giggle!

He struck the ground again and asked me once more! Do I take this man! in Zulu. This time louder and clearer! Again, my mother for the day laughed under her hand with mischief in her eyes and told me to remain quiet!

Once more, this time loudly and with a serious strike to the floor I was asked, DO YOU TAKE THIS MAN TO BE YOUR HUSBAND?

This time my Mother for the day told me to step forward and raise the knife and to look into Alex’s eyes and say ‘I do!’.
I followed instruction and the place exploded! Laughter and singing and dancing and clapping all happened simultaneously and we were clapped on the backs by everyone. By holding my tongue the first few times I was asked I had unknowingly built up the tension to a colossal level, they thought I was having second thoughts and were delirious with relief when I finally said yes!A wedding in durban

The dancing and singing continued, men and women would take their turns, the women and then men dancing like they had not a care in the world. The dance move was like a stomp. The girls lifted their legs as high as they could and keeping it straight, slammed it back to the ground as hard as the could. The men did a similar thing but more like a jump, they showed us the ropes and lo and behold it was our turn. I looked like…and I quote Derryn…’a little fairy tip-toeing around’ bearing in mind I was STILL holding a 6 inch blade and a leopard print umbrella (which to this day I don’t know what the umbrella was for!) at the time.

Alex however stole the show. He does not have the rhythm that most do and moving arm and legs at the same time for him is a big no, no but he absolutely nailed it at this dance. He was told to ‘dance the way you feel about Lisa accepting your hand in marriage’ and I have never seen anyone jump so high! He had bare feet in the dusty gravel and even that didn’t slow him down! My heart swelled with pride and emotion and I fought back tears as we continued to dance.

Once we were all danced out I had to unroll my mat onto the floor and get Alex to lay on it. The girls covered him up and one of the men explained that he had to pretend to be asleep and if any of the women touched him or spoke to him he had to jump up and run away as fast as he could or they would whip him!! Alex did as he was told and laid down and was covered up. The women sure enough snuck up and whispered to him and he ran away as everyone around us laughed hysterically. It was all to represent that once Alex was married he wouldn’t dream of any other women. It was rather amusing watching him running away petrified of being whipped! Of course they weren’t going to whip him but had to tell him that so he would run and show his disinterest in the other girls. We were still laughing as we made our way up to the houses to have a drink and some food to finish the celebration.

Chairs had been set up in the house and straw mats of the floor but it was just too hot. We moved the furniture outside and sat where there was a little shade. The women sat on straw mats on the floor and the men on the chairs. We were kept separate again like at the Xhosa ceremony and it was explained again that this was to build the excitement of our first night alone.

As the men sat and drank the home made beer us women dished out the food. We had a real production line going, each woman with a different pot passing down the plates and adding their side dish. I was tasked with handing out the plates filled with food and was told I must serve my husband first. His plate was put onto a tray and I was told to take it to him and to kneel on the ground before him and to hand him his food.

I begrudgingly followed orders MUCH to Alex’s enjoyment. The grin on his face was like that of a Cheshire cat and I thought his face might actually split in two as I knelt before him. Cheers went up all around us as I handed him his plate and the beer drinking commenced as I handed out meals to the rest of the men.

Finally it was our turn to eat and we sat on the floor and ate with our fingers. The food was good, spinach, ugali, pumpkin and a tray of meat which was handed around seperately with a diluted juice to wash it all down. We laughed as we watched the men, led by Alex, have a small drinking competition (which Alex for only the 2nd time in his life did not win) and all of a sudden it was time to leave.

I was sad to go and as we were hugged and hugged again by everyone I could no longer keep my tears in check.
Such an incredible day and such incredible people. Again we had been readily accepted as friends, even more, family; and invited us into their homes and together we celebrated the worldwide occasion of marriage.

We spent the drive back to Durban listening to Sophies amazing singing voice and learning more about the Zulu cultures and traditions but I dont remember much of it, I think I was in a complete daze after such an incredible day!

To say we felt incredibly blessed is an understatement!

Photography – Derryn Semple | Event management – Street Scene | Location – Isithumba

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  1. Jacquie says:

    I am excited to read your blog post today and to see how you embraced the culture and how these people made your experience such a memorable one. Your blue clothing, Lisa, is really beautiful. Alex having a skin and a large shield looked impressive too!

    Even the children of the village were eager to say their farewells to you…and your photos gave us a really good glimpse into your wedding celebrations. It looks very magical as you observe the customs and dress….and kneeling down to give Alex his food and your description of how that amused him will I’m sure be one of the moments that will be recalled with glee in future years. 🙂

    It certainly was a Zulu wedding to remember. Happy trails. xx

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