By Juliet Schear
“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world” – Mary Anne Radmacher
Four months ago I stepped off of a plane in Durban, eagerly anticipating the adventures ahead of me during my study abroad program. However, the moment I saw the tin roofs and scrappy walls of informal settlements, it occurred to me that this trip would be more than just an adventure. I sensed that the way I viewed myself and the world around me would be inexplicably and irrevocably changed during my semester abroad.
I could write a book about all of the things that I noticed, learned, and experienced since my January arrival. However, the list begins and ends on the same theme: how my perception of ‘Africa’ has changed.
I am guilty, as I expect many of us are, of referring to Africans as one homogenized group of people and assuming they are all victim to poverty, illness, and hunger. However, I’ve come to realize that treating the entire continent as one uniform group of people who share the same struggles, values, characteristics and life experiences is more than just naïve. Stereotypes are a cognitive shortcut that can lead to bias and an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of people and place.
I love the popular photo blog series Humans of New York with it’s humanizing, stereotype bashing so I wanted to do something similar to remember the individuals I met abroad and celebrate what makes South Africa different from the 53 other countries on the continent.
I experienced ‘ubuntu’ in every encounter I had with South Africans, from mini bus taxi drivers to traditional healers. In the eloquent words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
“Ubuntu is the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness”.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a series of vignettes of this quintessentially South African trait that are still etched in my mind, despite having been back in the US for over a month.
Part One: Learning Indlamu with the Women’s Bead Cooperative in Impendle, KZN
Beaded necklaces, sashes, and belts are laid out across straw mats. Colors of every hue sparkle in the sunlight in bright, beautiful contrast to the clay earth around. Intricate patterns and South African pride are projected in the beadwork of the Zulu women at the Bead Cooperative in Impendle, KwaZulu-Natal – a community I visited with on a day trip with twelve of my classmates. Eyeing a vibrant, rainbow colored sash, I hand one of the women a one-hundred rand note and say, “Ngiyajabula ukukwazi” (I am happy to know you). She smiles and nods, returning the sentiment, “Nami ngiyajabula ukukwazi.”
After perusing their beadwork, we crowd into a living room to share Tennis biscuits, Queen cakes, and Coca-Cola. As we exchange broken Zulu with the women, we hear a drum beat outside. Curiosity calls and we step onto the veranda to find a group of women clapping and stomping their feet to the rhythm of a hide drum – dancing with a sense of joy and energy that is unparalleled.
They stand in line and one by one step to the front, kicking their feet into the air and raising their arms high above their heads. I stand and watch in awe, having never witnessed such a passionate expression of tradition. The women are performing indlamu, a traditional Zulu dance typically reserved for weddings and celebrations. Although they are sharing it with us on an ordinary Tuesday, it feels much more like a special occasion. The women cheer, celebrating their culture as if it is fleeting and only through its preservation can it remain strong.
The rhythm of the drum picks up tempo as they welcome us into their dance circle, and to me it feels as if they are welcoming us into their culture. The women show us the basic move of indlamu, which involves stomping one foot down on the earth in front of you while clapping your hands above your head. Laughter ensues as we attempt indlamu yet despite our inability to move as they do, they cheer for us.
We share our parting words with the women, thanking them for welcoming us into their lives and culture, if only for an afternoon. Sentiments of salani kahle (stay well) and hambani kahle (go well) are exchanged and as we walk down the dirt path from their home I admire the beaded sash I purchased, a small treasure of Zulu culture.