The Zulu people have always had a well-devised social structure, even before the missionaries arrived. The social structure is based on respect, which is the well-spring of their etiquette. There were and still are clear rules defined regarding duties and manners for the entire household, starting from the lowliest of servants to the divine monarch. There were also precise rules regarding the behaviour of women towards men, subordinates to their superiors and younger to elder.
The woman’s role
The woman’s role is that of the subordinate one, she is inferior in both status and value but that does not mean she may be treated badly. She cooks, cleans, has babies and brings them up, cultivates the land and harvests, collects firewood, brews beer, fetches water if there are no children to do so, the list is endless but generally Zulu women are content with their lot. Before serving her husband a meal, the wife enters the hut or room – usually on her knees and brings him water to wash his hands and rinse his mouth then only does she bring his food and then leaves him to enjoy his meal. The rest of the family eat together in their own company
Zulu girls’ upbringing
When a daughter is about five years old, she is introduced gradually to the simplest household chores. More and more are added until about six years later she becomes a real asset to her mother. Initially she is given a small gourd to fetch water and accompanies her mother to the river, where the mother first fills her container as she watches, and then she does the same. The mother then braids a head support from grass (inkatha) which helps balancing the container on the head. On the first couple of trips, the child will arrive home wet with little left in her gourd, but after some practice, she learns to balance varying loads without using her hands – even when running.
Daughters also learn to cultivate the land, they accompany their mothers to the fields, where they watch their mothers sow and hoe and are taught the correct way of doing so. They also learn the right times to plant different foods. At the age of about eleven, she is given her first hoe (igeja). By now she knows what firewood to collect, can make a fire for cooking, cook some dishes and look after her younger siblings.
The man’s role
Young boys are given chores from the age of about six, it their duty to look after their father’s herd (ukulusa). Just after sunrise they leave the kraal with the cattle and return later in the morning. After the cows are milked, they have breakfast and go back to the pastures until after sunset. While herding the cows, they ensure that they do not enter anybody’s fields but stay out in the open and they also ensure that they take the cattle to drink water and that they are not attacked or stolen.
They learn the art of stick fighting which is done according to strict rules. In the beginning, they use strong branches and as they grow older they are given a stick and small shield. Young boys also learn how to handle a knobkerrie (isagila) which is a short club with a ball-like top end. These are hurled at birds, hares and any small animals and are also hitting weapons. They learn to use the throwing spear by using sharpened sticks. The boys challenge one another to go rat hunting and the most successful one earns the greatest respect. They receive their first real spear from their fathr only when they are teenagers, but this spear is small and rough.
At this age, life becomes serious, the boys accompany their older brothers, carrying their loads to the military camp. In this way they are introduced to the disciplined life of the warriors. While in camp, the young boys listen to captivating stories about their country and former kings and heroes, in so doing learning more about the Zulu culture.
Back in their own camps, they sing war songs and imitate the dances they had seen their brothers perform and yearn to be greater and better warriors than their fathers and brothers. This is how the next generation is brought up, to maintain the nation’s reputation of being the greatest race on the African continent.
The men defend the family and land and take part in meetings to hear new laws and directives. All guests are received and entertained by the men, the men also put up enclosures and the basic structure of the hut, carve milking pails, spoons, plates, clubs and spears and, when the need arises, also fetch the traditional doctor.
The man is in complete control of all possessions and his wife owns nothing. The older sons become involved in decision-making regarding general family matters, but the wife is only occasionally consulted. All business transactions are undertaken by the husband and no agreement is valid without his consent. Anything involving cattle is strictly his domain and young women may not even enter the cattle kraal (isibaya)
Respect plays a very important role in the lives of all Zulus and is taught from a young age. Within the community as a child grows up, they know that all married men and women are also their parents and refer to them as such i.e. when called by an adult, they will respond by saying either ‘ma’ /‘anti’ or ‘baba’ if the person is married, if it is a young woman – ‘sisi’ and a young man ‘bhuti’. Corporal punishment can be carried out by any adult member of the community and then reported to the child’s parents, who will then probably give the child yet another hiding for causing them shame.
Children learn to show respect to their parents and all elders from an early age (with the help of a good hiding as a “tool of coercion” if necessary). It is the mother’s sole duty to raise the children and teach them respect and their place within the family. Children quickly learn that entering the men’s world is only allowed by invitation or when told to do so. All instructions given are carried out quickly and are received on one’s knees, respectfully and silently (though nowadays, if you bend over, it is acceptable, the respect is the most important thing). In rural areas, no child may address an adult unless spoken to first (even when sent to give a message, you may not just barge in and deliver the message, you wait until you are addressed or acknowledged). Men and women live in their own distinct worlds and generally keep a distance from each other.