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A Wedding at iSandlwana

Across the valley, there were dark grey clouds blowing up on the horizon, and the intense afternoon light picked out the cairns spilling out over the nek below iSandlwana so that they glowed almost unnaturally against the last of the brown winter grass. The spring rains would be coming soon - sooner, perhaps, than we wanted, as lightning began to play across the distant ridges and a few plashy drops pattered in the dust. The prospect of a sudden soaking did nothing, however, to dampen the spirits of a group of forty or fifty men who were marching up the slope in a dense knot, singing, swinging their sticks above them so that they shook in a body like the quills on an irritated porcupine. Now and then, as if their collective excitement could not entirely contain them, an individual or two would spill out of the group, spinning and stamping, whirling their sticks in long dangerous arcs that ended with an exuberant thump against their shields, before ducking back again into the group. I’d seen giya, that brief, intense, posturing bout of fantasy combat, many times before, and it has never failed to impress me, cutting as it does straight to the testosterone-fuelled heart of the old Zulu warrior spirit - and it could scarcely have been more evocative in this place, within sight of their most famous and bitter-sweet victory. ‘Hmmm,‘ mused my friend Paul Marais next to me, ‘even when they get married the Zulus go to war.‘ And he has a point; no matter that these men were wearing T-shirts and trousers, or that their small shields were a pale shadow of the great regimental war-shields of the past - the spirit of iSandlwana was still alive and well here, thank you very much.

     A wedding indeed it was, and there was no denying the obvious note of celebration in the faces and manner of the hundreds of people gathered about to watch and take part: yet here, on what had once been the front line between the old Zulu kingdom and the forces of British Imperial expansion, it was hard for me not to feel that the past had cast a long shadow. Lindizwe Dalton Ngobese was marrying his long-time partner Pumulele, and like most traditional Zulu weddings the ceremonies were as much about the coming together of the extended families as about the union of the happy couple themselves. Yet tradition is not a static thing, it changes and evolves according to place and time, and for me this wonderful day had more than a trace of the pressures Zulu society has been exposed to over the last 140 years. Lindizwe’s family was once the most powerful on the frontier - his great, great, great grandfather, inkosi Sihayo kaXongo, had been sent there with his followers by King Mpande as long ago as the 1850s and charged with the duty of watching for the coming of the whites across the river. For in the 1850s the Mzinyathi was the boundary between independent Africa and the British Empire, which was then rolling inexorably up from the Cape towards it. Mpande’s son, his successor Cetshwayo, is supposed to have once pin-pointed the paradigm of Imperial progress across southern Africa; ’First’, he said, ’comes the trader. Then the missionary. Then the red soldier.’ Already, by the 1850s, a trader, James Rorke, lived just across the valley from Sihayo, and the track Rorke pioneered into Zululand, by way of the river-crossing that bore his name, was destined to become a major entry point into the kingdom. When Sihayo’s son and heir was born he was named Mehlokazulu - eyes of the Zulu - and there was no doubt whom he was expected to watch. Over the years Sihayo diligently reported on the comings and goings of the whites, of the wagons that brought blankets, beads and brass wire into the country, only to return empty a few months later, as often as not accompanied by great herds of cattle that represented the trader’s profits. In the 1870s, when political tension with the British blew up like our brewing thunderstorm, it had been Mehlokazulu who had crossed the border to arrest and drag back two of his father’s runaway wives, executing them on Zulu soil in what today we might characterise as an ‘honour killing’. In so doing he handed the British, already looking for a justification to intervene in Zulu affairs, the perfect excuse to present an ultimatum. Then it was the red soldiers who came by way of Rorke’s Drift, and the resulting war would be disastrous for the Ngobese family. At least one of Sihayo’s sons was killed, his homestead burnt to the ground, his followers scattered and his cattle looted. Mehlokazulu himself fought at iSandlwana, Khambula and Ulundi, and at the end of the war he was arrested and sent to Natal for trial, though the charges against him were dropped. In the post-war settlement imposed by the British Sihayo was deposed as a chief and his territory given to an outsider, the Sotho chief Hlubi who had fought for the British. Nevertheless, Sihayo had remained loyal to King Cetshwayo, and had rallied to him on his restoration in 1883 - only to be killed when civil war broke out a few months later. Mehlokazulu, damned in British eyes by his reputation as an iqawe, a warrior of note, was harried across the years until finally, in 1906, his patience worn down at last, he threw in his lot with poll-tax rebel Bhambatha - and was killed in the battle of Mome Gorge.

     I first met Lindizwe at Isandlwana Lodge, where he works - I’ve tried to disentangle the many ironies in the fact that the tourists who are drawn by the drama of the iSandlwana story now provide some of the few employment opportunities in this remote rural area, but for the life of me I can’t - and over the years he has introduced me to family elders who gave me many glimpses into the personality and domestic life of Mehlokazulu which I drew upon when writing Zulu Rising. I’d been intrigued to follow Lindizwe’s long struggle to raise lobolo for Pumulele - being traditionally-minded, he paid it in cattle, not the cash or goods equivalent, as often happens now - and I’d been keen to attend the wedding myself. I wanted to see how traditional ceremonies were conducted in 2012, among the descendants of a great warrior-hero, and in the shadow of that iconic lump of rock, iSandlwana.

     In the event, they offered some intriguing insights into the forces which have shaped Zulu society in the generations since the British invasion, not least in the way traditional religious beliefs have been meshed with the Christianity of the conquerors. Lindizwe and Pumulele opted for both a Christian church service, and a traditional one, and the church service was held in St Vincent’s, the small Anglican mission church built on the battlefield in 1883 (the 22 January, when the battle occurred, is apparently St Vincent’s Day). On the day, when Paul and I arrived the tiny church was already full to bursting and loud and cheery dance music boomed from a sound-system somewhere near the front. New arrivals, when they could spot a gap in the pews, shimmied down the aisle to the beat. I, of course - whose ‘dad dancing’ to Come On Eileen is, under other circumstances, almost legendary in my family - found myself overwhelmed with an unaccountable Englishness, and stood awkwardly at the back, rooted to the spot. The bride wore a plunging white dress, her bridesmaids were all in orange, the groomsmen were in white suits with gold ties, and the lady priest conducting the service knew how to work her crowd. At one point, although events had overtaken my slender grasp of isiZulu long before, she was clearly admonishing Lindizwe on his future responsibilities, and the old grannies around me greeted each of her points with an approving chorus of ‘Hmmmm!’ Now and then, guests stood up or edged their way through the congregation to photograph key moments on their mobile phones. What, I wondered, would Anthony Durnford, the senior British officer killed at iSandlwana, remembered along with other dead from the battle in panels of the stained-glass windows, have made of it all? Perhaps he would have approved - he was, after all, a Christian who took his faith as seriously as his duty, and imposing British belief systems on the Zulus was, in the end, one of the things he had fought - and died - for. Though I doubt, somehow, that it had all worked out as he might have expected.

     Outside, once the service was over, and everyone had danced back down the aisle and into the sunshine, there was a pause while the formal photographs were taken before everyone dispersed in a convoy of cars, festooned with pink balloons, horns beeping, to the family homesteads in the Manzimnyama valley. We offered a lift to three young men who turned out to be part of Pumulele’s family, and we found ourselves at her homestead, waiting while she changed into traditional dress and prepared for the start of the Zulu ceremonies. Chairs were provided for us and we watched strips of beef - from a cow slaughtered specially the night before - being roasted over an open fire, and after a while an elder brought over a wooden platter with ‘our share’. New guests were steadily arriving from the homesteads further off among the hills, many of the men carrying sticks and shields and some of the ladies wearing the bright-red isicholo headdress; twenty years ago, I used to see this headdress often in rural areas, but now it is only worn on grand occasions such as this. When Pumulele emerged, she had changed her wedding dress for the modern equivalent of a traditional bride’s costume - a heavy married woman’s leather skirt, known as isidwaba, and a white T-shirt, and the isicholo headdress with a woollen streamers providing a veil. R100 notes were pinned to her headdress as a symbol of her worth. She now had to take formal leave of her family home, symbolising her journey into the new family of her groom, and she was paraded around the homestead, her bridesmaids carrying a heavy wooden trunk, representing her worldly possessions, and the men accompanying her singing and giya-ing. We stopped to photograph one lady in traditional dress climbing into the back of a pick-up truck and carefully settling cardboard boxes on her knee - they contained, she explained, the wedding cake. Nearby, a tractor-trailer was loaded first with blankets - the bride’s family are required to present them to important members of the groom’s family in return for Dalton’s lobolo; so much of a Zulu wedding, it struck me, is about reciprocation - and then, perching comfortably on top of them, a succession of elderly ladies, hitching a lift.

     Pumulele’s arrival at Lindizwe’s homestead formed the crux of the traditional ceremony. It arrival was heralded by a sudden rush of family matrons in red headdresses, waving grass brushes to ward off evil spirits, and ululating enthusiastically. It was not simply a question of presenting the new bride to the groom’s family, however, for she had to be formally accepted by them, and in order to be so had to be danced forward by her escort, and rejected initially as unworthy. The two families faced off at each other across a dusty piece of open ground, and a crowd of her extended family gathered behind her in support. As they reached the waiting groom’s family, they were vehemently rejected and retired to start the whole procedure again. This was to go on many times. The crowd had grown to several hundred by now and the air fizzed with an excitement that wasn’t just due to the growing storm. Now and then a lady would rush into the open space between the families spinning round and ululating, or a man would jump out to giya. One man in particular, wearing a long kilt of goat-skins rolled into swishing tails, stamped and swirled with an elegance that would have put trained dancers to shame. Lindizwe, too, had changed into traditional dress, and sat to one side watching intently, surrounded by the young men. Suddenly a stiff wind blew among us, whipping up a cloud of dust at the dancers’ feet and heralding the downpour I for one had been dreading; when it came down in a sharp hiss the crowd sudden sprouted a crop of umbrellas, and Lindizwe and his companions held up their shields as shelter. I braved it for a minute or two and when I finally looked round for cover I found that every wall and aloe already had an unfeasiblely large number of people glued into its shadow. The rain didn’t affect the pace of the celebrations, though, and after a few minutes it passed and with it, it seemed, the determination of the groom’s family’s will to resist. At last Pumulele was allowed to dance right up to her new partner, and this time she was accepted; to answer her, small grass mats were laid out as stepping-stones across the open space, so that Lindizwe could jump across them, signifying a formal bridge between the two families. Surrounded by Pumulele and her bridesmaids, he was placed in a chair and draped with blankets - recognition, I presumed, of his new role as master of his own house - before at last, the couple danced in the centre of the gathering together.

     By that point something intangible had changed in the atmosphere, and there was a subtle shift in the mood; the deed was done, and the time for some serious partying was almost at hand.

     Yet there was one more important element to perform. I notice the men from both families suddenly hive off together, moving away from the crowd and down the hillside. One of Lindizwe’s brothers sought out Paul and I, and invited us to come. It was time for the stick-fighting, he said, for the men to settle any differences they might have amongst themselves and to set them aside for the future. ’We don’t like to do this in front of the women and children’, he explained, ’they can be sensitive; they don’t like to see their husbands and fathers with blood on their heads!’. I felt a little nervous at that thought myself, but by then the game was seriously afoot. The men had formed up in a circle under the rigorous policing of a fierce-looking man in a white T-shirt who was obviously the induna yes’izinsizwa, ’the commander of the young men’. Standing above them on a rock, he gave a short, firm speech, and my guide translated. ’He says if any of you have any differences, now is the time to fight; when you leave this place, there can be no further argument. These things end here’. A man stepped into the middle of the circle, swinging his sticks and posturing, and another moved out to face him; for a second I thought they were going to set-to but it was all bluff and they ducked back into the crowd to general laughter. A young man stood out in front of someone much older but as he took up the fighting pose, defending stick and shield held forward, striking stick drawn back, the induna jumped down from his rock and sternly ordered him away. ’He says he is too young’, explained Lindizwe’s brother, ‘it is not his day. He must wait.’ I was just pondering what resentments might have prompted that young man to risk challenging one clearly so much senior to him when two others stepped into the ring. They were both in their twenties, and it was easy to imagine that they were rivals for some girl’s affections. If they were it was a serious business, for the sticks were soon clattering in earnest, striking with a great crack when they hit the opponent’s defending stick, or a heavy whump when they connected with his arms or legs. I wondered how on earth bones were not being broken in front of my eyes, and I was drawn to the concentrated, constrained excitement on the face of the contestant directly in front of me - a look that, too, brought my thoughts back to iSandlwana. Suddenly, in a violent flurry, it was over, and my man had won - he’d driven his opponent back and into the circle of spectators, and, as these had scattered to avoid the flailing sticks, the man retreating had fallen backwards over a boulder. For a few seconds he tried to continue the fight as he lay on the ground, and at one point the broken end of a stick spiralled away through the air. Whose it was I couldn’t tell because the induna was suddenly there, pushing them apart like a referee separating a boxing clinch - and it finished. There was one last appeal to see if anyone else wanted to chance their arm - no one did - before the group reformed and, led by the induna, marched back to rejoin the crowd. ‘They become hot!’, Lindizwe had warned me once about young men when they embrace that peculiarly Zulu 'inner warrior', and for a few minutes there, as they streamed past a few huts on the hillside facing across towards iSandlwana, they seemed on fire. Several times the induna was compelled to call them to order, brusquely shouting orders to wait, then striking the sticks of those who were too slow to fall into line. But curiously, once we were back again among the crowd, the belligerent atmosphere evaporated into a sense of communal well-being, young men laughing and chatting with their friends. Once again Paul and I were the focus of attention, and we were asked several times to take photographs, although I couldn’t help wondering if even their father’s generation would have been quite so ready with their frequent appeals to ’shoot me, white man, shoot me!’. As we walked back towards Lindizwe’s homestead, from where the sound of a drum and ngoma-dancing suggested the party was seriously under-way, I noticed men lightly holding the hands of friends with whom they were conversing, an oddly gentle and sensitive gesture compared to the martial swagger of just a short time before. To my surprise someone took mine and walked beside me, a young man who was very drunk and deeply melancholy. He had worked in Jo’burg until August, he said, but his contract had expired, ‘and now there was nothing’. Could I help him, he asked? I tried carefully to explain that I was just a visitor, and had no work to offer, and after a while he accepted this as if he’d expected it, which he probably had. At the end he asked me for a hug; I was so surprised I wasn’t sure I’d understood him correctly, and asked him to repeat himself - we hadn’t, after all, been formally introduced - but a hug was indeed what he wanted, I gave it him, and he wandered on with a sad smile.

     By now it was early evening and the guests were settling in, like weddings the world over, for some serious celebration. It was time for us to go, and since we had lost sight of Lindizwe a while before, we went without taking our leave of him. We saw him the next day - the party had gone on rather later than he wanted, he explained, and some of the guests had been reluctant to leave. ‘We had to put some blood on some heads’, he said laughingly, ‘but not many!’ More than 130 years may have passed since the red soldiers came to iSandlwana, so catastrophically for all concerned, fracturing and confusing the lives of generations to follow - but some things in Zululand, it seem, don’t change.