The story of a Zulu woman who lost her way trying to conform to social norms, who was saved by a traditional ceremony.

After arriving at the University of Witwatersrand in February, staying at Marshall Yards student accommodation in the Johannesburg CBD, I suddenly found myself among students who spoke English, and I wanted to ‘fit-in’ to be amongst the ‘cool kids.

Left behind at home in Ratanda township in Heidelburg, was my maternal grandmother, Mawe, the constant presence and source of love long before the death of my mother in 2007. I live alone with Mawe, since my three siblings have all left home. Growing up was difficult as I did not experience any form of love from my mother and rejection from my father. That made me feel like I did not belong, and may have contributed to my feelings of inadequacy, and desperation to fit in.

Although I did not hide my identity as a Zulu speaker, when I went to live and study in Vanderbijlpark in 2018, and now for honours at Wits, I found it easier to drift away from my Zulu culture.

It took attending ingoma (song and dance performed by Zulu youngsters in ceremonies such as weddings and coming of age) on April 5 at the DJ du Plessis Building on West Campus, to snap me back to embracing my culture.

Organised by the Wits Zulu Society, ingoma was a social gathering to which the society’s members welcomed me with a song, Uyathandwa (you are loved), which reminded me of home and gave me a sense of belonging. Most of the students, including me, wore normal student clothes, but the chairperson of the society, Sifundo Xulu, wore a traditional headband made with goat fur.

Attending ingoma at Wits was amazing and it reminded me of the one I attended in 2007, as a coming of age ceremony when I turned 11. We sang and danced in unison and belonging to something bigger was extraordinary for me. During the ceremony, Mawe counselled me about the transition from childhood to womanhood. I still reminisce about what she said that day: “Zanele, you need to grow up now since your mother is no more. Take responsibility of your life, and a way to do that is to take pride in who you are.” I was young at the time and did not understand what she truly meant by that.

Ever since, my grandmother always made sure that I embraced my culture through storytelling which happens every day when I am home in Ratanda. Through the storytelling, she imparts important messages, such as her favourite: “Always remember who you are and where you come from.”

With Mawe we would always perform rituals to connect me with our ancestors whenever I would experience problems such as applying for jobs unsuccessfully. We would slaughter a chicken as a symbol of pleasing them and appealing for them to clear the path for me.

Traditional Zulu beads. Photo: Zanele Mila

Before I left for Vanderbijlpark and for Wits, we burned impepho (incense) to communicate with the ancestors, to ask for guidance and to wish me good luck on my academic journey. We also used sea water for cleansing and to chase away bad spirits.

However, the woman I became when I was at my student residence, in Vanderbijlpark and Johannesburg, did not resemble the woman I was at home. I distanced myself from anything to do with my Zuluness. One day my roommate, Anathi Jonas, commented that I resembled a “black barbie” and was starting to be a person with no identity.

I needed just one ingoma to feel Zulu again and it felt amazing. I now embrace being Zulu by watching YouTube videos about Zulu-speaking people, that explain what it means to be Zulu.

I also plan to attend more ingomas, which the Zulu Society hosts every Tuesday. I need the constant reminder that before my academic journey, I am Zulu, and should not be consumed by the bright lights of Johannesburg.

FEATURED IMAGE: Photo: Zanele Mila. Photo: file